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The Interface: Do content designers need portfolios?

In this episode, the UX Content Collective crew discusses content design portfolios and if they are a necessity or a nice-to-have. Listen in or read the transcript!

The Interface is a brand-new podcast exploring trends and hot topics for UX content people.

In this episode, the UX Content Collective crew discusses content design portfolios and if they are a necessity or a nice-to-have. Listen in or read the transcript!

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Episode transcript

Patrick: [00:00:00] By the way, I apologize for my hair. I look like an anime character.

Cara: [00:00:03] You do a little bit.

Patrick: [00:00:20] Welcome, everyone. Welcome to the second episode of The Interface. The Interface is a monthly podcast from the UX Content Collective, where we discuss what’s happening in the content design UX writing industry. Today, I have a couple of very special guests. Today I have Daree and Cara, and we are going to have an awesome discussion today. But first, why don’t we all introduce ourselves? Daree, why don’t we start with you?

Daree: [00:00:47] Sure. So my name is Daree Allen Nieves, and I am currently working in a contract with CVS Health as a content strategist. I’ve also had multiple other titles I’m sure to get into the title thing later, multiple content titles. And I am also a freelancer with UX Content Collective, so I’m really happy to be here. Thanks very much, Patrick.

Patrick: [00:01:16] No problem at all. And Cara, introduce yourself for the people.

Cara: [00:01:20] Yeah. Hi, everyone. My name is Cara Lam. I’m currently a content designer at Instagram on the Conversation Starters team trying to figure out how to more easily slide into your friend’s DMs. But before Instagram, I was in fintech and banking for around three years, so it was a pretty interesting change going from fintech to social media for sure. And you know, like many people actually started writing as a freelance travel writer. So we have super excited for this conversation, and thank you, Patrick, for inviting me.

Patrick: [00:01:51] No worries. If anyone has any questions or complaints about the algorithm, we’ll send them your way. So before we get into the main discussion today, just as we did last month, we’re going to break down what’s happening in the industry and some interesting resources for everyone. Now, before I begin doing this, I should say that last month’s episode came at a, well, you could say an unfortunate time. We discussed whether layoffs would start hitting the content design industry. And then, unfortunately, that turned out to be true as Shopify laid off 10% of its staff, including a number of content designers. And there have been a number of other layoffs as well. So before I begin, I just want to say that to anyone who has been laid off, I am truly sorry to hear that. I would also encourage you to get on LinkedIn and do a search for content design because there are lots of people searching open roles right now. Excuse me, there are lots of people promoting open roles right now. I’ve seen jobs going at a number of different large companies. In fact, I saw that Netflix is hiring for some content designers, but there are a number of awesome open roles going. So truly sorry to hear about layoffs, but please head on to LinkedIn and do a search.

Patrick: [00:03:14] There are lots of opportunities available, so as always, we’re going to get into the most popular links and resources of the month starting now. So to begin with, Scott Kubie. Scott Kubie has started a new events community for UX content professionals. It’s called Content DOT Events. It hasn’t launched yet, but it looks to be what he’s calling an online-first meetup community for current and aspiring content professionals. It looks pretty cool. I would encourage you to go to Content.Events and check it out. We’ll include a link in the show notes. It’s launching soon and you’ll be notified when it’s launched. And that’s Scott, a great voice in the content design industry, so please check that out. Now Figma is doing lots of cool things with UX writing at the minute. Ah, that’s actually, I remember now a few of the jobs I was mentioning before. They are going at Figma. So if you’re a UX writer and you want to get started at Figma, they’ve got some open roles, but they have written, or rather Ryan Reed at Figma has written, the UX Writer’s Guide to Figma. It’s very cool. It’s basically just an introduction to using essential tools and some of the best ways to use Figma as a UX writer.

