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How to ace that UX research portfolio presentation

Great news! You’ve made it through to the interview stage for a UX researcher position at a major technology company.
Miles Hunter

Principal UX Researcher (Director-level IC), Chewy.com | ex-Stripe | ex-Amazon

You’ll likely be asked to present a portfolio of your research projects as part of the hiring process. Doesn’t sound too challenging, does it? After all, you’ve done a fair amount of research, and you’ve got a few group presentations under your belt — right?

…And yet, I am regularly amazed at how candidates struggle to present a good research portfolio — even people I suspect are highly competent UX researchers.

I’ve looked back on the 40 or so portfolio presentations I’ve attended over the last 6 years and developed this ‘cheatsheet’ to help good candidates put their best foot forward.

7 things that successful candidates do

  1. Figure out who is in the room. Then tailor your language to make sure you’re not confusing a PM or Dev Manager with research jargon.
  2. Pick interesting projects that show breadth and depth.
  3. Clearly state your role on the project. What, specifically, did you do? We’re expecting you to take credit for what you did — so be careful of ‘we’ if you mean ‘I’.
  4. Focus on the impact of the research — not the findings. The ability to do impactful research is the primary job requirement, so tell us about it without overstating. (If you don’t know what the impact was — perhaps you were working for an agency and lost touch with the client — tell us what metrics you would have tracked or research you would have done in order to determine impact.)
  5. Explain why you picked those research methods and used that study design. Tell us about the constraints of the project and how you dealt with them. What challenges did you overcome? Where did it fall apart? What did you take away from that?
  6. Handle follow-up questions well. How would you tackle that project with a tenth of the budget? How would you do it in a much shorter time? How would you do it in a different country? Where would you have expanded the project, if you had budget / time? What would you have done differently?
  7. Spell-check everything. Don’t get dinged for poor attention to detail.

6 bloopers to avoid

Here are some common and avoidable mistakes.

  1. Overly long introductions. Don’t shortchange your research projects! We don’t need to know everything you’ve ever worked on. Shorten that intro and focus on your impactful research projects.
  2. Assuming your audience are all researchers. Be careful with the use of UX industry and academic jargon. If a researcher asks you a lingo-laden question, first unpack it to demonstrate your ability to communicate well with a diverse group of stakeholders.
  3. Picking the wrong projects. If you can’t recall, or lay your hands on, the supporting details — don’t select it for your portfolio! Pick projects you can go deep on. You’ll likely get quizzed on details such as the screener, the data you collected, what that weird looking chart means etc. Project diversity is great — but not at the expense of demonstrating impact or ownership, having the details to hand and being proud of your contribution. Just having a dusty old PowerPoint laying around isn’t good enough.
  4. Mistaking this presentation for the original results read-out. Don’t just compress how you shared the findings with your stakeholders into 20 minutes. In fact, we don’t really care about the findings — unless they are generalisable to our area, amusing, surprising or controversial. Instead, tell us about why you structured the research as you did. Tell us about the surprises. Tell us about the mistakes and incorrect assumptions made that you wouldn’t repeat. Tell us what you learned that you could apply elsewhere.
  5. Giving insufficient context. We’ll need some background information in order to connect the dots and understand if your approach made sense. Don’t go overboard here and be careful about throwing around company & industry jargon. If possible, take a customer focus to this explanation. Make us feel some empathy for the end user/customer. If you show snippets of interfaces, explain what is going on. For example, “On this screen, the user is trying to configure their oscilloscope.”
  6. Sharing confidential information about un-released products. This is a major red flag that will make your audience uncomfortable. (Censoring elements is completely fine — but if there are so many aspects of the project you are unable to share for confidentiality reasons, consider dropping the project from your portfolio. It’s unsatisfying for the audience.) Also, don’t include video if people are identifiable.
  7. Poor time management. If you’ve got an hour for a portfolio review, wrap up in 45 minutes to allow time for questions. Don’t leave your best project for last; chronology doesn’t matter so don’t put the oldest project first. Put the best examples first.

A good portfolio review will give you great momentum for the marathon of interviews that will follow it. A bad one is difficult to compensate for — because we are asking ourselves:

  • Can we put this person in a room with a customer?
  • Can we imagine this person presenting to a Senior Vice President? Are they going to enhance or damage the perception of the User Researcher role?
  • Are they going to be a great ambassador for our discipline?
  • Are they going to do good research? Are they going to stop bad research from happening?

Hopefully these tips from the best and worst I’ve sat through will help. Good luck, folks.

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