Juggler by Chris Beckett

UX Portfolios: An interview with Ian Fenn

Gerry Gaffney Careers Leave a Comment

Download (mp3: 36.6MB, 38:06)

Share this episode



Photo: Chris Beckett

Discount codes: 50% off the ebook or 40% off the print edition of the book with the code AUTHD and this link http://chopstix.it/uxpod. 33% off the Apple Keynote UX portfolio template at https://gumroad.com/l/uxportfolio/uxpod.

Transcript

Gerry Gaffney

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today has twenty years’ experience in the UX field. His company is called “Chopstix (with an ‘x’) Media” and he’s based in London. As well as being a consummate UX consultant, he is also a professional trained Chinese chef. He’s also a great lover of Hong Kong and it’s great to be with him in person on the sidelines of UX Hong Kong, which just finished up a few minutes ago, and where he gave a talk on UX portfolios. His book on this topic, “Designing a UX Portfolio: A Practical Guide for Designers, Researchers, Content Strategists and Developers” is due to be published by O’Reilly towards the end of this year. Ian Fenn, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

Ian Fenn

Thank you very much, Gerry.

Gerry

Tell me first of all, what’s the difference and the relationship between a portfolio and a CV or a resume?

Ian

Okay, well portfolio… portfolios evolved. I mean designers have always had portfolios and they’ve tended to reflect the end result. If you’re an industrial designer, you might have an image of the final product you create with a few notes alongside. You might have some 3D renderings of the, or some mock-ups of the product, again with some notes alongside. If you’re a graphic designer, you might have the leaflet that you designed, or the print brochure that you designed. For UX designers, you know we tried initially to give people screen grabs of the final result, our final user interface; that worked for a while. Then we gave them wireframes and personas and other documentation. Again, that worked for a little while.

In the last five years, I would say, however, UX portfolios have changed. They’ve morphed into collections of case studies. And that’s where we are today. So case studies are stories that explain your work; what you were asked to do, what you did, who you did it with, and your role (it’s very important that you’re very clear about your role), the results, and potentially also a list of the skills and techniques and the deliverables that you generated or used.

And what’s the relationship with the CV or resume? Really it’s just added detail. So just as the CV or resume is part of your hiring or your job seeking toolkit, the portfolio is another part of that.

Gerry

I guess portfolios are also good for reflecting on your career as well.

Ian

Well, one of the things I recommend in the book, “Lobster Book”, which is the short title for “Designing a UX Portfolio”, in Lobster Book I talk about if you want to make life easy for yourself, the worst thing you can do is to only think about your portfolio when you’re looking for a new opportunity.

Gerry

Isn’t that what everyone does? Last minute stuff?

Ian

Yeah, that’s a painful way of doing things. You know, three years ago or more, I forget now, when I created my first portfolio, that was the situation that I was in and, you know, I started to call people, looking for work, and the first thing they would say is “Have you got a portfolio?” And eventually I had to give in and say, “Well, yes, I do”. And then I spent a very long weekend putting it together. I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.

So what I suggest is that designers keep a log book and in that log book you know they essentially document their process. They write down the things that were important that day, you know, whether that be a significant moment of insight from usability testing or a significant decision that was made by the project team or whatever it is. I would suggest that they put that in the diary and then weekly, or whatever’s convenient, they look at the diary and they think about the work and maybe add some further notes and reflections. And then when they come to write the case study, write the story up of that particular project, they can look at the diary, they may have highlighted the significant events and they’ve got the material there. They just have to then re-write it and shape it into something that a hiring manager can easily digest.

Gerry

You’re very specific in the book, and I really enjoyed that, about exactly how one should keep such a diary. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Ian

Well the thing is that I want my book to be useful to people so I’ve tried to be specific in terms of offering them advice and suggestions as to what they can do but ultimately it’s for people to choose the things, you know, I might give a hundred things and they can use 60 of them and that would be great.