Patrick: [00:04:35] So I would definitely check that out. There’s also a great article we have links to in UX magazine talking about the state of UX design in 2022 and what lies ahead. It’s a really great summary of what’s actually happening in the industry, and sometimes it’s really good to get out of that day-to-day and focus on what’s actually happening in the industry overall. And I would encourage you to check that out as well. And speaking of Figma, there’s another article from Meridel Walkington talking about how they have used Figma to update their content design practice at Firefox. So I would encourage you to check that out as well. And then finally, of course, Button Conference is still coming up in October. Tickets are still on sale and it’s both online and in person. So I’d encourage you to check that out as well. That’s it. Okay. Let’s get into the discussion for this month. And this is where Daree and Cara come in. So one of the things that the industry has talked about for a long time is the idea of portfolios. And portfolios, I think, have long been considered an essential part of being a UX designer and a UX content designer. And I would love to discuss today whether that still holds any truth or not.

Patrick: [00:05:59] And I think this is especially relevant right now because, as we’ve seen, some people unfortunately have been laid off. And so there’s a lot of job searching going on right now. And one of the things that I see discussed in the industry a lot is…there are two sides to this argument. The one side is you need a portfolio to be able to actually show your work. On the other hand, a portfolio takes time and energy and a lot of, I don’t even know if I’ll go so far as to say privilege, but it takes a lot of time and energy and there are some people who don’t have that time and energy for whatever reason. Maybe they’re a parent, maybe they’re a carer, or maybe they just don’t have the type of exposure to the type of work they want to do. And so they’re limited in the type of portfolio they create. I’d love to discuss that today. Is a portfolio still actually relevant, and do you need one in order to succeed as a content designer? That’s a really broad question. And Daree, I’d love to start with you. What do you think about that? Do we need portfolios anymore to succeed as content designers?

Daree: [00:07:08] You know, I think that it is very helpful to have a portfolio. I can’t completely answer the question as I’m not a part of HR. I’ve never hired people, so I don’t know what they would say. But from my standpoint, I actually I’m going to back up just a little bit. I actually really didn’t start doing any kind of UX like official UX writing and content design until last year. So I’ve been in content for over two decades, but I haven’t tried to find a job as a content designer or a content strategist or a UX writer or any of those roles or job titles until 2021. So we’ll start with that. Now, since 2021, even though that was last year, I have been on more than 30 or 40 interviews. So I can speak on this. But I just wanted to give you that perspective that that’s where I’m coming from. But I do find that people want to see portfolios whenever I do, whether it doesn’t matter whether I am applying via a Slack DM or an email or LinkedIn or, you know, one of the job boards that Green House or something. Workable, any of those places. It seems like there’s always a question or a slot for your website or your portfolio.

Daree: [00:08:34] I don’t think you have to have one, but I think it’s incredibly helpful to get people started. As far as evaluating, again, I’m not in HR. But this is what I keep seeing and reading about is that they want to kind of get an idea of what you have done and then, you know, it depends on the company whether or not they’re going to take that further. Some companies will say, yeah, if you’ve got a portfolio that’s good enough, you know, maybe you can present a case study or something during the interview process. And some companies are just like, no, you don’t have to. For this position I have now, the hiring manager looked at my materials, but she didn’t question me about any of them. I didn’t have to present them. And then there are other companies that are like, that’s nice that you have a portfolio, but even though you have one, we still want you to do this test. It could take you 2 hours, so it really just depends.

Patrick: [00:09:31] Yeah, that’s really great feedback. And by the way, 30 to 40 interviews is a lot of interviews. So you must be extremely practiced at like answering the common questions that come through.

Daree: [00:09:42] You would think so. But those behavioral questions sometimes still get to me.

Patrick: [00:09:48] I think they get to everyone. So yeah, absolutely no worries there. I think you raised a good point that, obviously, the hiring practices at every company is going to be different. And I personally have been in, you know, a couple of different hiring situations where they put more or less emphasis on a portfolio. But I think one thing that’s really common is that there’s always emphasis on explaining your process no matter what it is. Cara, I’d love to hear from you. I don’t know how much you’re able to talk about the specific interview process you’ve gone through. But what’s your experience been in applying for jobs and having to use a portfolio?

