Surveying the UX Portfolio Advice Landscape

One of the first things I did, after determining that UX portfolios were apparently a thing, was to fire up ye olde Google and type “UX portfolio how to”.

There are many, many, many UX portfolio articles, presentations, recaps, and templates (for purchase, natch) out there. There is even, someday, going to be a book, but it’s overdue, and now estimated by Amazon to be published in Q1 2018. At first blush, it seemed odd: surely there can’t be that much disagreement on what constitutes a UX portfolio, right?

Au contraire, mon ami.

Come with me on a wondrous journey into the evidence-free zone of homegrown wisdom, personal bias, and rhetorical fallacies as far as the eye can see!

(I’ll list the bibliography of articles and presentations at the end of this post. I do not claim this list is exhaustive, nor complete, nor even the best quality. I claim only that these were the most referenced, and linked, via Google and Twitter.)

Ipse Dixit, Nullius in Verba, and Hitchens’ Razor

First, a digression in Latin, because I am a Classics nerd.

In classical rhetoric, there is a fallacy known as ipse dixit, which is translated as “he himself said it”. Ipse is an intensive noun, nominative singular -- which means it’s the subject of the sentence. The use of ipse rather than the reflexive ‘se’ is indicative of the seriousness with which the emphasis needs to be considered.

Dixit is 3rd person perfect tense of the verb for “to say/to speak”: he said. Perfect is a past tense which indicates actions that took place non-repetitively in the past (as opposed to the imperfect, which is for ongoing actions in the past).

'Having said it once is all the proof or evidence that is needed': this is the essence of the ipse dixit fallacy. The very act of the statement is the proof.

Nullius In Verba is as close to a personal motto as I’m comfortable with, and serves as the counterpoint to ipse dixit. The motto of the Royal Society, it means “on the word of no one”. In Buddhism, it’s the teaching that one should never believe what one cannot experience independently.

Finally, we have Hitchens’ Razor, named after the late writer and intellectual, Christopher Hitchens: “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

I think you can see where I’m headed.

So, Why Do You Need a UX Portfolio?

You need a UX portfolio because you need a UX portfolio.

The End.

And while such spurious logic is enough to rationalize the existence of dozens of related how-to articles, it gets us no closer to understanding why a collection of research, strategy, and site architecture is at all appropriate for the portfolio format, nor why it’s a fairly recent development.

“Portfolios are very important” (3) claims one recruiter interviewed by Usabilty Geek, in an article which takes such pronouncements at face value, though the recruiter does mention that a portfolio provides “support” for all of the experience listed in the resume. Here, the curtain pulls back a bit and you begin to suspect that, perhaps, there’s a lot of deception at play in UX candidate land.

“Possessing a portfolio demonstrates credibility”. . . . “A portfolio demonstrates that you are committed to your craft” (7)

If tautology and ipse dixit had a baby, these statements would be it. The only thing that a portfolio demonstrates is that you have a portfolio.

“In 2014, if you are without a portfolio that showcases your UX thinking and execution, you will be extremely lucky to be invited in for an interview. Moreover, it is no longer acceptable to simply show final output that provides little or no context about the design challenge and the thinking process in addition to what’s been delivered.” (1)

Do you notice the glaring absence of the “because” clause in that paragraph? There is no reason why anyone should read that series of words and not think, “Hey, hold the phone -- WHY??”. The author is drawing some fairly serious lines with “no longer acceptable” and “simply show”. Those aren’t mincing words.

“Employers and recruiters use UX portfolios to determine a candidate’s experience, seriousness and, most importantly, ability to successfully follow UX best practices and processes.” (8)

Oh boy, where do I begin with this one? While I will punt on the issue of “experience” and the ability to gage it from a portfolio, I must take to task the notion that anyone’s level of “seriousness” can be, and more importantly, should be judged by a document. Again, we see a wholesale reluctance to speak to candidates presented as fait accompli. Still, we are left to wonder: by what criteria is a candidate’s seriousness to be judged? “The judge from Finland awards this portfolio a 6.5 for seriousness, but the judge from Laos awards 7.2.”

The bulk of my ire, however, is reserved for “successfully follow UX best practices and processes”. There is no such thing as UX best practice(s). Period. Full-stop. End of story. That this myth persists is the perpetual thorn in my side. I can only assume that the work that UX professionals do is so confusing, that outsiders console themselves with a belief in a Best Practices handbook.

And, as anyone who has been around the block can tell you, no one who uses “best practices” in conversation can tell you what they think they are. This would strongly suggest that what a hiring manager at Ace Digital Agency thinks is a “best practice” is entirely different than what a hiring manager at Hopper Huge Corporation thinks is a “best practice”.

Another article claims that the purpose of the UX portfolio is to demonstrate “skills and talent, personality, accomplishments, evidence of work that can be reviewed and compared to other designers’ work.” (2) With exception of the last reason (in and of itself enough to chill the bone), one would think that at least some of those points could be achieved more readily by a thorough read of a resume, in addition to a phone call or interview.