So that’s what I’m trying to do with the book. Regarding the log book, you know essentially what I’ve tried to do is suggest ways in which people can mark the important events and then right at the beginning I suggest that you know there are key questions that as UX designers and researchers we should ask and one of those questions is, “What does success look like?” And that’s a really important question for your portfolio because your portfolio you are trying to demonstrate to a prospective client or employer how you can solve their problems by demonstrating the fact that you’ve solved the problems for others.

So in doing that, it’s really important to ask that question at the beginning of a project; what does success look like? I mean it is anyway part of the design process but some people forget. But, you know, if you’ve asked that question then you then know what, how to measure the success of your project and then that’s what goes in your portfolio.

Gerry

I guess for an experienced practitioner, a portfolio, when you say, and I had this reaction myself, I must admit, I thought “Oh my God,” because I was actually on the lookout for some work as I was reading the book and I thought “Oh now I’ve got to produce a UX portfolio.” So there’s a certain challenge, I guess, for somebody’s who’s got a lot of experience and background in getting the appropriate data, particularly, if like me, they haven’t been as organised about their note taking as they should have been.

On the other hand, for a newcomer it’s probably quite daunting because they can think, “Well actually I don’t have anything to show yet. I’ve just come out of uni, or college, or finished a course, or my first job or whatever, or I’m just applying for my first job. How can I possibly assemble a portfolio?” What can they do?

Ian

Well for the book I, one of the things about the book is that I was asked to do it because, or you know there was a process and what was at the heart of that process was I created a portfolio which got a very good reception. And eventually I was asked to write the book and I suddenly realised that I can’t write a book about how to design my portfolio and that’s only going to be of use to one person and that’s me. And that’s not going to be a very popular book. It’s not going to be a very useful book for the UX community. So I did quite a lot of research for the book and that included talking to both candidates and hiring managers and I particularly looked at, or spoke to hiring managers about what they’d expect in a portfolio for a junior designer. And what they’re primarily looking for is someone with passion for design and someone that they feel is willing to, you know, who can’t be manipulated, but someone who can be formed into a practitioner. So someone who’s willing to listen, and someone who has some ideas. So I think that what I got from that was that if you’re a junior designer, a recent graduate, perhaps, then one case study is probably enough if it’s a good one.

If you want to supplement that with other things then unfortunately the only answer to having very little experience is to get some more. But there are things such as hack days. I retweeted a hack day in the UK that’s happening soon that’s calling out for designers. Documenting your hack day or hackathon over the weekend; that would be an interesting story. It’s a challenging environment but as long as you can explain your process and it has some integrity to it then that’s a good start.

You can also offer your services to a non-profit, perhaps, and treat them as a client. You can also… the worst thing to do really but some people end up doing it, is to create a fake project. There’s a lot of issues with that; one of them is the fact that you’re, one of the things that hiring managers will look for in general is the ability of a designer to act as a facilitator and influencer. So they’re looking for someone that’s personable and they can work with. So a kind of made up project, unless you involve other people, it doesn’t work in that respect. It kind of might illustrate some of your design thinking but it doesn’t include having a real client. So therefore you’re not demonstrating how well you worked with that client because they don’t exist. So having, and the other problem that a lot of people, that I tend to see with people that have made up projects, is that they tend to ignore real world constraints. So they forget that they, they design something that’s based on this utopian view of what is possible and it just ignores the fact that there are real world constraints.

So you know I would, if I were starting out today, I would try and make sure that I had one really good case study. I would probably do some form of training, preferably a university level course, as opposed to a 10-week short course and I would have a page of my portfolio which described that and what I did on it and who my lecturers were. And then in addition to the portfolio, I would have a blog or a medium publication and I would be writing to that and expressing my view on various aspects of design and essentially demonstrating my passion.

Gerry

Do you know what? As I’m listening to you, and I mean I’ve known you for a long time and I admire you and you’re an excellent UX person and designer and so on but I’m thinking of somebody’s who’s say 18 or 19, they’ve finished High School, they probably have done a 10-week course and you know listening to you might be, “Oh my God, that’s just a level beyond where I could possibly be at.” It does sound a little bit daunting.

