Making your case:
Creating a compelling UX portfolio

Sara Cambridge / November, 2017

Prepared for UC Berkeley School of Engineering

What I’ll be talking about

A bit about me

A bit about you

Portfolio basics + nuances

Narrative structures + an example

In-class working session


Portfolio basics

Portfolio nuances

Integrating storytelling into your portfolio

An example

Making your own case study




My background

2000-2011: self-employed graphic designer

2011-2013: switched to research in grad school

2013-2016: 3 years at a small research consultancy (big pay cut!)

2015-2016: Year-long job search: 17 applications, 15 initial interviews, 4 presentations, 1 offer

2016 - present: Now a UX Researcher at Google working on Material Design

- my lessons from15 interviews; have to retell the story from the perspective of others; what was most interesting to you may not be to them

- interviews = free coaching. analyze your performance after every one

Storytelling for Your UX Portfolio

This talk is based on a course I taught at the School of Information fall 2017.

“As a Mechanical Engineering student, we're often focused on the final product, not the process. This course challenged me to deeply reflect on why our team made certain decisions, with a focus on how those decisions impacted our design. By deeply understanding the process, I've been able to better communicate my findings, especially to less technical audiences.”

— D.P., Student

As a Mechanical Engineering student, we're often focused on the final product, not the process. This course challenged me to deeply reflect on why our team made certain decisions, with a focus on how those decisions impacted our design. By deeply understanding the process, I've been able to better communicate my findings, especially to less technical audiences. I believe a practice of reflection during design helps identify shortcomings and is critical to creating meaningful products. D.P.

Let’s talk about you...

Where do you want to go? Academia? UX/product design? UX research? Software engineer? Product Management? Others?

Who has a portfolio?

What is your experience building/sharing/presenting your portfolios?

What questions do you have about portfolios?

Portfolio basics

What a portfolio is

Collection of case studies that demonstrate your experience, process (how you approach problems) and abilities (core strengths + relative skill).

Case studies involve storytelling

  • Beginning: problem, goal, overview
  • Middle: process, key decisions, artifacts
  • End: final outcome, conclusion, learnings

What a portfolio does

Short term

  • Gives you insight into your own work and process
  • Educates others to how you think/work
  • Helps them decide if they should bring you in for an interview

Long term

  • Expedites your career by establishing a public presence

Who needs a portfolio

Designers going into industry: absolutely!

Everyone else (PMs, engineers, researchers, etc): optional (but very helpful)

How portfolios are used

Portfolios are usually submitted along with the resume/cover letter.

  • Recruiters, screeners = Looking for obvious errors. Then the glance test: does it have what it’s supposed to? (10-60 seconds)
  • Hiring managers = More thorough review; do they have what we need? What sets them apart and makes them interesting? (1-5 minutes)
  • Interview presentation: Be ready to present your case studies to a group. Make sure your story is compelling and concise.

Qualities hiring managers are looking for

Based on my interviews with 10+ hiring managers when prepping for the class

  • Demonstrable understanding of the basics of the field
  • Enthusiasm, passion for the field
  • Ability to take feedback & improve quickly
  • Authenticity
  • Creativity, adaptability

Yes, portfolios are hard to make

"Grad students are at an in-between phase in their professional development; they are often asked to function in a capacity that they don't feel ready to handle." — Carole Lieberman, MD

When I started to teach myself design, this self-loathing, impostery rhetoric magnified….Things got easier when I focused on working really hard. I stretched outside of my comfort zone and sought out any and all types of feedback.” — Simon Pan, Natural Talent is Bullshit

Self-criticism, or the act of pointing out one’s perceived flaws, can be a healthy way to increase self-awareness and achieve personal growth, but it may also prove a barrier to one’s self-esteem and peace of mind. Self-criticism may often help facilitate the process of learning from one’s mistakes and can also be helpful when one attempts to overcome areas of weakness or unwanted habits.

A high level of self-criticism that prevents individuals from taking risks, asserting opinions, or believing in their own abilities may be unhelpful or detrimental to well-being. Those experiencing these effects may wish may wish to address the reasons behind excessively self-critical tendencies with a therapist or other mental health professional.

The good news...

There are thousands of jobs/internships out there, with new ones coming out all the time. You only need one.

It’s like dating: you are looking for a nebulous ‘good fit’. You might find that what initially looked ideal is not that interesting...and vice versa.

My advice: Pursue what you’re most interested in, but be flexible. Just focus on figuring out the next logical step...don’t worry about where you’ll end up.

“Excellent book about finding your calling in a very methodical, non-cliche way. The authors focus on practical actionable steps that one can take to identify their strengths, weaknesses and passions. I particularly liked the section on job hunting, which was full of helpful tips.” (Amazon review)

Integrating storytelling
into your portfolio

Key ingredients to every story

1. A character we can identify with.

2. A journey which results in a transformation of the reader’s emotion from beginning to end. (surprises, problems, etc)

3. A controlling idea; what you want people to remember when they think about it later.

Structure + narrative = good storytelling

problem, goal, overview

Middle: process, key decisions, high/low points, show artifacts

End: deliverables, conclusion, learnings

Types of narrative

Chronos: Ordinary time / narrative summary that moves a story forward.

