The Right Stuff: What’s in YOUR Portfolio?

Presented at Tech Jobs LA at Blankspaces, July 21, 2012

The growth of the Web and proliferation of mobile devices has created a huge opportunity for people who can design the look and behavior of digital products. This work spans single-person-single-device interactions through experiences that include multiple people, devices and locations. User Experience Designer (UXD), Interaction Designer (IxD), Information Architect (IA), Web Designer (WD)–whichever way you pitch your skill-set, this is truly a GREAT time be working in our field.

But–How do you get that elusive interview? What if you’re just starting out, or changing fields? How do you showcase your talents succinctly and persuasively? What do recruiters and hiring managers look for in a great portfolio? In this presentation, Chris Chandler and I share our thoughts about how to create a UX portfolio that best showcases your ability and helps capture the elusive interview.

There’s also video available on Vimeo. Part 1, Part 2

Where the designers are

People often ask me “Where can I find a designer to work with me?” Most of the good matches I’ve seen have been made through referrals and introductions. If you know designers, or people who work with them, ask them if they know anyone who can help you. Check your LinkedIn connections for designers and ask for an introduction through someone you know.

You an also try these design-related sites that accept job postings.

Good Experience
– There’s a jobs area on this site, and Mark Hurst also includes job listings in his email newsletter

Boxes and Arrows
– Create an account and you can post jobs directly from this page

The Interaction Design Association (IxDA)
– I believe there’s also specific newsgroups for jobs, not sure where they are located on the site.

Silicon Valley Product Group (SVPG)
– This is less specifically focused on UX jobs, but I have seen some listings in Marty Cagan’s newsletter. I can’t find any jobs area on his site, so you’ll have to contact Marty for more information.

If you want to try face-to-face networking, and maybe learn something about design at the same time, you can hang out in the places where designers hang out. Some good places to start include:

  • The Interaction Design Association (IxDA) has local events and an annual conference
  • AIGA events (The professional association for design)
  • Startup events (easier in urban areas like the Bay Area and and NYC)
  • Meetups (look for the words “UX” “User Experience” “IxD” “Design” and “Startup”)

You can also work with a recruiter who will learn about your position and help you locate and screen the ideal candidate. I know a few recruiters who I personally recommend, please contact me if you’d like an introduction.

BTW: If you’re looking for a designer who has experience with Lean Startup, (and honestly, there aren’t many of them) there’s a special list exclusively for lean startup jobs. I have mostly seen postings there for developers, but it might also be a reasonable place to try. Read the guidelines carefully. The list is closely curated and only open to hiring companies (no agents or recruiters).

Good luck, and let me know if you find other good places I can add to my list.

Why do we have a shortage of designers?

@theory143 pointed out an interesting post on Quora titled “Why is there such a stunningly short supply of designers in Silicon Valley right now? The article summary is below.

  1. Design talent is valued more now than it was 5-10 years ago, especially the interaction and user experience design specializations.
  2. Engineering has increased in agility, creating an upturn in the quantity of products requiring design talent.
  3. Design is hard, and the expectations of designers now are much higher than they were in years past.
  4. Design education is lacking in its ability to put out designers of quality that can meet the demands of our current industry.
  5. Downturns in the 2000s left a shortage of mid-career designers.

I don’t disagree with the points above, but I think there are some more forces at work that aren’t mentioned.

Design talent is valued more now
Engineering has increased in agility

I believe that the availability of Web frameworks (e.g. Rails) and lightweight development practices (e.g. Scrum) have made application development easier, and brought interface design into the forefront of product creation. When a developer sits down to make a product now, more of the effort, earlier in the process, is focused on the user experience. The development of mobile products is very UI intensive also. This has increased both the awareness of the need for design, as well as the desire for more people on the team to have competency in design.

Design is hard
Design education is lacking

The creation of digital products is a cross-disciplinary activity that involves groups of people. A successful interaction designer has deep skills in some areas and a general understanding of the entire process. Interaction design is a profession that requires good people skills and facilitation experience. It’s difficult to gain this sort of breadth without the experience that comes over time, working on a variety of projects.

People who focus on the craft of interaction design as a career require time and practice to develop mastery of the techniques. This process can be improved by regular exposure to more experienced practitioners who can provide advice and support.

Downturns in the 2000s left a shortage of mid-career designers.

This may be true, but there’s also an over-emphasis on having the right job titles to be considered appropriate for the job. Many potential interaction designers are currently working as product managers and front end Web developers.

I’ve also observed that the way we hire and place designers isn’t a good fit for the work we want done. It’s a complex skill set, and not all designers have the same strengths. Many hiring managers and HR departments don’t have the first-hand experience with these roles to recruit, screen, place and manage the right people.

Sometimes, the way design jobs are structured aren’t attractive to senior designers. When interaction design work is broken into research, construction and usability, it’s more difficult to have an impact on the product because each individuals’ work is structured as a series of handoffs, rather than as an overall objective for a collaborative team.

Some of my most skilled IxD colleagues have accepted positions as product managers, to have more of impact on the whole product, having felt marginalized by the design related roles available on the team.

How do we grow the next generation of UX talent?

The Shillington School offers learning through theory and hands-on experience working from briefs under real-world timelines. The founder, Andrew Shillington, observed that it was hard to hire people with all skills necessary to be productive in an ad agency.

“As an employer, Andrew sought to hire talented young graphic design graduates but found it increasingly difficult to find those with high-end computer skills, a practical knowledge of design theory and could meet challenging deadlines. It soon became apparent that students leaving schools and universities were not adequately trained in today’s world of computers and design software. And so Shillington School was born.”

I’ve observed the same situation in the UX field. There’s often a mismatch between academic programs and the demands of employment. As an employer of interaction designers, I’ve had difficulty finding people who have a work-ready skill set right out of school. Most often, it takes a couple years working in a professional environment before someone picks up the necessary combination of design thinking skills, tools use, collaboration and facilitation skills, client interaction and project management, and general knowledge of how the business world works. When evaluating an applicant, I want to see their process and approach as well as finished work. Most junior level jobs only expose someone to pieces of a project, and don’t provide opportunities to experience the end-to-end process of finding insight, creating a concept, constructing a prototype or other artifact and validating that with actual users. It’s even less common that someone’s had that chance to do that work as part of a collaborative balanced team.

How can we create work that’s appropriate for a new interaction designer as they gain the full compliment of skills? In an agency setting, it’s possible to partner a less-experienced designer with a more experienced design partner. I’ve seen this work well, however an agency can only take on a limited number of new people in this way. It doesn’t help the individual practitioner who wants to work in-house, or start his or her own company.

What if we could treat apprenticeship as a form of entrepreneurial exercise? The apprentice creates a portfolio piece that follows an idea from research and concept identification to visualization and validation. With that as a basis, we’d just have to figure out how to extend that individual practice into an ability to participate as a part of cross-functional team. Ideally, we could create cross-functional teams and mentor THEM, but would that still be considered apprenticeship, or an incubator?