Ian

It does but it’s kind of you know my first career ironically was radio, or my second really. And you know at that time it was very competitive and if you wanted to do it you had to do what was necessary to do it. You know you had to work hard. You had to, at that time you had to knock very hard on doors and make cups of tea in the newsroom or make cups of tea for the local DJ or whatever it was and essentially get to know people and try to get in.

So, you know I considered that pretty daunting at the time and I think that really if you are starting out now, it’s important to just follow your passion. You know, libraries still exist, thank goodness, and so you can get along to a library and you can look at perhaps some of the key books and read those. There are some very good online courses. David Travis of Userfocus has one, “The ultimate user experience course” on Udemy. That is equivalent to a course that he runs in person in London, or used to. It’s a really good course.

Gerry

He’s been around a long time, hasn’t he?

Ian

He has, he has and you know I actually did that course about 15 years ago or something before it went online. So it’s kind of, so I think that there are opportunities there, you just have to be very focused at getting them, obtaining them and making use of them. And I think the most important thing really is to remember that you are looking at a career where you may feel like you know everything but actually you don’t. And that’s the most important thing I think you can remember throughout your career is that you don’t know everything and you should ask more and more questions as time goes on.

Gerry

Let me get very hands-on for a minute, should portfolios be online or in print format? Or both?

Ian

It depends. The classic UX answer. Ultimately the portfolio should be right for the person who is going to read it or review it. A lot of the hiring managers I’ve interviewed prefer PDF portfolios. They prefer PDF portfolios because they are easy to navigate. They just scroll through them and they get to the end and job done. They can also email them to people, the HR department can email them to them. You know, sometimes the portfolio reviewer isn’t necessarily the hiring manager. They might be forwarding the portfolio to somebody else within the organisation who will then actually do the interview.

So PDF is as portable as it’s supposed to be in this situation. The other thing about PDFs is that they can be printed, which obviously some interviewers will like to do, or even when they’re reviewing. What they’ll do is they’ll print the portfolio out and then they’ll scribble notes in the top right hand corner et cetera. So a lot of hiring managers like PDFs.

A website takes more time. You have to learn somebody’s navigation scheme. People have a tendency when they create a website portfolio to put everything online. So there’s the problem that the hiring manager may have to negotiate lots of content or navigate around lots of content. So in many ways website portfolios are a lot less convenient for hiring managers.

Having said that, there is a slightly regional aspect to this which is that one of the things I’ve noticed is that in San Francisco, in particular, there does seem to be a fondness for online portfolios if the person is what would be called an interaction designer. So, but, you know, I think that one of the ways I’ve got around that is that because what I do… the other reason I like PDFs is that you can personalise them for a specific vacancy, for a specific reviewer. So if you’re going for a specific job, you can actually tailor the pdf for the intended reviewer, based on what they’ve said they need.

Gerry

Should one do that as a matter of course in any case? That seems like a lot of hassle.

Ian

But we’re in an industry which is getting busier. There’s more and more university courses educating people, more and more people coming into the market. You’ve got General Assembly in various cities around the world squirting 20 people out at three-month intervals into the market. How good they are, I don’t know but you know they’re there. So our market is becoming increasingly competitive.

So I think that in the same way you should probably tailor your CV or resume for a specific vacancy, or at the very least a cover letter, you should probably be tweaking at the very least your portfolio. That’s easy with a PDF. It’s less easy with a web-based portfolio. And, you know, one of the things I do is I on the front page of my portfolio when I review it for the specific client, prospective client that I’m interested in, I will put their name on the front of it. So when they get the PDF they can see that it’s been personalised for them. Now if they’re expecting a web-based portfolio, hopefully the fact that it’s personalised for them, that I’ve shown them the care and attention, I’ve made it obvious, that will get me over the fact that they were probably expecting a website-based portfolio.

Gerry

You just reminded me. My wife hired somebody who misspelled the name of her company on his application but she was so impressed with other aspects that she said, “Go back, resubmit it with the name of the company spelt properly.” [Laughter.]

