You are your greatest creative product—the most important product you’ll work on.
But here’s the problem: you don’t treat your career or yourself like a product. Instead, you treat yourself like a hobby or a side-project. And because of this, your portfolio, career, and job search lack a solid strategy.
This lack of strategy is the exact reason why you’re not in a role you love, why you don’t hear back when you apply for jobs, and why you often make it through a few rounds of interviews but don’t get offers.
Let’s face it: you are your own worst client.
Chances are, you’re stuck. You think to yourself, “Why can I design stuff for other people, but I can’t design my own portfolio?”
To overcome this, you must reframe how you look at your portfolio and career; you need to give it the attention, care, and detail that you give everything else you work on.
This mindset shift will not only help you get your next role, but it will give you a framework for how you approach the rest of your career. If you want to design a fulfilling career, you need to think about yourself as a product.
What do successful products look like?
All successful products of all kinds, including digital products, and now including you, check the boxes on these three main categories.
Attract the right people
A product must attract people who have the problem the product solves. A product must attract qualified potential customers.
Prove their value
A product must communicate clearly what it can do. But not just the features; a great product communicates about the benefits and outcomes it delivers.
A product must convert people from being curious to being a customer. A product that does not convert people into customers is not a business.
To pull off these three things, you need marketing. But what most companies get wrong is that they put too much emphasis on what their homepage looks like, how cool their marketing video is, and all the sexy visual stuff.
Problem? Pretty doesn’t sell.
Have you ever heard about a product, gone to their website, and thought “Wow this looks really awesome and sleek” but then after a few minutes struggled to figure out what exactly the product does? You likely left the site confused and probably didn’t return.
In his book Storybrand, Donald Miller writes, “If you confuse, you lose.”
If a product lacks a clear message, people will not have the patience or time to try and figure out what it does and how they can benefit from that product.
The moment a message is confusing or causes someone to tune out, it’s over. And, in our content-overwhelmed world, the chances of re-engaging their attention are very slim.
Can you see the parallel between marketing a product and marketing yourself?
Just like a product, if you want to stand out, you must learn how to clarify the message of who you are, what you do, and why people should hire you.
Without a clear message, you will not attract the right roles, showcase your value, and convert interviews to offers.
I’ve reviewed hundreds of UX portfolios over the last year, and my feedback always focuses on the content and how people have either provided too much or too little detail about their work.
Clarity of message and your ability to communicate is a crucial skill that will elevate you from other candidates.
Think about it like this: if you can’t succinctly communicate in your portfolio, how can recruiters and hiring managers have the confidence that you’ll be able to communicate with your team, colleagues, stakeholders, or clients?
Do not fall into the “design” trap
Before you design your portfolio, apply for a job, or work on your website you must spend time getting clear on your message and thinking about the UX of your UX portfolio. The best way to do that is to write about your projects.
In product development, we don’t jump right into design and coding because it would make the whole process take far longer than it needs to. Instead, we conduct research to inform our ideas that we then iterate through user-flows, wireframes, and prototypes so we can work quickly.
When it comes to your UX portfolio, writing about your projects helps ensure that you are clearly communicating the details that matter to the user of your UX portfolio.
Many of the UX portfolios I see are filled with noise. They include details that mattered to the project, but actually go too deep for the needs of a UX recruiter or hiring manager.
Content is king, but context is queen. You must consider the context of the work you show and what details matter to the user.
What does it mean to “tell the story” of a project?
Each project in your UX portfolio should be able to answer these 3 questions:
- What the product was and the problem to be solved?
- What you did and why you did it?
- What was the outcome?
If the answer to these questions is not clear, then you’ll confuse people. And when you confuse, you lose.
Want to know how to take your portfolio to the next level? You need to answer these questions in a succinct and human way. You need to tell a story. Why? Because our brains are wired to remember stories.
Stories help transform a message from a set of facts or steps and transport the reader into the world of that project, taking them behind the scenes and into your head.
3 tactical tips for telling a memorable story about your projects
Don’t just say what you did, say why you did it.
Imagine a mobile check-out redesign project in your portfolio. You would probably have sections to walk people through your process which may include research, experience mapping, and creating an interactive prototype.
What many portfolios lack, is a clear dotted line to communicate not just what was done, but why it was done.
Protip: In your portfolio, any time you show a screen or user-flow, also be sure to talk about the user. If you introduced personas earlier in your portfolio, reference that person and how the solution served them.
You could even have a little photo of the person and a quote from research interviews as well. This shows maturity as a designer and will help you stand out from people show screens and deliverables but don’t tell the story behind them.
Don’t let your portfolio read like a set of instructions. Make sure you include insights too.
Imagine a user research project in your portfolio, you might write “first we made a screener, then we did an affinity map and created a spreadsheet to analyze the results”. Maybe you also show a screenshot of the screener or spreadsheet (don’t do this) or a photo of your affinity map up on a wall.
Protip: To stand out, you should actually tell the reader of your UX portfolio about some of the actual insights you had. No need to choose all of them. But if they are buried in a screenshot of a spreadsheet, I’ll never see them. Tell me about the research you did and then share what you learned.
Don’t show everything; show the right things.
Imagine the mobile checkout redesign again. There are probably many, many screens that you could show. One mistake I see in UX portfolios is that people try to show the volume of their work. Over and over I see screenshots of someone’s full screen in Sketch with tons of tiny artboards that I cannot decipher. This is useless to the recruiter or hiring manager.
Protip: Instead of showing everything, thoughtfully consider the most interesting parts of the experience. Don’t show every screen you designed. Instead think back to the original problem at hand and choose one or two screens or user-flows to feature.
Don’t stop there, though; really highlight the bits of the interface or layout that you believe were an awesome solution. Focusing on a few screens and going into the details is more valuable than showing the volume of your work.
Designing a career you love will take work, and it will likely be the hardest product you ever work on. However, learning how to clearly communicate who you are and what you do, will give you the power to attract the right roles, prove your value and convert interviews into offers.
By adopting the mindset of you being a product will not only help you get your next role, but it will also lay the foundation for the role you’ll after that one, and the next one.
Want more actionable tips to take your UX portfolio to the next level?
Sarah Doody’s UX career resources have helped people get hired at companies including Home Depot, American Express, Warner Brothers, Salesforce, Google, Deloitte, and more.
To get Sarah’s free UX portfolio e-book, enroll in her UX Portfolio Formula program, or learn more about her UX career coaching, check out the resources and trainings here.
Want to learn more about creating a great portfolio?
by Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody is a User Experience Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator. She helps companies assess product ideas, understand customers, and design and optimize the experience. She created the popular weekly newsletter, The UX Notebook. Sarah is a contributing author to InVision, UX Magazine, UX Mastery, UX Matters, and has been published in the New York Times. Sarah is committed to helping people learn to think like a designer. She does this through online and in-person UX education programs on topics including user research, storyboarding, rapid prototyping, and creating a UX portfolio. In 2011, she created the curriculum for and taught General Assembly’s first 12-week UX immersive, the genesis of their popular UX programs which are now taught worldwide.