Kairos: Precious time / scenic detail / emotional moments that engage people.

All good storytelling must have elements of both.

Most case studies are all Chronos.

The Hero’s Journey, originally identified by Joseph Campbell, is a great model for any case study. Image: Buck Institute for Education

The narrative arc from The User’s Journey by Donna Lichaw (Rosenfeld, 2016) is a great framework too.

On journey towards goal

Most action happens here

Story gets wrapped up






Background information /
what exists now

Everything is at it’s worst; point of no return

Final showdown; story direction determined

What do you want people to take away? Controlling idea, moral

Problem surfaces,
hero is called to action


An example (my thesis)

Initial research question clearly stated

Single-page overview of the entire project

Easy to scan/digest

Photo caption tells a story

Research findings are explained

Our guiding principle is highlighted; no prior knowledge is needed to understand

Flaws in early design mocks were pointed out.

Our greatest challenge was called out; why it mattered was explained.

Key design decisions were explained with imagery

Impact/success metric is called out

The inspiration for my case study template

Making your own case study

Step 1: Find examples you like

Spend time looking at portfolios; find examples you like.

How are they structured?

What do you like about them?

Use them as a starting point for your own.

We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey

Step 2: Write to uncover your process

“Writing will force you to develop your own thinking behind what you do. It will force you to develop an opinion, a voice, an idea, and communicate that clearly. Those skills are all critical to being a great designer.” — Sarah Doody

Step 3: Memory Dump

After the project is finished write down the whole process, start to finish. Write fast and don’t edit, just capture as much as you can remember.

It might include: why the project was chosen / best moments / worst moments / methods used / process (key decisions, challenges, surprises) / final deliverable(s) / outcome / impact / key learnings.

Step 4: Edit the memory dump

A few days later, review the memory dump. Take the parts that are the most interesting to you and reflect your key contributions. This is a partial case study draft.

Edit for clarity, brevity and interest. Be sure you have some “Kairos” (emotional) moments.

Step 5: Add a project overview

With the memory dump fresh in your mind, write a short high-level summary. This will make your case study easy to skim.

[Project Name] is an [app/service/product] that does [main benefit] for [user segment] who struggle with [original problem]. The project was done for [project context], my role was [what you did], and I collaborated with [roles of your teammates].

Combine with your partial draft. Congratulations, you now have a full draft!

Step 6: Get feedback

It’s critical to get feedback: since we know the story so well, we can’t see the holes in how we present it. Ask people:

  • “What were the most/least interesting parts?”
  • “Was there anything missing?”
  • “Did you find anything confusing or unnecessary?”
  • “Anything you wanted to know more about?”
  • “What needs the most improvement?”

Step 7: Iterate

Edit, revise, improve.

  • Revisit your favorite case studies with an eye towards improving yours.
  • People love drama! Be honest about where you struggled. Show you learned from the mistakes.
  • Get more feedback.

Step 8: Get it online and let it go

  • Add organization and polish: headers, dividers, images and captions.
  • Check your grammar (small mistakes matter)
  • If you’re a perfectionist, remember: done is better than perfect.

Checklist of a great case study

  • Begins with a brief overview of the challenge, goal, your role, etc.
  • Focuses on your process and thinking
  • Highlights a couple key moments that moved the project forward
  • Includes authentic struggles/problems (and solutions)
  • Shows the final design and explains why it was appropriate
  • End with key learnings and/or what you would do if you had more time
  • Is easy to skim and enter at any point (headers, images/captions)

Presenting your case study

Know it backwards and forwards; be able to discuss it anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes.

Highlight your unique contribution. Make it your hero’s story.

Don’t be afraid of repetition: people zone out...a lot.

Add drama: include tension at the beginning, resolve it at the end.


Let’s practice

Create a project overview (Solo, 10 min)

Task: Explore a recent project by answering some of these questions. Prepare to present it in 2-3 minutes to someone else.

  • What problem was the project trying to solve?
  • What context was it done in? (class, real client, internship?)
  • What was your role and did you work with others?
  • What processes did you use to get there? (research, wireframes, etc)
  • What was the final deliverable and outcome?
  • What were the main challenges along the way?

Share your overview (Duos, 15 min)

  • Partner with someone else you don’t know well
  • Each person gets 7 minutes: 2-3 min to present your project, and 4-5 min to get feedback/questions from your partner.
    • “What was most/least interesting?”
    • “What was missing?”
    • “Did you find anything confusing or boring?”
    • “What did you want to know more about?”
    • “What is the single most important thing to improve?”

How was it?

Case Study Resources

Portfolio, presentation + UX links

Google docs link


Questions? Want feedback on your case studies? Ask! for my (old!) grad school website + online portfolio

UX Portfolio Nov 2017 - Google Slides