Reviewing UX Portfolios: 4 High-Risk Hiring Mistakes

by Jared M. Spool

A UX portfolio seems like a no-brainer. You ask the candidate to give it to you. You review it. Then, if you like what you see, you interview them further and maybe you’ll offer them the opportunity to join your team.

However, there’s more to reviewing a portfolio than that. And many teams make serious mistakes in the process.

Hiring team members is hard enough. Let’s not make it harder.

It’s risky to push a candidate away who, had we hired them, would’ve done a great job for us. Losing a viable candidate means we’ll need to spend more time finding and interviewing other candidates to fill the job.

When we take too long to review their portfolio and give them feedback, they may decline to continue in our hiring process or refuse our job offer. This makes the hiring process more difficult.

It’s even worse if we hire someone who we thought looked great on paper and interviewed well, but can’t do the work we need them to do. We then find ourselves with a messy management and morale problem. It’s hard to work with a team member who is ill-equipped for the position, no matter how otherwise awesome they are.

Hiring mistakes put our team’s growth at risk. They can be avoided. Here are four hiring mistakes that teams make when reviewing UX portfolios, and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Not defining the position’s objectives upfront

Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.” So many hiring managers and team members open up a portfolio without knowing what they need to learn from it.

Treating a UX portfolio like a coffee-table picture book turns out to be a sure way to get a wrong understanding of the candidate. We can’t just flip through the portfolio and smile at the pretty pictures.

We must have specific objectives and assessment criteria for assessing each candidate’s portfolio. Otherwise, we’ll risk making judgement calls that are more about the aesthetics of the work and less about the capability of each candidate.

The hunt for comparable evidence

When we’re reviewing a portfolio, we’re on a hunt for direct evidence of the candidate’s comparable experience. Comparable experience is any work they’ve done in their previous jobs (or in school, when we’re considering an early-career candidate who is low on work experience) that matches the work we’ll need them to accomplish. We use the entire interview process, to collect all the evidence we can uncover that the candidate has similar work before. If they’ve done a great job in the past, there’s a good chance they’ll do a good job again, this time for us.

The goal of reviewing a candidate’s portfolio is simple: Can we tell if there’s enough evidence here to suggest this candidate should be prioritized higher in our hiring process than other candidates? If we find lots of comparable experience evidence in the portfolio, we want to quickly bring this person in for interviews. If we don’t see any evidence, we might hold up and talk to other candidates first.

What will our new hire accomplish in their first year?

To know what evidence to look for, we need to know what the new hire’s work will be. Will they be creating wireframes for a new design? Conducting research to identify user needs? Guiding a team to deliver a finely-designed mobile app? Rolling out a large design system to dozens of products?

No two designers will do the same job. Even if they work on the same project, they’ll likely divide up the work based on their strengths and experience. Having a clear picture of what we hope our new hire will accomplish in, say, their first year, will let us focus our review of every candidate’s portfolio.

When working with teams, we start them with a simple exercise of writing a thank you note to their future new hire. This is an easy way to start the conversation about what the new position will entail.

To know what to look for in candidate portfolios, the thank you note won’t be enough. For that, we create a much more detailed performance profile. The profile describes the objectives we want our new hire to achieve in their first year. By listing out the objectives, we can create a wishlist of what we want to see in every candidate’s UX portfolio.

Mistake #2: Requiring every candidate supply a UX portfolio

We know that résumés don’t tell us a lot about a candidate. When a candidate gives us a portfolio, they get a richer opportunity to communicate how they may fit the position we’re looking to fill.

Unfortunately, many candidates won’t have a portfolio ready when we start accepting applications. That’s not a reason to immediately disqualify them. There are several reasons why someone who could be a great fit might not have a portfolio ready and up-to-date.

The best candidates may not be actively looking

When we’re hiring, our goal is to identify those candidates who have the ideal skills, knowledge, and experience for the work we need done. Often, these candidates have gained their expertise because that’s what their current job is. And they may be very happy where they currently are.

These candidates aren’t looking for a new job. At least, not until they saw our open position. Suddenly, they’re intrigued.

Our job may be attractive because it gives that person a growth opportunity they wouldn’t get if they stayed where they currently are. The growth and challenges offered in our job look very appealing.

We call these folks passive candidates since they aren’t actively looking for a new job. Passive candidates are often the best-suited candidates, because the work they do every day is the work we need doing.

It’s likely a passive candidate doesn’t have a prepared UX portfolio ready. After all, they weren’t thinking about leaving their current job. Keeping a portfolio up to date hasn’t been high on their priority list.

When we insist they give us a portfolio as part of their job application, they may decide it’s not worth the effort to apply. For passive candidates, we have to remove any friction in the hiring process. They’re happy in their current job and will drop out of consideration at the slightest hint of inconvenience.

That would be a shame, because this candidate could be an ideal fit. We’ll never know, because we never had a chance to explore the job with them.

NDAs make portfolios more difficult

Active candidates may also have problems producing a UX portfolio for consideration. Even though they’re actively looking for a new job, it may be hard for them to show what they’ve done.

Many companies require every employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement when they start working. In those agreements, it’s common for the employer to refuse to give permission to show any of the work they’ve done.

If you can’t show work you’ve done, what do you put into your portfolio? This becomes a difficult problem for those candidates who have major work covered under non-disclosure.

