The Impossibility of Reviewing UX Portfolios

I think it's what some well-meaning, but utterly clueless, professor advised: ask people in the field to review your UX portfolio.

It sounds, on the face of it, like a good idea. But to be clear: approaching a stranger with no more than "here's a link, can you take a look" is pretty rude. So, you know: don't do that.

In reality, if you're in a program—especially a graduate program—that purports to teach you professional skills, and their teaching staff can't pull together a decent in-house review program. . . well, friend, you probably wasted your money. Enjoy paying back those student loans!

However, what this young person had handed me was an opportunity to take a crack at actually reviewing one of these UX portfolio things. While I have, when interviewing candidates, looked at their past work with them, I have never looked at portfolios for UX work. (And honestly, most of the time, I wouldn't even look at provided work samples before an interview for the simple reason that I'm much more interested in the person, not the deliverables.)

In the past, when I've googled 'UX Portfolio', every single instance has been a visual design portfolio. Every. Single. Instance. That was, for me, telling.

I sat down, clicked on the link, and . . . sighed.

I looked at the projects, I read—okay, I skimmed—the descriptions, and while it was all nice enough looking, the writing was pretty sub-par. The person in question was ESL, so I gave it a bit of a break, but then, that makes it harder to judge the quality of thinking. So I was left with nice images, and passable copy, and . . . then what?

This student had—as is the nature of these noxious graduate programs—done a bit of everything, including industrial design. There were photos of paper prototypes (these days, there's almost no reason to do this from a practical standpoint), and a confession that it was a lot of work. It seems as though the student had completed their course work, but it was all very rote. I had no sense of the student as practitioner. Why were they even studying Interaction Design? 

I stared at the screen: what on earth was the point of this thing? Was it supposed to help me decide whether to call the student in for an interview? If so, the student was already hobbled by a lack of work history, and was only truly qualified for either an intern position, or a very junior position. 

Knowing how to make a sitemap is all well and good, but you still have to be taught how to do the work in the context of a project, and how to work with a multidisciplinary team—all things arguably more important than a spiffy portfolio. I can teach you to make a sitemap—it will take about an hour if you pay attention—but real skills, like dealing with a suddenly pissed off client who hates everything they signed off on last week, take time. 

Your portfolio will not tell me if you can learn to do those things. I will have to meet you, we will have to have a conversation. You will need to tell me stories. 

So, once more, I ask: what is the purpose of a UX portfolio? Aside from telling you very mechanical things like whether a person has experience with annotated wireframes, or created prototypes, what do you actually think you're learning from it? And are any of those things truly differentiators, especially considering the abundant number of bootcamps from which spring more than enough deliverable types to tick off the boxes of a job posting requirements list?

Hiring managers have been led down a primrose path, and we're going to have to work very hard to steer them back onto more useful winnowing, and interviewing techniques.