As you apply to open positions, your work will go into a pile of competing applicants. So, not only do you need to organize your work in a way that is readable, your UX Portfolio also has to be memorable.
Successful applicants are able to communicate both their understanding of the UX process and translate that into their technical execution of specific projects. Reviewers want to understand how your skills communicate through your work and how they meet requirements for the position.
From my experience, the most memorable applicants are also able to weave their skills and work into a compelling narrative that draws the reviewers into a great story.
In this post, I will cover two aspects of storytelling that you can apply to your work to better connect the reviewers to the problems you tried to solve with your work.
If you haven’t read my first post on gathering the right content for your portfolio, check out, “UX Design Portfolio Checklist”.
Before we go down this path of storytelling, let’s explore the basics of UX design.
What is UX design
UX (User Experience) Design is the discipline of enhancing a product for its users by helping them solve problems and meet their needs through refining usability, accessibility, and desirability. UX design draws on a number of perspectives that make up an experience. These include but are not limited to brand, business, environment, devices, packaging, retail, customer service, and back-end systems.
To learn more about the basics, checkout this article on Wikipedia. If you want to dig into the design principles that UX designers should follow, I’ve found this resource, Laws of UX helpful to align a team around design decisions.
Are you new to UX? I’d love to learn more about your experience getting into the industry. Take a few minutes to fill out this survey.
Introducing yourself in your UX portfolio
Help people understand who you are and what you are looking for. I found a lot of students struggle with how to describe themselves. So, I suggest to wait until after they had put together their projects. At that point, they would have a better understanding of the following:
1. What value can you offer to your new team?
Help your future team imagine working with you. Give them a reason to want to talk to you. This is a place to showcase skills, experiences, and interests outside of your resume. I have also asked my close friends and colleagues to describe me as a friend and co-worker. They described me in one sentence or even one word if possible. This gave me some sense of what I bring to a team.
Cross-functional bridge builder
2. What design specific skills can you bring to the team and company?
This part is important, but it does not have to be first. Most applicants will jump straight into skills, and let their future team guess about the culture fit.
As people start out in UX, they will put the core skills every designer or researcher should know. After some experience, I have noticed some applicants start to add skills that help not only the immediate team, but the other teams they try to support.
Merging UX process with Agile development practices
3. Don’t forget the basics!
Make sure you include how they can connect with you. Put a link to your Web portfolio, LinkedIn, Twitter, and email.
Visual storytelling in your UX portfolio
Your reviewers are your audience and you want them to latch on to your work. Any distractions from the storytelling in the content or visual cues will affect how (or even if) they remember you.
What is the core story?
Is the heart of the story something that will move your audience? Focus on a problem that people are already talking about.
Which is more compelling?
A lunch ordering app to help order food faster.
A service that gives overworked people the opportunity to have a healthy meal.
If you have the luxury of choosing your projects, the stories that have moved reviewers the most are ones that showed how a team tackled some of the more stressful things our society faces. Attach your work to the pains that affect people in key areas such as time and money, and help move them closer to the things they really need (i.e. more time with family or healthier food).
Keep the narrative close to the people that will benefit the most and avoid mentioning any technology at this stage.
Build up your story’s characters
Who is the Protagonist?
There are two paths you can choose. One is focusing on the user for your work. The other is you and your team. If you choose to tell the story the view of the user, here are the pros and cons.
It is an easy link from the introduction of the project problem to the research
You can also clearly outline the obstacles for the users
Once you start to talk about the work, the subject often turns to you and your team
The link to the user often gets lost after you start to talk about iterations
If you choose to tell the story from the perspective of you and your team, here are the pros and cons.
You can step through the UX process logically with a clear protagonist.
It is easier to weave a story of how your team overcame obstacles to come to a workable solution.
It is a challenge to lay the foundations of a compelling story, link it to a user, then switch the focus on you and your team. You have to balance the content enough to keep the focus on your work and your attention to the user.
I view portfolio reviews as a way for reviewers to get a sense of who you are and how you work with others. So, I tend to lean towards making you and your team the protagonist. For those portfolios that do not, I often hear reviewers looking for some hint of how the designer worked, what were the struggles, and how did the design contribute to the outcome. The people or users the designer was trying to help were important. However, they are actually secondary characters in the reviewers’ eyes.
Who or what is the Antagonist
The answer to this follows your choice of who is the protagonist. If the main character is the user, then the antagonist is the problem the user faces. If the protagonist is you and your team, then the antagonist is the situation and obstacles you tried to solve that problem.
Understanding the basics of a story arch
Learn more about crafting a story here.
- Situation and the world you were working in (Team, clients, and user’s world)
- Build up (Steps to discovery and things that helped you uncover challenges)
- Stumbles and lessons (Where did you and the team make mistakes. What did you learn from them? How did that change how you worked)
- Big discoveries (Climax of the story. What was a big aha moment? How did this influence the solution you worked on)
- Next steps. You have completed the work and wrapped up the story. The audience wants to know what is the hero going to do next
Visual storytelling and the principles of design
Reviewers will go through your portfolio without you trying to explain it. So, the story of your work needs to be clear and consumable on its own. This is where leveraging core principles of design can help.
Hierarchy is arranging the content to convey importance. This influences the order one sees and processes the content. It can communicate levels of importance by altering the following elements: size, shape, and placement.
