Condescending Advice

There’s a truism that most UX portfolios are sh*t and not worth a manager’s time. Assuming it’s true, though, does that mean portfolio advice should be condescending?!?

A few days ago, UX Booth tweeted an article from a design blog called UXFolio. It was a take on UX portfolios and what the author “wants to see” in it after reviewing “573 UX Designer portfolios” as CEO and “Design Chief”.

I Reviewed 573 UX Designer Portfolios as a Design Chief, and This is What I Want to See In Yours

I just checked our HR spreadsheets. Over the last few years more than 2000 people applied to work with us at UX studio. We are a 27-person product design team, full of great, enthusiastic designers. As the CEO, I reviewed exactly 573 UX portfolios.

I’m going to cut to the chase here: I can’t get past the condescension and oversimplification in this article. 

I wish I could be more charitable. But given the very real confusion as to what makes good UX portfolios good (and the panic some have over assembling one), I just can’t let this condescension slide.

Listen to ME!

This isn’t the first time I’ve read articles like this. You’ve seen them around: Short, 3-point paragraphs about how to build a UX portfolio, listicles of ’10 best UX portfolio practices’, or full-length treatises such as the one featured here.

Let’s be clear: There is nothing wrong with weighing in on what makes a good UX portfolio. Most try to be very helpful. But some end up rubbing you the wrong way.

As a UX practitioner who is trying to represent himself as honest as possible in the outside world, advice articles that talk down on their audience do not help to cut through the noise.

As we’ll see, the articles we write are just as “designed” as a website or app and that the feeling it generates is as crucial as the goals it achieves.

The Good

Let’s begin with the article’s solid points:

  • UX is not “visuals” nor “decoration”. Trying to stand out with aesthetics is just not what UX professionals do.
  • “Content first” is a good rule to follow.
  • UX designers want real impact; and being considered the one who “draw[s] pretty things” is just not the impact UX designers seek or crave.
  • “Design stories” over pretty pictures.
  • Design process + methods + insights + research + decisions + impact
  • “Challenge-methods-results”

I’ve got nothing but praise in here. Case studies BEAT shiny galleries for a UX position where the focus is on Design Thinking than form-making alone.

UX designers are problem solvers par excellence. Our portfolios should show these problem-solving powers if we want to be treated as such in our own job searches. If we want to show that design makes everything possible, then our stories must showcase how that was done. 

That’s what the article does very well.

The Bad

Unfortunately, some sentences were just not friendly. It’s as if you were being talked down and talked at rather than empowered to make things better.

You may dismiss this as being too sensitive for this ‘cutthroat’ UX business. But words matter. And I can point to specific instances the words and the tone got in the way.

The Title

I Reviewed 573 UX Designer Portfolios as a Design Chief, and This is What I Want to See In Yours”

Quantified effort is a proven tactic in writing. It tells you to pay attention because 573 portfolios is no simple feat. Pair that up with the “2000 job applications” UX Studio fielded in the past, then yes, the author wants you to pay attention.

And pay attention, I did.

“What I Want to See in Yours” is self-referential. It assumes that there is one true way to get hired in UX that is applicable from manager to manager, as if hiring is a universalizable activity.

This is an extremely common problem in advice articles where one’s process becomes passed as (seemingly) objective fact.

We only have to look at Jared Spool’s tweets to know that there is no silver bullet for portfolios right now, and that we’re going in separate and conflicting directions.

Jared Spool on Twitter

I’m finding it interesting how much variation there is amongst hiring managers. One manager has very specific things they’re looking for, while another “largely ignores portfolios” because it doesn’t tell them anything useful.

Jared Spool on Twitter

Yet, it’s almost impossible for a candidate to identify how to tailor a portfolio to meet the specific idiosyncratic desires of the hiring manager. You can’t possibly know which type of manager you’re sending your portfolio to. It seems we’re setting candidates up for failure.

Had the author said, “These portfolio qualities resonated so deeply with me when I was hiring UX designers for my company,” I might have considered it as a unique ‘war story’ rather than an unbreakable rule.

Condescension

And then there are the tough quotes…

🚨 “Can’t” and “not” 🚨

“It’s not a magazine illustrator position, so you can’t convince me with unique visuals and decoration”

It is true that UX is different from a graphic design or illustration role. But there is a way to phrase this positively and not feel talked down. More on that shortly.

🚨 We’re cool. They’re not. 🚨

“These designers think, “I’ll create a unique-looking portfolio to grab their attention”. That way of thinking doesn’t work. So wrong on so many levels. Let me explain why.”

“Instead of using your portfolio only to present your visual design skills, like an old-school, offline, print designer would do, act like a cool UX designer and showcase your work’s UX side.”

I can only think of one word to summarize these two paragraphs’ tone: exclusion.

