As professional designers, there are lots of things to consider when showing our portfolios. Even seasoned UX designers wrestle with how to present their work in a way that catches the attention of hiring managers.
AIGA Seattle (American Institute of Graphic Arts) recently hosted an informative event called “The Space Between, a design director’s guide to the perfect UX portfolio.” The event was held at Artefact, a Seattle design firm. It was organized by Allovus Recruiter and AIGA Seattle Membership Director Miranda Wilimczyck and sponsored by Allovus.
Speakers included Jason Kopec, design director at Convoy, Hui Liu (Daisy), senior UX lead at Microsoft, and Oscar Murillo, principal designer on Microsoft’s Ethics and Society team. Viviane Veraguth moderated the discussion and kept the conversation flowing.
According to Miranda Wilimczyk, “AIGA saw the need for more UX-focused programming and felt that an overview of what hiring managers are looking for was a great segue into this type of event.” Miranda chose the panelists very specifically. “I was looking for people who have a voice and opinion on design; that possess the passion and spark for design that leaves a person feeling inspired to go create something amazing. I also wanted to make sure we had a diverse perspective. We had panelists from large enterprise companies and one from a smaller start-up. These folks are extremely selective in choosing designers for their teams.”
Why is this topic so important? “I am seeing that no matter how many years one has been in the business, work and life happens, and we get busy. The upkeep of the portfolio falls by the wayside. It’s important to understand industry expectations and how your peers are presenting themselves as well,” Miranda said.
Here is a behind-the-scenes look into how hiring managers assess UX portfolios.
How much time do you take when you look at a candidate’s portfolio?
Jason Kopec: It depends on the phase of the project, but in general, about 30 seconds. For me, the resume plays a bigger role than the portfolio. I take a deeper look at their work once I’ve interviewed them.
Oscar Murillo: Recruiters share vetted people with hiring managers initially. But even then, it takes about a minute to view a portfolio due to the sheer volume of applicants. That being said, even if I think the candidate is talented but might not meet the needs of my project, I will share their portfolios with others in my company.
Daisy Liu: I don’t have much time to look at each portfolio. I look to see what kind of work they’ve done. It’s like dating, you only need about 5 seconds to a minute to see if they are a good fit.
What are some of your “must haves” while reviewing a designer’s work?
Daisy Liu: I like to see visual descriptions. I expect to find visual evidence they can do the work.
Oscar Murillo: It depends on the requirements of the role. I look at the portfolio to see if this person has what it takes to do the job. I look at the tools they use, and I look the academic experience, breadth, industry experience, and if they’ve contributed to the business goals and objectives of the companies they’ve worked for. I also look at their personal interests.
Jason Kopec: From a start-up perspective, I look for generalists. Someone who can tell a story to people outside the world of design.
What is more important when creating a UX-focused body of work, design or content?
Jason Kopec: Eye candy is great, but the story or content of your work is more important.
Oscar Murillo: I want to go in and see the content and comprehensively, who you are as a designer and your thought process.
Daisy Liu: You only have one chance. Content is very important. It helps me see who you are.
Do you look for a good cultural fit or core competencies when looking at a portfolio? How do you determine if the person is a good fit?
Daisy Liu: A cultural fit is really important.
Oscar Murillo: It depends on if I’m looking for someone with more artistry or design. If I’m looking for someone who works on shell or core, I look for a problem-solver designer. I’m not worried about cultural fit there. But when I’m looking for someone with artistry, I look for a person who embodies the aesthetic of the design.
Jason Kopec: Core competencies are necessary. But cultural fit comes into play even more. This is massive in the company I work for—how you partner and what you bring to the table.
Generalist vs Specialist: How do you expect a designer to show their work as a generalist or a specialist? Which do you prefer to hire and why?
Jason Kopec: Be really in-depth about your process, no matter what kind of designer you are. No one wants to read a tome, but you should make your design process clear in your work.
Oscar Murillo: It depends on the role. Interaction and UX roles are more generalists. UX designers help to identify the direction of the design. Specialists are just as important. For example, for VR and game design, the expectation is that they’ve really mastered their tools. Those kinds of distinctions matter depending on the role you are hiring for.
Daisy Liu: It depends on the business needs we have. And it very much depends on the project.
How do you expect designers to handle NDA work in their portfolios?
Jason Kopec: Candidates should feel comfortable in showing work. So, I don’t insist on them showing work if they’re under NDA. I want them to feel solid in their agreements with the companies they’ve worked with.
Oscar Murillo: They can describe it in general terms. Never share it because things might get distributed to other members of the team who don’t know the candidate is under NDA from another company.
Daisy Liu: I would hesitate to share confidential projects.
Viviane Veraguth (moderator): Be cautious. It could cost you your job.
How do you want candidates to show process and outcome?
Daisy Liu: Junior designers try to show they can do everything. Don’t do that. Make sure you show the outcome on top. Senior level designers can show more details.
Oscar Murillo: Juniors—just show a couple of your best projects. I’m going to test you on your knowledge. I want to see that you can think and if you’re a cultural fit. Communicate your process and strategic thinking.
Jason Kopec: Showing and talking about a design problem is my favorite part about a portfolio and interview. I actually don’t like to see much about the process. I like for people to operate the way they want to. I like them to showcase the end-to-end and then the outcome.
Content, images, metrics, outcome: How much detail should be shown in a portfolio?
Jason Kopec: Focus on the metrics and outcome. The language of metrics is crucial. Showcase that you have the ability to do that. I find that metrics are missing in 95% of the portfolios I look at.
Oscar Murillo: It depends on the project. It’s awesome if you can show metrics if you can. Map the right metric to the project you worked on.
Daisy Liu: Don’t try to show 10 goals. That’s too much. Focus on a few.
Oscar Murillo: Yes. There’s a 10-second barrier. You need to be brief and have your elevator pitch perfected.
Is there something in particular that you look for that gets you “inside the brain” of a candidate?
Jason Kopec: I have a secret love for the “About Me” page of their website! It’s a chance for you to show who you are as an individual.
Oscar Murillo: Typos and bad grammar—take the time to show quality. Describe a specific goal of yours and what you did to work on it.
Daisy Liu: I look for someone who the team can be friends with—who we can go have a beer with after work. I want to work with someone who is interesting and creative. I always look for candidates who are better than us—who can make the other designers on the team feel comfortable around them. But their work needs to speak for itself. If those two things align for me, then I want to learn more about this person.
Design thinking: what is it to you? How would you like to see it in a portfolio?
Jason Kopec: It’s about customer-centricity. You should have the customer at the center of your work at all times. But there are many ways for process to be shown. I don’t specifically look for design thinking in a portfolio.
Oscar Murillo: It’s comprised of many different facets or methodologies. There are different angles to portray—like who is the end user? How does this product make our lives better to serve this need?
Daisy Liu: That’s a very basic thing. Show how you collaborate with engineers and other stakeholders.
What is your personal hiring philosophy as a design manager?
Daisy Liu: Hiring people is the most important thing I do. I want those people to achieve their goals with me.
Oscar Murillo: It is a job I take seriously. I want them to have an extended career in the company. We get hundreds, even thousands, of resumes in order to find five to eight people we will be working with. Please know that we take it very seriously.
Jason Kopec: I spend 70% of my time hiring. It’s not just volume. The interview process should be an empowering process for the person applying. I want them to walk away feeling that it was an awesome and positive experience. It’s such a serious part of what I do on a daily basis. I want them to know exactly what to expect when they come to work for us.