The Hero’s Journey.
One of the most common questions I get from my UX students is as follows: “how do I create a research-based portfolio?” It is not a question only my students struggle with, but, I believe, most user researchers have also encountered problems with. In a time when user experience is generally thought of design and research together, hand-in-hand, it can be difficult to portray one without the other.
I ran into this problem five years back, when applying to my first UX Research role. My interviewer requested a portfolio piece to discuss for when I came to the office. I had about 48 hours. Looking back, those 48 hours were spent in a combination of drinking every caffeinated beverage (+points if it also had alcohol), scouring the internet for answers and, ultimately, sitting on my couch, watching HGTV and wishing I had taken the route of interior design.
I delivered a portfolio piece, but it was a weird mix of research and design. It wasn’t perfectly structured, in fact it was far from, and it even included a gradient background. However, it was an internship role, and I convinced them enough to land the job. Luckily, I was spoiled, and wouldn’t have to worry about my research portfolio for a few years down the line. But, when those few years past and reality hit, I knew I needed to upgrade the gradient.
Components of a research portfolio
Since user researchers, who are solely focused on research, don’t have designs to showcase as deliverables (although we may have worked very closely with designers), we have to make sure we capitalize on a few components within our portfolios. I have narrowed them down to three:
- Compassion: understanding your audience and evangelizing users
- Skills: demonstrating knowledge of the field and how to gather/synthesize insights to be actionable (my least favorite word)
- Storytelling: ability to effectively communicate research goals, methods, findings and outcomes to anyone and everyone
Ah, storytelling. Everyone wants a storyteller. I must admit, the people I regard as highly intelligent (both emotionally and intellectually) are wonderful storytellers. It is an extremely captivating and useful skill to have. I quickly learned, in my day-to-day job, how important storytelling is. You are able to help others understand the user and to communicate findings in an extremely human, and digestible, way. This is all well and good, until you are no longer in front of your audience, but instead, they are reading about it on a piece of paper (and have about 64 more portfolios to get through by the end of day).
So, how do we do it? The Hero’s Journey
I made several passes at my portfolio, trying to put emotions, insights and methodologies into technical, research-y (I’m a writer, I can make things up) words. Each time, the delete button reigned supreme. Considering I am a fiction writer, I was frustrated. I had the worst case of continued writer’s block. So, instead of trying, another time, to force a square peg into a round hole, I adapted the most popular storytelling/story writing technique to the user research process: The Hero’s Journey.
The process, and I simplified it from above, goes: inciting incident, rising action, crisis, climax, denouement, end. I tried to map user research to each of these points and ended with:
- Inciting incident: what led to the research being needed and what business (or other) problems the research is looking to solve? This is, essentially, the back story.
- Rising action: what is the approach the research is taking (the methodologies, the participants) and, most importantly, why did you choose that approach and those participants. The why is the story, and the most important part, which shows how you think through the best way to get answer to the above problems.]
- Crisis: what is something that went wrong leading up to or during the research? What was the most difficult part? This is less of a post-research reflection and more of speaking through difficult participants or unsupportive stakeholders. This gives a little flavor to the portfolio, and pulls the reader in, before presenting your findings. Also, everyone has problems, so it is relatable.
- Climax: after all the preparation, the pitfalls and the research, what did you actually find? I like to include specific quotes, audio clips or video clips, when possible, as well as photos (sticky notes count!). Do everything you can to humanize the findings in a way that flows naturally — are there findings that are more important? Put them up front. Do two findings complement each other? Put them together.
This is also a great place to speak about how you actionized these findings.
- Denouement: this is a winding down from the action, and where I like to show any deliverables I helped to work on, such as personas or journey maps. If applicable, I will also include any design iterations based on the research. It is also important to speak about how you socialized the research, such as through emails, presentations, etc.
- End: are there any next steps, such as usability testing? Or a new research project that stemmed from this one? Are there more questions that need to be asked? I love talking about how continuous of a process user research can be.
This section is a place to reflect on the project, any final thoughts you had, who you worked with or what you may have done differently.
While I may end up adding a bit too much cheekiness, or detail, based off this approach, it may also be more fun to read!
Hopefully, if you are struggling with putting together your UX Research portfolio, this will serve as a helpful outline or breakdown, and get you to think beyond UX. It certainly helped me look at my portfolio approach more creatively.
I would love to hear any UX Research portfolio tips & tricks you have!