Cara: [00:10:31] Yeah, for sure. So I think there are a few parts to your question here. Let’s talk about the application process first. Right. A lot of big companies, like Daree and yourself said, ask for a portfolio, and sometimes without a portfolio, you can’t even submit your application. So I think that’s the first barrier. And second, if a portfolio is not required, a lot of the times when I interview at big companies, they had an interview just for a portfolio review where it’s like 30 minutes, just you and your interviewer in the room and you screen share your portfolio and really walk through your case studies and then they will ask you a lot of questions. Really, they would play devil’s advocate. Why did you use this word? Did you do any user research? They really dig into your case studies. And that comes to question, where there’s NDA, right? What if I can’t show you my product, and what if my product is still in development? There’s nothing to show right now that, in that case, I think it’s totally okay to not show any screenshots. Yeah, no images or anything. But really the ability to talk about your processes, the approach and outcome results, the people that you work with, I think those are more important parts of the portfolio review interview.

Cara: [00:11:49] And then I also hear a lot of people ask me, I don’t have a lot of UX writing experience, so do I still need one? And my answer is always yes, because when I looked for my first UX writer job, I also didn’t have any UX writing samples that I could show. But then I put a lot of marketing copywriting samples in there, a lot of my blog, like travel writing. What’s there to really showcase? Not what I wrote, but my process. What is similar between my marketing copywriting experience and UX writing experience? I still had to understand my users, right? I still had to understand the needs. And I used the same techniques like front-loading information, keeping things concise and short. So those are the same things that I did for both marketing and UX. And I think those are very important for interviewers to know because those are very related skills that you can reuse and reuse and reuse. Then you can also pick whether to use a website or slides for your portfolio. So I think how and what you present in the portfolio is more important than whether or not we need a portfolio.

Patrick: [00:12:58] Yeah, it’s a great point. I think, you know, to combine both of your points there, I think the question of like do you need a portfolio? It’s obviously a question that’s too hard to answer in one sentence. But I think what you both get at here is the idea that it depends, it really depends on the company. And so wherever you are applying, you really have to ask them, what do you want to see? What do you want to see from me? And so maybe if we’re asking the question, do you need a portfolio, maybe the answer is no, but you should have case studies, samples, and so on available that you could morph into a different format depending on what they want. So Cara, you spoke on the idea that you have to basically spend an entire interview talking about a portfolio. Daree, I’m pretty sure you would have had something similar in the past year in those 30 to 40 interviews. Maybe not. For anyone who doesn’t know, if you’re applying to a large company, let’s say…well, I’ll give my experience. I applied a couple of years ago to a very, very large social media company that, Cara, you may be familiar with. Not saying who it was, but there were about three interviews and one was entirely about the portfolio.

Patrick: [00:14:24] So that was basically it. And then there was another about a case study. So it really depends on the format that they want to give. The other question I’d really love to talk about, though, is not, you know, should you need a portfolio or do companies require one, but is it actually an unrealistic expectation of people to have updated portfolios? Because there are issues with requiring people to have completely up-to-date information in their portfolios. Obviously, there are people who, for whatever reason, don’t have the time and energy to completely update their portfolios all the time. I’m thinking specifically of people who might be disabled, people who might be a carer, or even just parents who are spending all of their time between work and looking after children. It takes time to update your portfolio and just keep on top of things. Should we be moving towards an industry where a detailed portfolio is less of a requirement? I’d love to hear from you on that.

Daree: [00:15:39] So I think that it’s fair for people to kind of want to get an idea of your work. I agree with what you said a moment ago about, you know, you can have samples and things like that. So I think that having samples is very important for any kind of job if, especially any kind of content job. Now, if you’re talking about having a full-on PDF or a full-on website. I think initially, and I can speak to this from experience because I just I’m constantly updating mine, I just updated some stuff last week. I think that you have to kind of set up something to remind yourself to keep things up to date. So one of the things that I always say to my peers and I’ve, you know, I think, Patrick, you’ve said it, I’ve seen it in the UX Fundamentals course and the Career Course, shameless plug, is to always keep track of your work. So yeah, we’re really busy. Who’s not busy? But every maybe two, three months, maybe every quarter, at some point. You don’t want it to go a whole year. At some point, probably every few months, you want to look back at the work you’ve done and see if there’s anything you can document. There will always be something you can document. So, for example, you may not sit every quarter and take a weekend or a Saturday and flush it all out.