(Pushing a candidate to violate their non-disclosure has real ethical issues. They made a promise and it’s not cool to ask them to break it, even when it’s inconvenient for your hiring process.)

Many UX jobs are hard to capture in a portfolio format

Even when a candidate has permission to show their work, for many UX professionals, there may not be an easy way to capture the essence of their achievements. The portfolio may be the wrong way for them to show their comparable experience.

UX portfolios are direct descendants of portfolio books used in graphic design and industrial design. In those cases, the portfolio was intended to show the designer’s body of work. Since the work was mostly visual, their portfolios could exist solely as pictures of each design they created.

In contrast, much UX work isn’t visual. It’s about communication and collaboration. Even when we create design artifacts, they are not very visually interesting.

For example, we may need to hire someone to manage our content strategy, starting with a content audit and then building up a content model of our future publications across multiple platforms. While there are many artifacts produced, they are mostly word processing documents and spreadsheets, with the occasional slide deck. Not the kind of stunning visuals that will dazzle someone looking through the portfolio.

Content strategy, information architecture, user research, and many types of interaction design are hard to capture in a portfolio that is mostly visual. (Exactly how do you show the designs of a voice user interface in a portfolio?) A list of web URLs in a content inventory won’t tell the candidate’s story about their work experience in any compelling way.

Collaboration and management can’t easily be shown

Most UX work is collaborative. For many UX jobs, we’re very interested in a candidate’s ability to collaborate.

Yet, a portfolio only shows an individual’s direct—often solo—contribution to a project. It’s not easy to represent a team effort within a UX portfolio, especially when trying to highlight the specific capability of the portfolio’s owner. How does a candidate show work that dozens of people contributed to, without laying claim to any work done by other people?

Similarly, what should a design manager put into their portfolio? They are directly responsible for the work of all the people who report to them, should they show the work of their team in their own portfolio?

If they don’t show the work of their direct reports, they might not have anything to put in the portfolio. Their comparable experience might be how they rallied team resources to produce great work. Yet, there’s nothing in that work for the candidate to point to and say, “I did that part.”

They may be our perfect new manager, applying their very relevant skills, knowledge, and experience at the challenges our team faces. Their portfolio can’t easily show us any of that.

It’s critical we don’t exclude an ideal candidate just because they couldn’t show us their work inside a UX portfolio. That’s an expensive mistake we can easily avoid.

Mistake #3: Not telling applicants what you’d like to see

Even though not all candidates will have portfolios, we can encourage those that have one ready to submit it. However, we should give them hints as to what we want to see in it.

After all, we’re on a hunt for specific comparable experience. We want to see the evidence that tells us the candidate has what’s needed for the job.

Collecting evidence is a collaboration between the interview team and the candidate. They work together so the candidate has every opportunity to share their relevant comparable experience.

Part of that collaboration starts with us saying what we’d like to see. In the job ad and wherever we ask candidates to apply, we’ll list out how we’ll assess if they’re a match for the position. For the applicants, this makes applying much easier, because they have an idea exactly what you’re looking for.

For example, here’s an excerpt from a team hiring looking for someone to manage and deliver a new multi-product design system:

We don’t require a portfolio, but we’d love to see one if you have it. In this position, you will be supporting the rollout of a design system.

We’d love to see any case studies you have about the design systems you’ve rolled out. We are particularly interested in the scale of the system (how many teams and products did it support) and the timeline of the work. What challenges did you encounter? How did you overcome them? What might you do differently next time, based on what you learned?

It’s ok if you don’t have a portfolio ready. Please apply without it. We’re excited to talk with you about your design system work, whether you have a portfolio or not.

Mistake #4: Eliminating a candidate when you don’t like what you see

A few years back, I was sitting next to a hiring manager as we were reviewing job applications for new positions on his team. As we brought up one candidate’s portfolio, he leaned forward and proclaimed “Oh my god. They’ve implemented their portfolio in WIX. That’s an immediate No.”

At first, I thought he was joking. He wasn’t.

He was seriously rejecting this candidate because of the tools they chose to implement their portfolio. (Maybe if the position was for a front-end designer, there could be an argument that the portfolio’s implementation is important to consider. But the objectives for this position didn’t require any coding. It shouldn’t have been a consideration.)

The purpose of any candidate’s UX portfolio is to reveal that candidate’s comparable experience. But an absence of relevant evidence doesn’t mean the candidate doesn’t have the skills, knowledge, and experience we’re seeking.

A good portfolio gives us the information and confidence we need to move a high-potential candidate to the front of our pipeline. That way we can consider them faster and possibly get them an offer sooner, since they’re demonstrating they have what we need for the job.

Our goal is to fill an open position. The faster we fill the position with a qualified candidate, the sooner we have a new team member contributing to our efforts.

Yet, a UX portfolio that is missing evidence shouldn’t reflect poorly on the candidate’s ability or value. And if they have work that isn’t relevant or they implement work in a way that isn’t what we think is right, we shouldn’t eliminate them from consideration.

Through the rest of the interview process, we can ask that candidate for more examples of their comparable experience. A portfolio will never provide enough evidence to tell us this is a candidate we should make the offer to. Similarly, it should, on its own, never disqualify a candidate from further consideration. At best, it just works as an accelerant, helping us quickly see the most promising candidates amongst all that applied.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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