Ian

Well, the thing is and to finally wrap up on that question, in an ideal world, and I don’t do this at the moment, but I will when I finish writing the book, essentially my life consists of working for a living, writing the book and getting the occasional night with my partner and no time at all to actually eat my own dog food and sort my own website out. But when I have time what I will probably do is I will have a website which has some very, which has a basic biography and some very short case study summaries, literally a paragraph per project and then an electronic form which asks the client to get in touch. When they then get in touch, I will then tailor a PDF portfolio for them and send them that. So essentially the website will act as a brief introduction to what I can do and then when they contact me, as hopefully they will, I’ll send them the more detailed portfolio.

Gerry

Now there are portfolio aggregators or websites, there’s I think Dribble and Behance or Behancé as I think of it. Are they worth being on, do you think?

Ian

They are… I would not host my portfolio there on Behance or Dribble. There’s nothing in particular wrong with them. I think they’re very good for what they were designed for which is essentially visual portfolios or portfolios that are primarily visual. So they work well for those but for UX design we need something which is more based around a text-based narrative, stories, and Dribble and Behance don’t work quite so well for that. What does work quite well is a, I know a lot of UX designers who have used Squarespace and they’ve created a portfolio website using Squarespace or WordPress.com or something along those lines.

What I would do, if I had a Dribble account, which I don’t, what I might do is upload some form of imagery whether it be a Wireframe or a Persona or a final design and I would link from that to my main portfolio. So I would try and take advantage of the fact that there’s a community there, an interest, an essentially lead them back to where they can see the real detail. And I would do the same with LinkedIn, you know, LinkedIn is obviously very popular these days and you can add projects to it. So again I would have a summary of each project and then link through from that to my, to a means to get my actual portfolio.

Gerry

Do you think these days a portfolio is a “nice to have” or is it an essential?

Ian

Depends. Again, it’s another ‘it depends’ answer. There are…, I’ve spent the last three years planning and writing this book and as part of that, I didn’t want it to be a British book. I didn’t want it to be an American book. I wanted to try and reflect practice from around the world. So I’ve been doing talks at various events, as you mentioned I did a talk in Hong Kong earlier this week. Last week I did a similar talk in New York. I’ve done them elsewhere in the States and in the UK and one of the reasons I did them was to try and learn from people locally. And I’m always surprised because often the audience is very young and it’s the younger designers who think, “Okay, I need to know about portfolio design, I should go along to the talk.” And I think that when you’re starting out the need is more obvious. The challenge is that, well more senior practitioners, I think part of the problem, and I speak as one, you know, I didn’t realise there was an issue until I just wasn’t being considered for work because I didn’t have a portfolio. I had to, you know I didn’t agree with the fact that I had to do one but I am a pragmatist and recruiters and others wanted to see a portfolio and wouldn’t consider me otherwise. So I had to do one. But the reality is that some senior designers are able to work in markets where a lot of their business is through personal referral. Now if you’re in that lucky situation, then you probably, well you may not need a portfolio most of the time because fundamentally you’re being referred to people by other people and that means a lot and it probably means a lot more than the introduction that a portfolio can provide.

Having said that, you know, having said that, a portfolio also exists as an influencing document. So the person that you know, if they need to convince someone internally at their organisation, then a portfolio makes it very easy for them because they can say, “Hey, I know this guy, I worked with him at the other company. You should look at him. Here’s his portfolio.” So I think there are reasons to have one but if you get a lot of your business as personal referrals then you’ll probably see less reason to have one. But, you know, what I was trying to say was that I think that, you know, senior… I think every designer should have a portfolio really but, and particularly senior designers, but I think a lot of senior designers don’t realise that they should.

Gerry

What about somebody who does say a lot of user research and is not so much on the design end of things. I mean I guess somebody like me, a lot of my work… it’s hard for me to point at something and say, “Yes, I designed this,” because a lot of the time I’ve been heavily involved in the user research, heavily involved in the strategizing and maybe guiding the project but when I look at the end result to show to somebody, I can’t put my hand on my heart and say I designed that. What do I put on my portfolio?