But we’re already in a land where practitioners have all but given up hope of ever actually meeting a hiring manager if one’s personality is meant to be conveyed via portfolio. The article goes on to assert that a portfolio must always begin with a personal introduction; of course, because meeting people is simply beyond the pale.

Better Call Saul, Because This Legal Advice Is Horrible

In terms of intellectual property law, a copy of a thing is indistinguishable from the thing itself. If you recreate, in totality, a Tesla, but you call it a “Zippy Zoom Zoom”, you’re still in the wrong.

With few exceptions, UX professionals who work for agencies, firms, and corporations sign contract and NDAs that are classified as “work for hire” which transfers, automatically, ownership rights of that work to the employer. So, in effect, you did not create those wireframes, friend: Ace Digital Agency did.

So when I read, repeatedly, advice to “recreate” work covered by NDA in order to put it in a portfolio, I am shocked, disappointed, and frustrated.

These pieces of advice are all legally wrong:

“Blur sensitive info” (if you’re under NDA, it’s all considered sensitive info)

“Create sample of your work” (recreating IP is still IP)

“Use text only version of your work” (2) (A sea of lorem ipsum!)

Please don’t do this. Please. If you have work that you cannot legally share (and brass tacks, you aren’t even supposed to retain a copy, another issue that UX portfolio advice articles seem oblivious to), then either a) write about it without naming the client, and don’t show images at all; b) show it only during in person interviews, on your computer, and then immediately wipe the memory of your interviewers.

When the articles surveyed managed to mention NDAs, they all tended to agree: you don’t share NDA work online, over email, etc., but you can usually show it in person, with no leave behinds.

You Must Have Case Studies (That No One Is Actually Going to Read)!

You’ve gotta tell a story! About the work! So you should have case studies! Yeah!

Case studies, by definition, are not short. You’ve got to set the scene, provide background, introduce the dramatis personae, and explain what you did/what went wrong/what went right/, etc.

You are not going to do this, adequately, in under 500 words.

But wait, there’s even better news! If you’ve got 3-5 case studies, that’s 3000+ words, requiring at least 30 minutes of someone’s time.

No one is spending more than a few minutes--if that--looking at your portfolio, kitten. I’m sorry. In the articles surveyed for this blog post, estimates ranged from 30 seconds, to 3-4 minutes (but only in round two!).

So, you know what that means: LOTS OF PRETTY IMAGES TO CATCH THE EYE!

Light In the Darkness: You Oughta Write, Kid!

“Nine times out of ten, when people contact to express interest in working together, they don’t say, “I love that screenshot in your UX portfolio” or “That user-flow was really awesome.”

Nope. Instead, they say things such as “I read that blog post about …” or “I loved that article that you wrote for ….” People connect with how you think, with your thoughts, ideas, and observations. People will only be able to make that connection if you take the first step and just start writing.” (5)

Sarah Doody emerges as the one sane, practical voice in the UX Portfolio advice wilderness. At the heart of what we do, professionally, is the ability to explain, to reason, to communicate. If you cannot write clearly and persuasively, then you cannot successfully do user experience work. The ability to write well is tied directly to the ability to think well. Bad thinkers are bad writers, and vice versa. (Of which one can find ample examples in the current political realm. Ahem.)


That’s a solid, and fair, point. I would posit one of two things:

  1. The people who don’t spend much time reading portfolios will, probably, not spend a lot of time reading blog posts. But that, to me, is a bit of a red flag. When it comes to work, I don’t trust people who don’t read, because I think it speaks to an extreme laziness of mind, and indicates a poor fit on both sides. See also: Bill Hicks and the Waffle House waitress.

  2. The people who review portfolios may not spend much time reading portfolios per se, but may enjoy reading blogs and articles that cover their profession.

Ultimately, however, writing is more about the benefits to you, personally, than to an audience. Writing is brutal, brain exhausting work when done consistently. It’s also extremely rewarding, as you watch your thoughts form, and change, and crystallize in black and white. It keeps the mind limber, and that’s always good.

The more you write, the more you think; the more you think, the better at thinking you get. Practice!

If you need additional convincing on the power of writing to improve thinking (and vice versa), I direct you to Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; On Writing by Stephen King; Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens; anything by Richard Fenyman, and Politics and the English Language by George Orwell.

Something Rotten In the State of Denmark

UX hiring has taken a turn into the absurd. There are endless excuses for it, none of which I find compelling, nor worth serious consideration. I think, ultimately, that people are busy, and busyness induces laziness, and all of that while trying to operate in labyrinthine corporate hiring processes is a recipe for the crap situation we have now.

But this is no different than what we face on any project! Who among us has not walked into a stakeholder kickoff meeting, and emerged slackjawed at the work in front of us, seemingly insurmountable? What is missing, ironically, is the same thoughtfulness of approach that UX professionals would take to any research project.

Publication Note

Sarah Doody has begun offering a UX portfolio school/training class. Work and life have colluded to prevent me from sampling this offering. Given the referenced blog post by Doody on the importance of writing, this latest development is unfortunate, and yet, we all must pay the bills.