5 storytelling tips for UX portfolio review – UX Planet
How to make your projects sound interesting and memorable to interviewers
You’ve probably heard this a million times — storytelling brings UX projects to life. It’s the difference between rambling through a presentation, or taking your audiences on a journey of emotions and lessons.
Good stories make people care, emotionally and intellectually. During a portfolio review, storytelling helps you establish expertise, show your personality, and make you a much more memorable candidate.
As a junior UX designer, storytelling has been the single most effective tool for me to win interviews. My projects were certainly not the most impressive ones compared to my peers with formal education or bootcamp training. Yet, applying storytelling principles has helped me pass the interview round for every job applications.
Through my past interviews, I’ve found five storytelling tactics that can be applied easily. Assuming that you’ve followed the UX process and had rationale for your product design, these five tips can help you make any projects sound interesting and engaging.
1. Organize details by a plot, not deliverables
When writing case studies, we often organize them by design stages and deliverables. This gets transferred to our presentation naturally, without our awareness that going deliverables by deliverables is boring.
Imagine you start your presentation with user research. You talk about survey and all the findings from survey, then interview, and so on. Research findings by themselves are not interesting, so you lose the interviewer’s interest. And by the time you present your prototype, the interviewer has already forgotten about your research findings.
This is why you need deliberate efforts to choose interesting details and organize them into a plot.
For instance, in the research section, you can focus on why you chose these methods and tools instead of specific findings from them.
Why? First, this shows that you understand the rationale behind each research methods and not just following a checklist mindlessly.
Second, this helps you avoid going into detailed findings. At this stage, the interviewer hasn’t seen your design. It’s hard for them to imagine how these findings will connect to your design later.
If there are important findings to your design decisions, introduce them briefly and let your interviewer know you would return to this detail later when they become relevant — “These findings play an important role in my design. I would come back to them later as I explain the prototype”.
As the story progresses, you can reveal details that were intentionally left out previously.
2. Use concrete details
When there is a time restriction, we tend to skip details to avoid rambling and make sure we finish on time. Yet, it’s the details that make our case persuasive and memorable.
Compare between these two problem statements. Which one is more convincing to you?
- “It’s time-consuming to find and apply to volunteer opportunities.”
- “Right now, if you want to volunteer, it can take from three weeks to two months from the moment you start thinking about volunteer to the first day you get started on the role.”
Same idea, but the second sentence seems more convincing.
Why? Firstly, it paints a picture in your mind of the whole journey, making it easy for you to relate to your own experiences.
Secondly, it replaces a vague term “time-consuming” with a specific time range. This tells your audience that you must have done research to find that specific number, not guesstimating or exaggerating the number.
This doesn’t mean all your sentences should be descriptive. In fact, bombarding your audiences with too many details can create confusion. The key is to go into details for only the information that you want the audiences to remember.
In other words, you need to pre-select the information you want the interviewers to remember and focus on elaborating them in details.
For instance, there might be dozens of useful findings from your research. Instead of listing out all of them, choose ones that combine different research methods — “The interview participants said [important finding]. This result was consistent with the survey results, which showed that [a specific number of people answered this way]. As I did competitive analysis, I also realized that [another aspect of the same topic]”.
This multiple layers of complexity to one finding shows your ability to connect the dots and helps your interviewer remember this detail.
3. Add emotions
In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Health named emotional as one of six elements that help an idea or concept becomes interesting and memorable.
If you have followed the process of research and testing, you should already have a number of user stories in your pocket to mention during the interview. It could be a detailed story that sets up your problem statement, or an one-sentence story of use reaction in your usability testing.
You can also add your personal emotions to help your interviewers relate to your experience. Instead of presenting everything as equal, spice up your presentation with emphasis on key learnings or challenges:
- “What surprise me / I didn’t expect to find that…”
- “I thought it would be [one thing], but it turned out that…”
- “This might seems intuitive, but it was a breakthrough for me because…”
- “This part was the most challenging one to me because…”
- “I was worried if I would be able to complete the project on time so I [did these]”
4. Explain what’s not on the screen
Even with research, many design decisions are based on intuition and taste. We designers try to minimize our assumptions and biases by testing and iterations. It is in the things not shown on the screen that makes us designers.
I’ve seen many of my peers present their design by walking the audiences through the features and buttons on the screen. The audiences can already see that by themselves. In fact, if your design is intuitive, the features and buttons should be self-explanatory.
But how did those features end up being selected over a dozens of other ideas? Why does it take half of the screen instead of just one third? Have you actually tried different layouts, or just settle with the first one that came to your mind? Those are the questions that make your design rationale interesting.
Truthfully, you don’t need a long presentation to demonstrate your skills. One time, I was scheduled a half hour portfolio review but got reduced to 10 minutes. I decided to focus on the onboarding and home screen instead of trying to cram my whole speech. I explained in detail how every element look like at the beginning, and how usability tests shaped the way they eventually become. It was persuasive enough to move me to the next round and get the offer.
When you prepare for your portfolio review, cross out sentences that start with “as you can see” and replace them with “what you don’t see”. Tell your interviewer explicitly what is not on the screen. If you use design patterns, make sure you understand the rationale for every element, including things as small as why it is a dropdown menu and not another alternative.
5. Opening and ending
A good story gives you a promise at the beginning, something to get you hooked in.
Your UX story doesn’t have to start with a dramatic opening as “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”, but it should set the stage for why this story is worth hearing.
Start the presentation with the why and a brief summary of your project. You can explain why you set out to solve this problem with a touching user story, the magnitude of the problem, or your personal experiences. I found this part to be incredibly important as it sets the tone for the whole presentation.
After explaining the why, you can give an overview of the project and ask your interviewer if there’s any part they are particularly interested in. This helps you structure your story to align with the interviewer’s interest.
At the end, review what the project sets out to achieve and the results of it. This is where you can talk about lessons learned and things to improve for future projects.