Daree: [00:17:15] But what would help you when it’s time to do that is to keep track of it all along. So we are now in just about in the middle of August. So let’s say in July I did some stuff. It may not be anything that’s finished. Maybe I worked on a feature and maybe it’s not finished yet. Maybe it’s going to take a few more months to get it done. But to your point, you and Kerry both talked about hiring managers wanting to know about your thought process. It’s not that easy to remember all the nitpicky details six months or a year or three years later. Very, very difficult to remember all that stuff. Sometimes you’re not allowed to transfer work in progress or emails or things like that for different security reasons, maybe proprietary whatever. But as you go along every couple of months, document what’s going on. You know, think about who you worked with, what are the roles that you worked with? Did you work with research? Did you work with product management? Who did you work with? OK, I had design partners. We worked on this thing. There’s the “who.” What did you do? What did you work on? What are the problems and the challenges that have been coming up? Because maybe this is in progress, this work, and it’s not done yet. So trying to what I find is that when I interview, I don’t always remember every little challenge in every little part of the process.

Daree: [00:18:38] So periodically, in small increments documenting, okay, this is what I did last month or this is what I did for the last quarter, and pulling out those details so you don’t have to try to remember them later because people care about what you wrote, but they want to know how you got there, right? So what did you go through? And you didn’t do it by yourself. You had other people you were working with. And maybe one of the reasons why you couldn’t make the copy, say, X, Y, Z, is because someone in product or someone in leadership said, no. Or maybe someone in dev said we don’t have that functionality. So my whole point in summarizing is that we need to periodically document what’s going on regardless of whether or not we’re ready to add it to the portfolio. And one more thing, if you’re going to have a portfolio, whether it’s a PDF, a website or both, I actually have both. Once you set it up, that is the big deal. I have Squarespace sites, I have WordPress sites, I have all the things. It takes a long time to set it up, but once you get it set up, maintaining it should not be a problem. It should not be hard. The hard part is setting it up from the beginning.

Patrick: [00:19:53] Hi, everyone. Speaking of portfolios, if you’re looking for a way to make your portfolio stand out, then one of the best skills you can add is Figma. Figma is fast becoming the default way for designers and UX writers to work together, and the UX Content Collective is offering workshops for content designers who want to get their hands on Figma, get to know it, and get better at it so they can work more efficiently, and of course, look better for hiring managers. So we have a few workshops coming up. First up, we have the Intro to Figma workshop, which is great for anyone who’s getting their hands around Figma for the first time. That’s on September 7th, Wednesday, and that time is suitable for anyone in both the United States and Europe. For those who want something a little bit deeper, we also have the Advanced Figma for Content Designers workshop. Now that’s happening on either Monday, August 22nd or Monday, September 19. So we found these are great for not only individuals but teams as well. If you want to get your team trained up, these are the perfect opportunity. So check those out. The links are in the show notes and we hope to see you there. Now let’s get back to portfolio chat with Cara and Daree. You hit the nail on the head there when you talk about getting into the habit of just documenting, just as you do things. Now, you did touch on something that I think is interesting in that you might not necessarily be allowed to share that information. Now, Cara, you work at a company that I am sure has strict security protocols about what you are and aren’t allowed to show. I’m curious how you go about creating a portfolio or sharing examples where you may not necessarily be allowed to show everything or even anything about what you’re working on.

Cara: [00:21:47] Yeah. And same as banking and fintech as well before joining Instagram. So I only show things that have been launched as public. And if I want to be extra safe, then I would talk to my manager. If everyone has seen the content, then there’s nothing stopping me. So I think that’s pretty safe. But I agree completely with what Daree said. Actually, I keep this big spreadsheet that I update pretty much every time that I hear about a new project that I will be a part of. I just add a role saying the project name and the problem space. What’s the problem? What do I have to do? Like what I did and the outcome. And include any links to maybe the Figma file or links to the product brief. So I always remember what this product is about and I can take the screenshots any time I like. I think you also had a question about how detailed the portfolio has to be, right? My portfolio is really not that detailed. And actually, I gave it to multiple leaders to look at it and give me feedback and they all told me to cut down on bullet points or paragraphs.