Ian

Well, I think that I mentioned earlier about the fact that the portfolio might explain what you were asked to do, what you did, how you did it, who you did it with and what the final result was, you know that’s essentially a structure for a story and I think researchers have those kinds of stories as well as designers.

So, you know what were you trying to find out? If you can, what were the results? And that might be where your story ends, or you might explain what the team did with the information. The, you know, I think it was Caroline Jarrett who came up with a brilliant quote and I’m trying to, you might remember it and you can correct me if I’m wrong but it was something like, “The job of…” it was something along the lines of the fact that the job of a UX researcher these days is to help their team find the answer to a question. It was something along those lines. As opposed to just providing a team with research and saying, “Get on with it.” That’s the point that was being made. So I think that the portfolio, because we’re looking at written narrative these days, one of the common complaints that hiring managers have is when people aren’t explicit about the role that they had on a project. And I think that’s actually to our advantage; as a researcher, or as a designer, you can say what you did and you can say what the team did. So, what your contribution was and where it got to.

Gerry

I guess a logical follow-on to that is in the situation where you’ve worked for somebody under some sort of confidentiality arrangement, how can you provide a story about that? I mean do you just put it in there anyway and say, “Hey, please don’t pass this on to anyone else?”

Ian

I wouldn’t do that and I don’t recommend doing that. The, you know I’m in that situation now. I’ve just spent 14 fantastic months working for a company and I can’t talk about any of the work. And I also did some work for Walt Disney at one point and I can’t talk about that.

Gerry

Mickey Mouse will come and…

Ian

Yeah and I’ll be beaten up by a team of lawyers. Non-disclosure agreements are tricky. The advice that you’ll see online are things like password-protect your portfolio whether it’s a website or a PDF, only show those parts of your portfolio at interview and obfuscate the portfolio so you remove the client’s name and anything that identifies them. This is all, from my perspective, bad advice. In all of those circumstances, you’re still breaking your non-disclosure agreement and breaching confidentiality and you know I’ve spoken to hiring managers that have received documents from prospective candidates that have been plastered with “internal use; not to be distributed,” and it puts them in a really awkward position and actually candidates have been rejected for doing that, there’s no doubt about it. There’s also been situations where designers have put confidential material in their portfolio and they’ve ended up being sacked or sued as a result. So it’s not something that I would recommend, any of those approaches.

What I would suggest, I am sad to say, is that you stay within the terms of your non-disclosure agreement. Most non-disclosure agreements are relatively specific about what you can and can’t share. For example, you typically can share anything that the company has previously shared. So what that means is if you have, if you applied for a job that was advertised, then you could potentially use that job description in your portfolio because that was public, you know, it was put out there by the company and you responded to it.

You can also potentially talk in more general terms so you don’t, you know it’s difficult, non-disclosure agreements, again you have to look at what it says and I’m not a lawyer and I’ve tried to talk to them but lawyers are actually quite difficult to get on record. Funny that.

But yeah you can sometimes talk in general terms about what you did somewhere and that wouldn’t fall foul of your non-disclosure agreement necessarily because it couldn’t be considered commercially sensitive information because that’s ultimately what they want to protect.

There’s other ways; one is that when you actually join a company, I mean you want to try and avoid this situation completely, and when you join a company, when they’ve actually said to you, “Hey, Gerry, we’d like you to join us.” Then you say to them, “Okay, I’m interested in joining you. I just wondered what your take was on non-disclosure agreements. Would I be expected to sign one? And what would be the terms of that?” And then when you get the answer if they would essentially prevent you from using any of the material in your portfolio at any point, then you have a decision to make which is do you go or do you get a job somewhere else.

But the best time to ask that question is after they’ve given you a job offer and you’re negotiating the detail of it. If you ask that question before that happens you’ll generally frighten them off.

