Building and evaluating UX Research portfolios
Current and best practices for job seekers and hiring managers
Hi, I’m Lawton Pybus. The ¼” Hole is a newsletter devoted to understanding the discipline of user research. Every month, I share resources to help you uplift your craft.
Many UX Researchers — especially those seeking a first role — put their hearts and souls into producing and polishing a portfolio that shows off their skills and experiences. But questions remain about what makes a good portfolio and just how necessary they are.
To help hiring managers and potential job seekers, we’ve collected several years worth of data1 in the hopes of gaining some clarity on this topic. If you’re an individual contributor preparing to apply for your next role, understanding common expectations and strategies can help you to job hunt more effectively. And for managers who often lack training on best hiring practices, having a clearer portfolio strategy can help you help candidates put their best foot forward.
Let’s look at the data
As we saw two years ago, many respondents either have never maintained a portfolio (16%) or have an outdated one (31%). The biggest reasons are practical concerns: they’re time consuming to maintain (70%) and it’s a challenge to include confidential work (65%).
Among those who have a portfolio, 41% had nothing more sophisticated than a slide deck or PDF on hand. One participant described investing time and money into a portfolio website on the advice of a mentor, only to find that it was hard to keep polished and representative of current skills and experiences. “Sometimes people would find my website and pull up something outdated,” he said. “That’s not good! Eventually, I just scrapped the website.”
Portfolios are occasionally required when submitting an application, but how they’re used that early on in the process is unclear. One participant frustratedly likened these “gate-clearing artifacts” to “an exercise in mind-reading.” Many (41%) were unsure if they were ever reviewed by employers, with a small minority (5%) saying their portfolios had never been discussed during an interview.
Which raises another question: how often are portfolios explicitly called out within UX Researcher job descriptions?
When we last examined this question two years ago, the word “portfolio” appeared in 29% of 1,316 job descriptions sampled. We’ve since continued to sample job descriptions on a near-monthly basis (20 samples in 25 months). Including these additional 27,388 job descriptions, the word “portfolio” appeared in only 21%, varying somewhat by job title. This updated figure is substantially fewer than initially reported.
In other words, only about 1 in 5 UXR job descriptions talks about portfolios in any way.
Yet when we recently surveyed the state of UXR hiring and interviewing practices, most participants (69%) indicated that they have presented or expect to present past case studies in later rounds as a work sample test. So, although these materials often aren’t required up front, they will likely come into play later on.
What do hiring managers look for in portfolios? It depends in large part on the target role and its expected competencies. One manager we spoke with explained that she is “really looking for their experience with certain methodologies and how they frame their findings” in junior portfolios, but acknowledged that she employs different criteria for more senior candidates.
Nevertheless, job seekers we spoke with had a strong desire for more explicit guidance on what will be evaluated so that they can share the most relevant work. As one participant put it: “It would be nice to know what an employer is looking for in your portfolio. For example, insight into process, insights, repertoire of methods, lessons learned — I hear different things from different people … I’ve tested mine with a few dozen hiring managers in various sectors and have found the whole topic wildly subjective.”
These findings lead to a few practical suggestions for both job seekers and hiring managers.
Key points for job seekers
Skip the custom website or public portfolio. Unlike design, the work UX Researchers do for our organizations seldom gets wide release, even when the products we’ve supported do. That makes it difficult to put case studies that may contain confidential information in a public forum. Web design and development is also much further removed from our core competencies. As we’ve previously suggested, a slide deck or PDF that repurposes materials from existing deliverables is often best for convenience’s sake.
Make sanitizing and archiving part of your project close-out process. One participant said: “Every time I do a project that I'm like, 'that was really cool' or 'that had some interesting challenges that were noteworthy,' I'll basically rebuild those slides … so I keep them handy.” With any hygiene practice, small consistent habits, though inconvenient at first, are more effective than heroic periodic efforts. Only 12% of UX Researchers in our sample did this, so adopting this strategy could be an opportunity to stand out.
When asked, be ready to select and share 2 or 3 relevant case studies from a range of sanitized work samples. If possible, showcase your breadth across the case studies by highlighting a variety of products, methodologies, time-frames, and/or deliverable formats. What you choose should be based either on specific guidance provided by the hiring manager, or, absent that, cues from the job description and any notes you’ve taken about the role during your interviews.
Key points for hiring managers
Don’t ask for materials until they’re needed to respect candidates’ time. Specifically, don’t make a portfolio an application requirement if, like most of the hiring managers we spoke with, you don’t spend much time reviewing portfolios before inviting candidates to a phone screen.
Communicate how and when portfolios will be used. If you require one with the application as a screening tool to assess some minimal level of research competence, some indication can be given so that candidates won’t spend excessive time preparing a customized portfolio. If the portfolio will come into play in later rounds, give candidates a preview of what the whole cycle will look like.
Give candidates guidance on how portfolios will be evaluated. As they put together materials relevant to the role you’re filling, make yourself available for clarifying follow-up questions. Getting clear about what you’re looking for will not only help candidates prepare to make a favorable impression, but will help the hiring team to structure its assessments of the candidate.
Summary and conclusion
For a few years now, we’ve been tracking questions surrounding what makes a good portfolio and how necessary they are in job interviews. We’ve consistently found that only about 1 in 5 job descriptions explicitly call for them. And many practitioners don’t actively maintain one after their first few years on the job. Nevertheless, a case study presentation is common to most UX Research interview cycles.
Savvy researchers regularly sanitize and archive interesting projects so that they can select from a breadth of relevant work samples for the specific role they’re interviewing for, using pre-existing deliverable materials rather than fancy custom websites. But hiring teams should do a better job of telling candidates how and when portfolios are used in their process, and what they are expecting to see.
If you’re actively pursuing the next chapter in your career, hopefully these findings will help you show your best work. And if you’re trying to get the best UX Research talent for your team, these recommendations should help you improve your chances at finding them.
Should you take that management role?
Wondering if becoming a UX Research Manager is the right path for your career progression? Or have you been asked to step into that role? Here are a few questions I’d recommend considering, which I thought about before making the transition:
Are you motivated to learn a new skill set? You’ve likely become highly skilled as an individual contributor, but research competencies have little overlap with people management. Be prepared to go from feeling like a rockstar at your job to a total beginner.
Do you have prior experiences or aptitudes to prepare you for the work? Often, new managers will have spent time mentoring other researchers on the team, or helping to create or optimize team processes. Look for opportunities to try out some of the role responsibilities before formally taking them on.
Do you have the time and support you’ll need to grow into the role? I found it essential to have a mentor or coach who can help you learn the ropes and keep you moving in the right direction. Take advantage of any training or development opportunities your organization offers, and look for external resources you can leverage.
If the answers are “yes,” you have a strong basis for giving it a shot. But if not, don’t feel pressured to make it work for the sake of your career. Many mature organizations offer parallel paths for individual contributors to continue growing in their craft.
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From the archive
Should you have a UX Research portfolio? (Archived version, originally published on UX Booth)
For more methodological detail, see the first article detailing our findings from this research.