Some Thoughts on UX Case Studies and Portfolios

In recent years, I have seen many designers posting their work to sites like Dribble and Behance and then sharing the links to various online UX groups. There’s one thing almost all of them have in common – as examples of UX (and even UI) design, they’re generally terrible. To the point where I actually think posting them does more harm than good to the designer.

I get why people feel the need to promote their work in this way, and of course many may well be young designers just starting out, who perhaps don’t know better, or who dearly want feedback, encouragement, or validation. So rather than me moan about how it wastes everyone’s time and needlessly clutters the online world, let me use this article to offer some thoughts and (I hope) constructive advice.

More often than not, what I’m seeing shared to UX groups are examples of visual UI design, rather than UX. I suspect that’s significant for two reasons:

  1. Given the demand for UX people, there are (presumably) a lot of visual designers who want to move into UX.
  2. UX design is much harder to convey visually (so of the stuff that gets posted, less tends to be ‘proper’ UX).

I have to assume that people’s reason for sharing visual design work to UX communities is in the hope of getting feedback to help them make the transition into UX, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. I am conscious that there may be a certain amount of paid-for link sharing going on; I quite often find myself thinking “Why are you posting this here?” – but in that case I have to come back to: how does this do the designer any good? Answer: it doesn’t.

I also have to assume that sharing isn’t just about getting exposure – because quite frankly, a lot of the work doesn’t even qualify as good visual design, let alone good UX.

So, let’s assume designers are sharing their work because they want feedback. Here’s some advice, if I may.

First and foremost, don’t just post the work as-is. Provide context:

  • What sort of work is this (e.g. student project, personal exploration or experiment, commercial work)?
  • What sort of designer are you (e.g. graphic, UI, UX, product; student, just starting out, experienced professional)?
  • What was the brief you were working to?
  • What problem were you trying to solve?
  • What were the identified business and user requirements?
  • What were the user journeys, functions, interactions the design had to accommodate?
  • What constraints did you have to deal with?
  • What compromises did you have to make?
  • How did you arrive at this design?

Visual design on its own is fairly meaningless in a UX context. Sure, it looks nice, but so what?

You need to explain the background. But you also need to go beyond just the visuals and show how the product works. You should show wireframes – with annotations – to communicate the various different screens, the interactions therein, and the different states that may arise. For a case study, you don’t need to show literally every screen and every state – but you should include a representative sample.

And make sure every screen you include is there for a good reason. Don’t just put in placeholders for the sake of it. For example, if you’re going to have a log in process, explain why it’s needed – what’s the benefit to the user of signing up and having to jump through the login hurdle each time? What’s the business model behind that? If you’re going to have a My Profile screen, show what data you expect to be in there, and explain why you expect users to provide that data.

If you include a screen without explanation, the viewer might assume you’ve only included it because every other app or site has one – and that just shows you haven’t done your thinking.

You should also show the key user journeys. How does the user move between screens or states? You might include a user journey map and/or some user scenarios. Tell a story.

Also say a bit about how you decided on the user journeys or scenarios, how you identified what screens, content and functionality would be needed, and how you settled on the interaction paradigm. What research did you do or draw on? What did you learn about your target users? How did that inform your decisions?

Basically, explain your thinking. Explain your design rationale. Show the why as well as the what. There aren’t necessarily any wrong answers – what matters is the thought process that took you from problem to solution.

If you’re posting someone else’s work (or even if it’s your own) because you want to draw people’s attention to something interesting in it, say what that is. Don’t assume they’ll work it out for themselves. Is there something in there that you consider to be particularly good, an elegant solution to a problem, a great way of presenting a design or concept, a pattern that others could reuse? Explain – state what you want people to look at, and why, and what you hope they can take away from it.

Talking of patterns – because I’ve seen a lot of rubbish posted in the guise of UX and UI ‘patterns’ – if you’re going to post something as a pattern, make sure you know what a design pattern actually is. A visual showing blocked out squares, rectangles and circles, with no explanation of rationale or rules, is not a design pattern. It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

For something to be useful as a design pattern, it needs to be accompanied by details of what problem it is intended to solve (and perhaps what it does not solve), when and why it might be appropriate to use it (and when not), how it should (and should not) be used, and so on. Without that lot, it’s just random blobs of colour on a page. Useless.

Above all, whatever you’re posting, state why. If it’s feedback you want, give an idea of what would be most useful to you. If you’re looking to promote yourself, say why people should take the time to look at your work – what makes you more special than the millions of others vying for everyone’s attention?

My biggest worry, when I see mostly-visual design posted to UX communities for no apparent reason, is that people (be they practitioners or recruiters etc) will think “This is what good UX looks like.” Spoiler: it’s not.

The real issue here is that good UX is hard to present in a purely visual way. There is no ‘looks like’ to UX. UX is about thought process, not visuals.

That’s one reason why UX design portfolios are really problematic. A portfolio shows what you did – it’s visual. And someone (e.g. a recruiter) looking at it will make subconscious decisions about that – “Oh, I like that”, “That looks nice”, “Hmmm, not sure about the colours there”. That completely misses the thinking behind the design.

Sure, you can add notes, sketches and other artefacts to explain the problem space, the insights that informed your thinking, the design decisions you made and the rationale for them, and perhaps some of the ideas or prototypes you ruled out along the way. But the chances are a busy recruiter isn’t going to read them. And even if they read them, they may not have time to truly understand them.

So whether you get to actually explain your thinking to a recruiter in an interview is most likely going to depend on their first impressions of your visual design work. That’s great if you’re going for a visual design role, not so great if you’re going for anything else. So there’s an immediate skew to the visual end of design… Which perhaps may explain why we still have so many really bad user experiences out there, terrible software, apps that don’t work properly, interfaces that are difficult to use – designs that haven’t been properly thought through, basically.

UX is not visual design, and showing a case study that is purely visual does nothing to show your UX abilities and thought processes, or to demonstrate good UX.

Two things I’d like to emphasise, especially to anyone building their portfolio (if you really feel you need one), or preparing case studies, and perhaps thinking about posting them to a UX group:

  1. Showing your outputs is completely meaningless unless you accompany them with explanations of how you got there – the problem space, the process(es) you used, the insights you gathered, your thinking and rationale, how you arrived at the solution you’re presenting, why you concluded that this was the right solution, and any remaining questions, next steps, or things to test or research further.
  2. If you post work to a group, say why you’re posting. What are you looking for? E.g. Do you want feedback on your process, or advice to help you transition from visual design to UX, or do you have questions about how the work could be better presented, or perhaps you have a bunch of design variations/alternatives and you want insight into their pros and cons? Also say a bit about the context – e.g. is this a student project (the group might be a bit more forgiving if so!), is it a case study from a client project but you’re constrained in what you can show because of confidentiality, is it a blue-sky idea you’re playing with, is it a portfolio piece for your next job application…? All of that helps people understand where you’re coming from and (hopefully) makes it more likely you’ll get useful feedback.

By all means do post work to groups and communities for feedback. Design crits, whether face to face in the real world or online in the virtual world, are an essential and key part of the learning process. Sharing work and ideas is good. But don’t just post for the sake of it, without comment, question or reason – it won’t do you any good, and it may well result in people thinking less of you or assuming you’re just out for exposure.

Don’t take for granted, let alone abuse, the group’s willingness to look at your work or provide feedback – posting some visuals to Dribble or Behance or wherever, and sharing a link, is easy. Explaining your thinking takes time and effort. Take the time. Make the effort. Otherwise, why should we take the time and effort to look at your work?

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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