Cara: [00:22:55] Right, because they may only spend 5 to 10 minutes looking at your portfolio. So if you have ten case studies, that’s way too much. So I always tell people like 3 to 5 is the sweet spot and only like 3 to 4 bullet points for each case study because they really don’t spend that much time looking through it. And I only have mine in a deck and not a website. First, is because I don’t know how to build a website, and you know, even dealing with the website builder just seems too daunting for me. I like decks because there’s really one way for people to move forward, which is to keep pressing the spacebar, right? So they don’t have to jump to different places and look at different projects. If you want them to keep going, you can really control what they see. So I like the power of that.

Patrick: [00:23:42] That’s awesome. And I think it’s telling that we have two people on this podcast who have two very different approaches to portfolios. Cara, you’ve got yours in a deck. Daree, you said you’ve got multiple different formats, including websites. You both are successful and you both are working in the industry. So there’s no one size fits all solution here. It’s all about what your employer wants and then asking them, what format would you like my portfolio in? To your point, Cara, I love that point you made about less is more. Right. Sometimes we think we have to go into so much detail about every single case study, but a portfolio is really just to pique someone’s interest. It’s really just to say what you did and provide a few details. And if they want to ask more, they’ll get you in for an interview and then you can talk more about the process and so on. You don’t need to put everything in there. You don’t want to put too many spoilers in there about the process because it can be a little boring sometimes if you’re giving way too much detail. So you’re exactly right. So less is more. I’ve hired content designers before and I think one thing, if any hiring managers are listening, one thing I would love to add is that maybe have fewer expectations about how a portfolio is delivered to you.

Patrick: [00:25:01] If you are looking for a specific type of portfolio, let’s say you’ll only look at website portfolios that are beautifully designed and structured really well, I think you’re really limiting the amount of talent you might be able to find by just wanting a portfolio and a specific format. So for hiring managers, just to be a little bit more inclusive and accessible, don’t have a predetermined expectation for how a portfolio is given to you. So be flexible about that. And then I think the second thing is, if there’s not a lot of detail in a portfolio, don’t automatically just throw it away. You know, if there’s something that piques your interest, get people in and then get them to explain their process. And Daree, to your point, that’s where your process really, really shines through, where you’re taking notes all the time and you’re able to talk about each stage of a project. It’s that that really matters more than having every single screenshot in there and every single bullet point. Your ability to talk accurately and exhaustively about the process that you went through. I’d actually just like to ask, as we’re coming to a close here, during the past year, when you’ve gone on all of these interviews, what has been the most challenging question that you’ve received during that process?

Daree: [00:26:39] I don’t know what the most challenging question is, but I know that even though I take great notes, sometimes they’ll throw a curveball and ask a question about something that maybe wasn’t documented. And, you know, as the months go on, your memory fades. Plus, someone like me who was a contractor, I was an employee for a really long time, but since I’ve been in UX, I’ve only been contracting. So I hop around a bit, you know what I mean? I may have some screenshots and be able to talk about some of the things that went on during the process and the problems and things. But often, what I don’t have, and I want to address this because a lot of students have brought this up that I’ve seen…is…it going to be okay if I make this case study or bring the sample? But, you know, it’s not finished or I wasn’t with the company anymore when they took it over. Yeah, it’s still okay because you participated. That’s what happens to me a lot. I’ll come in the middle of a process or I’ll come in and I’ll update something that someone else did months ago or years ago, and that person is no longer with the company. I can’t pick their brain. So sometimes, when we present things, just being aware that it’s okay if you don’t know how it turned out, if you don’t know what the results were, if you don’t know if the drop-off rate decreased or whatever that product and company problem was. It’s still okay because you participated, and we cannot, even when we do finish a complete feature or whatever, we can’t always know if it was the copy or what part of the process we may have impacted the most. We just do our best and we participate and we just continue to advocate for the user. So I don’t know if I answered your question, Patrick. I feel like I went left a little bit.