The other thing is that one of my, at New York this came up and I think it’s a fantastic idea. One of the attendees, Michael, he said to me, “A suggestion for you, Ian, which is that in cases of non-disclosure, encourage your client or employer to apply for a UX award,” because of course if you, and there’s a couple of these now but such as the IxDA awards, for example, and there’s actually something called the UX award and as part of the application process for both of those you have to describe the process and what was learnt and all the rest of it. So if your company, your employer, decides that that’s a good opportunity for promotion, then once the stuff’s out there you can then reuse it. And I thought that was a really smart idea. But, you know, ultimately if you sign a non-disclosure agreement I’m afraid the best thing is to actually stay within the terms of it and behave yourself.

Gerry

How long should a portfolio be?

Ian

As long as it needs to be to get the job! No, that’s a very facetious answer. If we look at the hiring process at various organisations, what you find is that portfolio review and hiring in general is very subjective. There’s no way you can create a portfolio that can work for everybody because they all want different things and those different things are based on their job, the type of company that they are, whether they are an agency or a corporate or a smaller company and they all want different things. But there is one constant in all of the hiring managers that I’ve interviewed and that is lack of time. So you want it to be as short as possible but no longer than it needs to be and that probably sounds equally facetious and flippant but, you know, the point is that these people are short on time so they want to see what you can do. They want to see can you do the job, will you do the job well and do they want you to do the job. That’s what you need to get across and typically that’s ten to fifteen pages in a pdf portfolio, A4 or letter size pages or a website of a similar size.

There are some case studies online which people frequently say are really good examples of UX portfolios and there’s one in particular I’m thinking of that is frequently lauded as fantastic and it is fantastic in the sense that it is a project for a really well-known name and that’s what carries it. If the name was changed for a company that wasn’t quite so well known, the portfolio case study wouldn’t be as effective on this website because it is 60,000 words long and 60,000words takes half an hour to read and I imagine not many hiring managers have half an hour to read a single case study. And OK, it may be that he didn’t intend a hiring manager to read it all but from my perspective just give people as much as they need and no more.

Gerry

I read the book in an incomplete format and I must say I enjoyed it enormously and I was very impressed and pleased with the quality of the information and the prescriptiveness of the stuff that you had in there so I certainly would have no hesitation in recommending it provided it’s on sale for a reasonable price from O’Reilly when it does come out.

And the penny dropped for me to, you had referred to the “Lobster book” and I thought, “What the hell is he talking about?” but of course that’s going to be, there’s going to be a lobster on the cover presumably, is that right?

Ian

That’s correct, yeah.

Gerry

And you ran a talk on UX portfolios here at UX Hong Kong two nights ago and I had a question to say how did it go. But in fact I know that it went very well. I arrived too late in Hong Kong to attend but I’ve heard several people at the conference over the last day and a half comment very positively about it, so obviously it’s been very well received.

Ian

It was one of the best talks that I’ve given and I think that was largely because talks are an interaction between a crowd of people and a speaker and it was just such a friendly environment. Dan, Jo and Hok, you know I wasn’t part of the official conference this year but I was in this sort of fringe event the night before but it was organised by Dan, Jo and Hok who organise UX Hong Kong and they do such a fantastic job of creating an environment in which, you know, it’s just a really pleasant environment and my experience, they’ve run it seven years, I’ve attended UX Hong Kong each one of those years and when I talk to people that have spoken and trained as speakers here, they’ve trained the attendees, they’ve said how fantastic the attendees are and how friendly they are and how much fun it is and that talk was no exception. I loved that talk the other night and the great thing about it was that I gave my talk and then there was another hour of questions and people, organisers very rarely allow questions for that length of time but it meant that we had some really good conversations and I think that’s what made it a really good night is that we had the organised talk where I got some of the broad principles across and then the floor was opened up and there were just some really good conversations. And I say conversations because there were some questions, there were some questions but there were also some people sharing their own experience.

Gerry

Well Ian’s book is called “Designing a UX Portfolio: A Practical Guide for Designers, Researchers, Content Strategists and Developers.” and it’s full of solid, practical and useful guidance.

Ian Fenn, thanks for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

Ian

Gerry, thank you very much for the time.

Gerry GaffneyUX Portfolios: An interview with Ian Fenn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *