What we look for in a product designer’s portfolio

November 2, 2020

While the principles here are applicable to almost all types of design roles, we're going to narrow the focus of this to people seeking a product design role.

Include both process and finished work

The best portfolios include not just the finished product, but work done along the way. I’m not talking about just adding a photo of an obligatory sticky note session or notebook sketches. I’m talking about showing things you tested and discarded or an idea that you tweaked along the way.

Product design is a deep, murky world and hiring managers are looking to see how well you can swim in the muddy waters. Process work is key here.

The reason process work is important is that it demonstrates your thinking. If you just show those Dribbble-perfect screenshots, hiring managers won’t have any idea how you got there. It’s a lot like showing your work on a math problem. Anyone can guess at the answer and get it right. Not everyone knows how to do it. Hiring managers want to see that you know how to do it.

Another tip, courtesy of Director of Design Strategy jonathanpberger would be to include how your decisions relate to your process work.

How much of this do you include? You don’t have to show every single step, just enough to make your point.

Practical examples

  1. Show something you a/b tested or presented in a user interview, then talk about how it changed as a result of feedback
  2. Talk about the legwork you did or data you reviewed and how it informed your decisions

Make sure your writing is concise and coherent

While visuals are important, don’t neglect the words you wrap around them. You’re only going to get 3–10 minutes of someone’s time, so pull out all the stops and don’t waste a word.

Writing a portfolio entry is a little like designing a billboard, we have to design them for someone who’s speeding by. Remember: this isn’t a Tolkien novel, it’s essentially a pitch to get someone to call you. So make every word count.

Practical examples
Be able to summarize these things in a few hundred words or less:

  1. What problem you addressed
  2. Who was on your team and what your contributions were
  3. Who you helped
  4. What you learned along the way
  5. What you achieved and the outcome

Demonstrate collaboration

Product designers are the glue that holds a project together. They’re the bridge between the client, the people using the product, the engineers, and product managers. So it logically follows that these folks would need to be able to collaborate with others on their project.

If you had a heroic moment on a project, you should absolutely tell that story. But don’t forget to show how you worked with others. That helps make strong case about what you’d add to the company you’re trying to join.

jonathanpberger has this to say about collaboration in an interview with Invision:

Also, ask for help. Don’t hide in a hole.

Don’t put your headphones on and block out everybody else. It can be gratifying to think that you’re some lone genius in your own little tower, but you’re probably not, and even if you are, it’s no fun up there alone. Engage in the conversation, and engage in the community.

In short, don’t try to be be the lone hero. Talk about how you assembled your own Justice League and tackled your problem together.

Practical examples

  1. Talk about a time where you teamed up with a product manager or engineer to address a tricky problem. What’d you do or change as a result
  2. Share a story about how you went out of your way to get that reclusive stakeholder involved

Show holistic thinking

If you want to prove that you’re going to be a valuable long-term team member, show that you think bigger. Think about the entire customer journey you’re designing for, the design system that powers the thing you’re building.

Design doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s a complex and shifting set of variables and only those who consider the whole picture are going to effective long-term. It’s not just about designing that app, it’s about considering how that app design fits in with the other touchpoints someone will have with the product.

Practical examples

  1. Show a customer journey map or service blueprint
  2. Dive into the style guide or pattern library
  3. Talk about the big picture, not just one facet

Bonus: talk about you as a regular human

I’ll speak for my company here: we’re hiring a whole person to join the team, not just a cog to fit in a machine. We hope you’ll feel welcome to bring your entire self to the team.

Practical examples (if you’re comfortable with them)

  1. Share a little about yourself, how you got started, or what fascinates you about Design
  2. Share a personal or career goal