Patrick: [00:28:41] No, that’s great. No, I think you made some really good points there. One thing that I think more people should include in their portfolios is something that I’ve seen is that people will only talk about the finished project, they won’t talk about the dead ends that they explored. Scott Kubie had a really great video about this yesterday. He posted it on his Twitter that basically said, you can’t just show before and after. You kind of have to show the iterative process. So if you’re going to show the end result, show me what dead ends you took to get there. What did you try and what did you end up throwing away? What was the process? Cara, I’m not sure if that’s something that you include in your portfolio, but I’m sure in the work that you do, there’s plenty of times where you try something that doesn’t work and then you sort of hit those dead ends before you end up on a winning strategy.

Cara: [00:29:39] Yeah, definitely. And honestly, from my portfolio review interview session, I think the interviewer focused more time on things that didn’t work, like why I didn’t use certain things than what was actually on the screen in front of her. And I would just add that there is a huge focus on cross-functional partnership, right? So make sure you talk about how you work with your researcher. Your data scientist, product growth analyst, legal and compliance. Oh my God. These two are so important no matter where you work. How do you work with privacy, your legal lawyers, how do you adjust your content based on the feedback? Because a lot of times, there will be pushback. They also ask about pushback a lot, like if there is disagreement, then what do you do? So one of the most challenging questions I found was to describe any disagreements you have with your teammates because, you know, you don’t want to say the wrong thing, and you don’t want to you want to make yourself look bad. Right. But you also don’t want to make your teammates sound too bad. And so I think finding like the right words to describe what really happened and the fact that it’s just different people having different priorities. Don’t make it personal, you know. I think that that was the most challenging question in any interview for me.

Patrick: [00:31:01] Absolutely. Okay, cool. Well, I think we’ve had a great discussion here today. I think we’ve landed on a few great points. You know, if you’re a UX writer, content designer, looking for a new role and you have a portfolio, don’t get boxed into putting it in one particular format, just sort of adapt to the company that you’re applying to.  Don’t feel that you need to include absolutely everything in there. It doesn’t need to be the best portfolio you’ve ever seen. And for hiring managers out there, be a little bit flexible when it comes to the portfolios that you’re receiving and don’t necessarily think that a whiz-bang shiny portfolio is something that you necessarily need to see all the time. Daree, do you want to give a final word on what we’ve talked about here today?

Daree: [00:31:46] Sure. So for anyone who does not have a portfolio and is thinking about making one, I say don’t get overwhelmed thinking about how big it has to be or how detailed it has to be or comparing other people’s work. There are a lot of great examples of portfolios out there, and I don’t want you to look at those and think, oh wow, I can’t do anything that great. Even like if you use a free tool like Canva or something, which I love, by the way, for all of this. Don’t get bogged down by thinking about, oh wow, this is going to have to be this big undertaking. Just take little bite-sized pieces of that elephant. Like I said, you can make notes as you’re going about your year documented somewhere so that you have it to plug into whatever medium you choose or if you’re just going to use samples or whatever. And also make sure that you include any kind of iterations. People love to see that. Whenever I’ve done interviews, people have really enjoyed being able to see behind the scenes of me working in Confluence or emails or Figma comments with my design partners and others. And all I do is just go into Canva and block out their names for privacy. So that’s a great tip for you there.

Patrick: [00:33:07] Cara, do you have any final word on what we’ve talked about here today?

Cara: [00:33:10] Yeah, for sure. I would just give advice on just general portfolio formatting. I guess you can always start with an “About Me section” and include 3 to 5 case studies and then a bunch of writing samples. So for me, I included some of my error messages, tooltips or dialogues, or even a content audit that I did. I just kind of screenshotted the spreadsheet. And then Daree also mentioned that you can use Canva. Google Slides also has pretty good templates that you can really just type your information and add some screenshots and you’re done. So I mean, for me, it still took me quite a few hours just to take screenshots and really add the information in. But if you keep track of all the projects that you’ve been working on periodically, that should make it a lot easier for the process. Know that no one has a perfect portfolio, and we’re always making it better with even more fitting experiences. I just wish everyone good luck and this is going to be a fun process.

Patrick: [00:34:12] Thank you, Cara and Daree, for joining us today. For anyone who’s out there looking for a job and putting that portfolio together, good luck! I hope this helps you. And if you have any success stories, please let us know at Alright. Thanks, everyone. And we’ll see you again next month.

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