On one hand, being told that something “doesn’t work” and that he/she is “so wrong on so many levels” rarely generates confidence even if it is explainable.

Also, was it really necessary to characterize the print designer as a backward and past-its-life professional. The last time I checked, logos were still being made, branding and identity is still a thing, marketing collateral are still being produced at agencies or in-house, and some of UX’s names today were graphic designers by training. Print design may be a tough area of practice now. But that doesn’t make it an inferior discipline to UX as we know it.

Their medium may not be our medium as UX and product designers. But the foundations of their practice are where we stand today.

🚨 The One True Way 🚨

Only one way proves you really, deeply care about the people you design for… OK, you may think it matters little, but please, for God’s sake, share user insights in your UX designer portfolio.”

There is no contest that research insights have to be in a portfolio. Research enables designers to make good design choices, especially for complex areas such as UX and Service Design. It’s an important practice that must be preached!

But I also wonder if this ‘one way’ is really the only way. The last time I checked, UX designers were also working for a business. We’re brought in to support the goals of a company wanting a designed ‘thing’ from us and that their views are just as important. End users matter, yes. Clients and business folk are just as part of that tent too.

(And also, ever heard of, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain?” – for those who believe, at least…)

🚨 So easy! It’s all about me! 🚨

“So present these decisions in your portfolio. Remember: options, pros and cons, final decision. Easy peasy.

“Here lie the not-so-secret ingredients. I rarely see portfolios that include three of these five. I can’t wait for you to surprise me. ;-)”

“Before I share how these pieces come together, understand what goes on in employers’ minds while they look through your portfolio… Luckily, you have found someone letting you inside his brain.

It’s unfortunate that the meat of the advice is clouded by the language throughout the article.

If creating a UX portfolio was really as easy as the author suggests, then we shouldn’t be swimming in so much articles, videos, classes, and tweets by ANYONE (including me) on how to make one because everyone can do it already.

Nope. We’re not there yet.

Even portfolio teachers such as Sarah Doody, Ian Fenn, and Joe Natoli acknowledge that there’s a lot of groundwork involved in a winning portfolio.

When you hang out in the learning environments these same teachers foster, there is that sense of dread and overwhelm pervading portfolio creation.

And having been one of those portfolio students, the last thing I want to feel is to be talked down and told that it’s easy like 1, 2, 3.

It’s not that easy. We’ve got to respect that.

Whatever Happened to “Designing for Your Users?”

Now I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t a UX portfolio ultimately for hiring managers? They’re the ones reviewing it, so it makes sense to design it for them.

Yes!

UX portfolios are reviewed by hiring managers. We have to design it around their needs. We want to help them make that first determination, “Should I contact this person or not?”, and a good portfolio accelerates that process. 

But that doesn’t excuse the condescension in the advice article.

So what should we do?

The Compassionate Alternative

April Wensel has written extensively on tech’s “toxic tone problem“. She talks about engineers who call interviewees stupid, “idiots [who] cannot interview out of a paper bag,” and so many else.

She examines this in a detailed blog post and how a “compassionate alternative” makes team communication (and relationships) so much better:

Let’s suppose the person you’re talking to is indeed as ignorant of the subject matter as you think. Imagine how much of a struggle it will be for him or her to understand. Have compassion for the suffering this may entail, and see what you can do to minimize that suffering. It may help you to think back on a time when you were learning this subject for the first time. What was helpful to you? Consider:

– What questions did I have and what were the most useful responses?

– What resources might provide additional perspectives to help this person understand the issue?

April Wensel, “Tech Has a Toxic Tone Problem – Let’s Fix It!”

How might that compassionate alternative look like in practical terms?

The Condescending Tone

“It’s not a magazine illustrator position, so you can’t convince me with unique visuals and decoration.”

The Compassionate Alternative

“UX, at its core, is about problem-solving. Don’t be afraid to showcase the process to address the challenge, the research you’ve done, the solution you had, and its business results. Show how the company benefited from their time with you and what you’ve learned in this project. This communicates that you are a thoughtful designer who works to make things better.”

Sure, the compassionate alternative may be wordier. But ask yourself: How did you feel after reading both versions? Which felt more empowering? Which felt very supportive?

You’re welcome. 🙂

It’s Not All Tough Love.

The UXFolio blog had a noble intention: Get people designing better UX portfolios. It had solid points on case study structure and what a hiring manager typically looks for.

The tone, however, could be better.

I hope I have convinced you that a compassionate tone is more supportive and empowering than its opposite. Despite my serious concerns over the blog post’s tone, I’m still convinced that it was coming from a position of care. It just needed to be articulated with more empathy.

When you write, talk, tweet, or share anything about design, please think of us who are either listening to you or teaching together with you. At the end of the day, we really just want to see our industry better than before; and we owe it to each other to be supportive and caring in whatever way we can.

That’s how we’ll know our words and actions have truly made an impact.