Had a conversation about portfolios with a few of my UX designers the other day. The key point I was attempting to make: UX portfolios suck.

I don’t mean to say that they are done poorly (though often, they are). Rather, I think UX portfolios typically generally give a poor insight into a UX designer’s ability. I’m speaking as a person who regularly reviews portfolios and considers candidates for open positions.

Pretty is fluff

We all like to look at pretty things. As designers, this is especially the case. And we are often critical of poorly designed things. It’s a reason wireframes are often laden with overly designed details and flourishes. So portfolios tend to have a lot of eye candy. But a UX designer is not asked to make something beautiful. They’re asked to make something usable (or useful, or even enjoyable).

 In reviewing (and in building) UX portfolios, we are naturally drawn to the beautiful. But this doesn’t really tell much about the work of the UX designer on a particular project. More to the point, wireframes and prototypes are artifacts, disposable work. They aren’t the finished product. So they eventually become outdated and/or replaced. A pretty UX portfolio is often not telling the right story.

 Process (story) over visuals

Following on the point that the pretty doesn’t convey the work a UX designer is doing, is a realization that the “appropriate” visual isn’t all that interesting. One of my coworkers joked that her portfolio “was just a collection of me at the whiteboard.”

That’s kind of true. Most of what we do involves facilitating discussions among key stakeholders and disciplines. We do a lot of whiteboarding. That’s the meat of what we do. The finished deliverable is barely the tip of the iceberg.

We don’t pick our projects (or requirements)

I’ve worked on a lot of different projects over the years. Some have been interesting and unique. Many have not been. That’s OK. I’ve helped a great number of big name brands solve real business problems by designing a better digital experience.

Often the digital experience I design is greatly limited by budget, time, client requirements, client sophistication., and many other reasons. What gets implemented is always better than what was. That it’s not “the best” possibly design is beyond my control. But that context doesn’t often represent well within a UX portfolio.

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On a recent Inside Intercom podcast, Erika Hall, Director of Strategy at Mule Design, was asked how she assesses what makes a great designer, outside of having a great portfolio. This is her response:

We look at the portfolio 5th, I would say, of all the things we look at. Because I think there’s a lot of emphasis on having a portfolio. But a portfolio is not necessarily meaningful [sic] especially for our work. We’re not designing, you know, flat images. And it’s really easy to look at applications or online services as a series of pictures, but what we’re interested in is a quality of thinking. And we’re interested in designers who can express themselves clearly, who are really intellectually curious, who really want to grow and who not only think about the what.

That’s exactly right (though rarely followed). In hiring, I always try to look beyond the portfolio to understand the candidate – their personality and their approach to design. In my experience UX designers are capable of much more than the work shown in their portfolio.

What does everyone else think? Hiring managers: how do you evaluate and rank portfolios? UX designers: what are your biggest frustrations with putting together portfolios? What part of the story doesn’t it show that companies need to know?

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