UX Portfolios & Me: Some Context Setting

Before I dive into a series of blog posts examining the current state of UX portfolios (the whys, the hows, the WTFs), I think it's best if I provide some context around why I even want to investigate.

I Went to Scrum Land and All I Got Was This Backlog

In September 2014, I took a contract position as a Product Owner at a local educational software company. I was intrigued by the position for a number of reasons:

  1. The PO role combined everything I had learned in my career to that point: UX, business analysis, project management, leadership.
  2. The company was using Scrum, and I hadn't ever had a chance to truly work in a non-waterfall environment.
  3. I liked, and had worked with, the woman leading the PO/UX/BA group at the company.
  4. It seemed like a HUGE challenge, and I was ready to do more than being a freelance wireframe monkey.

In the space of about 2 weeks into the gig, I devoured every book on Scrum, Agile, and Product Ownership that I could. About 2-3 weeks after that, I was asked if I wanted to come on full-time. I demurred, because I still felt like the water was exactly at my head. It was an exhilarating kind of scared: I was out of my depth in terms of having to figure things on the fly, and thus had to work hard not to miss things, but I had all the skills and experience I needed to manage the chaos.

Around November, I felt like I finally had a handle on things, the water had receded to mid-chest level, and I said, "Yes, I'd like to join the full-time staff." That went through in January 2015, and with that, I ended 6 years of very successful independent contracting.

There was good, there was bad, there were great successes, and frustrating failures. Long, complex story short, I came to a crossroads, and decided to resign in June 2016. 

I liked Product Ownership—it felt like where UX ought to be headed, long-term: getting us out of the deliverable business, and back into the strategy and vision work. However, PO roles in Chicago tilted heavily toward demands for dev/programming chops, which I just do not have, so back to UX I went.

Man, I leave UX proper for 18 months and y'all lost your minds! (I kid, I kid—sort of.)

At some point, hiring managers stopped wanting to talk to people.

When I left Critical Mass to go freelance in October 2008, it was (obviously) a different world. It was the time before bootcamps, when we were still (still!) trying to get companies to budget for sitemaps, and wireframes, and (please please) usability testing.

By April 2009, I stopped even having to interview for gigs: instead, I got calls and emails, asking when I was available, and what my rate was. My biggest challenge at the time was negotiating rate, and having the courage to name a rate, and stick by it. Calls were centered on understanding the project, hashing out timelines, discussing the client and team. 

My CV stood on its own: the agencies and clients I had experience with, the people I'd worked with, as well as (at that time) 9 years of experience was evidence that I could deliver. And, never once did anyone ask me to complete a 'design exercise'.

Was I asked to show previous work? Yes, sometimesbut always during an actual in-person interview. I was never asked to provide samples before someone would even decide whether to talk to me. Once in the interview, I would show work, and provide the story behind the project, and my role in it. I'm an ace storyteller, and it was both fun, and exhausting. I even spoke about this for an article in UX Matters in 2009, back when we were lamenting the beginnings of a focus on output over methods.

Imagine, then, the shock that ensued when, now with 16 years experience and a much longer client list, I was repeatedly asked for a portfolio before anyone would even consider talking to me in person.

I thought I was having a stroke. (I kid, I kid—sort of.)

Are they even looking at my CV, I inquired? (Because it's not short on detail, that CV, and there's an even longer version.) Yes, would come the response from the recruiter, but they want to know your process. Well, I asked, what on earth will we talk about in the interview?

It was a topsy-turvy world that I didn't understand. I heard over and over again that companies wanted to understand my 'process'.

My process? My interior monologue at the time was: Well, I work for agencies and consultancies, so they have established processes, and it depends on what the engagement is, we may not get to do all 4/5/6 phases, it could just be discovery, what the hell do they think 'process' means? Do they think I get to pick my own way of working? Why would they think that? 

(I came to understand that the question is meant to get at whether I know that it's good to interview users, and stakeholders, and gather requirements, and collaborate with a team, et cetera. I'm shocked that there is a subset of people who apparently don't know these things, but here we are. 'We want to understand your process' = 'We want to make sure you actually know how to do all the parts of your job'.)

The single biggest shift has been what certainly appears to be a deep-seated reluctance to meet candidates in person, and do the conversational legwork required to evaluate them for a role. Instead, send a portfolio which will reveal all your professional facets to a hiring manager for a speedy review! 

Utterly bizarre.

I started interviewing recruiters and hiring managers, trying to understand this weird hiring world I was re-entering. And it, more or less, boiled down to two things:

  1. UX had succeeded beyond its wildest hopes, so everyone was saying they 'did UX' on their CV, whether they had or not;
  2. The rise of 6/8/12-week bootcamps had thrust a lot of eager, inexperienced people into the job market, who had great portfolios, but a shallow understanding of the breadth of work to be done, and a lack of experience with clients/processes, etc.

My own experiences revealed that there was a lack of diverse work backgrounds at play, as well. I've been in agency world for 17 years, I take NDAs seriously because it's what professionals do. In agency world, you're under one broad NDA for the agency/holding company, and usually another NDA specific to each client you work with. For example, I have an NDA for a client that prohibits me from mentioning their name. I have another NDA that prohibits me from showing my work at one company for 5 years. 

The solution to these limits is one that was so commonly used, it's rote:

  1. you only show work in person;
  2. you never put work online, and
  3. you don't provide leave-behinds. 

I never once had any employer or recruiter take issue with that approach, until now. 

At the moment, there seems to be a blanket approach to hiring that fails to take into account work history, eschews personal conversation, and assumes that everyone is trying to pull a fast one. Long, drawn out interview processes, and design exercises are the rule of the day. 

I observed, over the last year, as no less a UX luminary than Jared Spool dismissed the UX portfolio requirement, only to have people react with a vehemence uncalled for in any sense. How, the masses asked, will we know what they can do? How will we know their process? 

By talking with them, replied Jared, during an interview. A practical, sensible answer that did nothing to quell the insistence that interviews were horribly insufficient. There certainly appeared to be a near insatiable demand for assurance and proof underlying this pro-portfolio movement.

I just didn't understand why people were nodding along, and saying, 'Oh yes, of course, we need to send our work samples over without the kind of narrative and conversation we provide to our clients'. Nowhere did I see any sort of clear requirements provided around what a hiring manager expected to see in a portfolio—surely they can't all want to see exactly the same things. 

Privately, other UX practitioners were sharing their frustrations with me about portfolios, and wildly differing job descriptions, and expectations. I personally experienced interviews that wouldn't be out of place on an episode of "The Twilight Zone". My own reviews of UX job descriptions left me hovering between hysterical laughter, and gobsmacked disbelief. 

Clearly, something had gone terribly awry. And I like nothing more than a good detective story, so I decided to try and get to the bottom of this UX portfolio business.