Our eyes will naturally gravitate towards objects that appear larger than others. Alternating sizes and putting the larger items at the top of a layout conveys more importance.
A shape will get more attention and possibly appear more important if it breaks a pattern. Our eyes will look for a pattern. An irregular shape in the pattern will cause our brains to pause.
Where an element is located can affect how we perceive its importance. If centered and at the top of a group of content, we will expect that piece to have a higher level of importance.
Balance is how you organize your content. To achieve balance in your portfolio piece helps the reader quickly scan the content and zoom into the pieces of interest and zoom out for more context.
The three ways to achieve balance are symmetrical, asymmetrical, and discordant.
Symmetrical balance is when you place the object in the center of the viewing area. Title text on opening slides or hero banners appear centered.
Asymmetrical balance is a tool you can use to place light content next to heavy ones. For example, you can have a simple but colorful image of your work placed close to the center line. The description which is more dense or heavy placed further away from the center line.
Discordant or off-balance
Discordant or off-balance gets attention by making people feel uncomfortable. In general, design helps maintain an equilibrium. However, if you need to jar the reviewer out of the rhythm of skimming through content, a well-placed off-balanced slide can be effective.
Typography and choosing fonts
In general, the less font combinations for a project the better. My creative mentors often suggested keeping the number to two. To choose a font can be daunting. There are so many, and each can have their own unique impact on how your content is viewed and understood.
You can use stock fonts such as Helvetica, and for the most part you should be able to properly display your work.
If you do go down the road of going beyond what’s available on your computer, then look for open source fonts that have a lot of treatment options. Google Fontsoffer a lot of options that you can download and/or reference for your site. You can even preview how the fonts look as a title and with a block of content.
Leverage using headers, subtitles, body text, lists, and quotes to help break up the content in logical chunks to digest. There are other aspects of typography that can lead you down the rabbit hole of font choices and type treatments.
The header for the project should be the title of the project. In that title, you can include the thing you worked on and who it was for.
Example: Redesigning the support experience for company x.
The subheadings should organize the project into the logical sections for the project such as discovery, research, exploration, validation, etc..
Body text can add further context and details. Don’t include more than two short paragraphs between subheadings. If you need to include more details, consider using lists.
Quotes are good to show key insights from your work. If you are relying on research to explain your decisions, then on top of quotes, include actual data. Showing numbers such as 14 out of 20 participants said ‘x’ is much more powerful than just a picture of stickies on a wall.
I often work with students that proclaim their love of color and proceed to splash their favorite colors across their portfolios. As a powerful design element, color can have a great emotional impact. It can also work against you.
Choosing a color palette that clashes with your work may invoke a negative reaction. The result is often a mark against your abilities.
What is color theory?
This is a practical guide to mixing colors and their visual effects.
How do you know when you are choosing the right colors for your portfolio? There is no single answer. It is worth considering a few principles of color and color schemes for a foundation.
The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These colors can mix and create most other colors.
Green, orange, and purple are secondary colors as the result of mixing two of the primary colors together
Tertiary or intermediate colors are the result of mixing a primary color with one of its adjacent secondary color. Yellow mixed with green or orange will make a tertiary color.
Colors that are opposite on the color wheel
Monochromatic color schemes
One color that is diversified by a mixture of hues and tints.
Analogous color schemes
Colors that are adjacent on the color wheel
Split complementary (or Compound colors) color schemes
Similar to complementary color schemes, this uses colors on both sides of the opposite hue of the base color.
Triad is color schemes
Colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. These schemes tend to communicate a sense of equality and security.
Tips for choosing your color schemes
Think of how you are going to apply those colors. This includes the background color and text color.
Also think about what colors you want to use to get people’s attention and what colors you want to apply to actions. Consider the color of the headings and subheadings. Are these a different color than your content? Will you have a different color for your buttons and links on your Web portfolio?
Colors and trends
My college professor shocked the class when he revealed that every year a group of professionals from around the World gather to strategize about the upcoming color trends.
Known as color forecasting, this is the practice of predicting colors that consumers will want to purchase in the near future. The effect is how industries design, manufacture, and market items from fashion to automobiles.
Why does this matter? Remember those students that insisted on throwing their favorite colors into their portfolio. The designer had connected with these colors at some time in the past. They then projected those colors on all of their work as the World around them changed.
As a result, the designer’s work and portfolio gave off the feeling of being out of touch and out of date.
Colormind.io is a tool that generates palettes by using deep learning. You can upload images to create new inspiration.
Paletton has been on the Web for over 10 years. It offers a simple tool for visualize different color schemes.
Coolors is a color scheme generator. You can create quick combinations for inspiration.
Your portfolio needs to present your work on its own. To do that, you can prepare an artifact that draws reviewers and your potential employers in. Carefully consider and use the appropriate visual storytelling techniques and design principles to guide them.
Learn more about the right content to put in your portfolio, “UX design portfolio checklist.”
Read about the skills a new UX designer need in “tarting out as a UX generalist.”
Get a perspective on what to expect with your first job in, “Your first job is going to suck.”
Learn more from UX designers and researchers on their career start.
Missy Yarbrough on finding her first UX position
Srikant Chari on starting in UX researcher
Denny Kim on struggles getting the first job