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Last updated on 5/20/20

Focus on the process: show, don’t tell

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When talking about design it's easy to think of it as something that looks beautiful; however, as we've explored in the UX designer path, much of the experience is invisible, and so much of the work that goes into it is never seen. Only seeing the finished product doesn't tell us much about the choices you made, the challenges you encountered, or how a project developed over time. In your portfolio, you want to focus on communicating your process.

When a potential client or employer only sees the finished work, they likely won't have an appreciation of what went into it, or how you arrived at the particular solution. Focusing on the process is an excellent way to highlight the breadth of skills and expertise you will bring to a project or role. Consider the mantra, "show, don't tell." Rather than listing the things you did, consider how you can show people through visuals, words, and layout to get your point across in a more memorable way.

Consider the role

The way you approach your portfolio will depend on the job you're applying for, from UX researcher to UX designer, UI designer, or product designer. Read through job listings to get a sense of what companies are looking for, and pay attention to the kind of work that grabs your attention, or you may want to work towards in the future. Use a specific job description to help guide you to determine which projects you want to include in your portfolio.  You don't want to pick projects that are all too similar, and you want to make sure to highlight the breadth of your experience and expertise.

As we examined in the course Dive into UX design, some companies are looking for specialists, and others are looking for generalists or even "unicorns" who can "do it all."

Specialists such as an information architect, user researcher, or UI tend to be highly focused in one aspect or segment of the industry. Some people may be described as "T-shaped" designers, which means they know a lot about different topics, but can go deeper into a subject. Specialists can benefit from a broad understanding of the field to better collaborate with team members, stakeholders, or clients.

Generalists are people who—in theory—are good at anything, or do a little bit of everything. They may conduct user research, lead workshops, sketch wireframes, create the digital files, and design the UI. Every role and every designer is different. The same is true for what companies are looking for when it comes to hiring to design talent—they're all looking for something different. You may need to figure out how you want to "market" yourself. You can also experiment with different approaches as you apply to different roles to see what feels most like you.

Keep in mind what role you're applying for, and be sure that the featured projects you select for your portfolio are a right fit. What you submit for a UX position will look different from a UI portfolio. A UX portfolio, in particular, will highlight process. This could include everything from photos from your research or workshops, and initial sketches to wireframes, wireflows, or links to interactive prototypes.

If you're applying for a UI role, those interviewing you will be most interested in evaluating your skills through final polished screens. A good way to do this is to share before/after screens, or for one case study, share a progression of different ideas you explored before arriving at the final version of the product. You may also want to find a creative way to integrate the relationship of the style guide to the screens, or better yet, if you built a style guide from scratch, include that. Even with UI, you want to consider how you can contextualize your process, and also communicate your ability to collaborate with UX designers and developers.

Process is key; what you're doing isn't magic, it took hard work to achieve. Each element should communicate a story of how you arrived at the end result. Think critically about the parts of the story you can tell with words, and where you can use images or diagrams. These elements work together to tell a story of your past experience and what you can do to fill the role.

Tips for showing process

The more you talk about your work, the more it will be clear which aspects of a project struck a chord with the audience. Often the biggest insights may be the simplest ideas. Here are a handful of tips to get you thinking creatively about communicating your process in your portfolio and case studies.

  • Think about your portfolio as storytelling. What was your journey? How did you arrive at your solution(s)? Consider your portfolio as a behind-the-scenes look of what the public typically sees. Not only is it useful for the people hiring to see, but it can be helpful for you to have as a reference document for future projects.

  • Ask yourself how you can break down the information you're presenting into digestible chunks. Perhaps you want to separate it into a problem statement, methods, insights, challenges, and end result. Make the sections you selected bold and stand out in your portfolio so that the viewer knows exactly what they're looking at.

  • Integrate screenshots, photos, sketches, and documentation. You don't need to show it all, just enough to show the viewer that there was work that went into your solution, and you're not basing your ideas off of assumptions.

  • Consider how you could communicate a key insight you learned during the research phase, how it was translated into sketches, and ultimately looked in the low fidelity prototype or final product.

  • Challenge yourself to tell the story succinctly. It may help you to create a long form document with everything you worked on all in one place should you need it later, but anything you present in case studies should be narrowed down and told within a few pages.

  • Don't be afraid to present challenges or failures. These are some of the best ways you can learn and grow. Often failures help provide new insights. Don't be ashamed of failing, figure out how you can celebrate it! (Let's face it, no designer is perfect. Learning is how you continue to make better design decisions.)

In the next chapter, we'll look at putting together case studies in more detail. Sometimes thinking about how you will visually display the various elements in a layout can help determine how you want to tell the story or communicate the process.

Let's recap!

  • Keep in mind the type of work you want to be hired for when compiling your portfolio.

  • "Show, don't tell" means showcasing your work, and not just telling people you know how to do things.

  • Highlighting your process with sketches and documentation is a great way to prove you know what you're doing as a UX designer. Showing connected screens, or the progression of ideas can be useful.

  • Process can help differentiate your work from other portfolios.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement