Susan Weinschenk On How To Tell Design Stories In Your UX Portfolio

I think every designer in the universe has heard about the “dotted book” from Susan Weinschenk: 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People. A behavioral scientist, Susan helps tech companies build better products by understanding their users’ motivations and driving forces.

I talked with Susan about how to learn more about behavioral science and how to build a portfolio where you tell the real story of your design.

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People

Susan, you work on the intersection of technology and behavioral science, which is a very exciting field. What do you think, how can UX designers get started in behavioral science?

It’s a tough question. It is such a big field. If we are talking about behavioral science as I describe it, we are talking about psychology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, motivational psychology, and then we are also talking about behavioral economics.

One can divide this world into two pieces: the first one is what do we know about people and how they think, how they see and how they hear. That’s what we call psychology. The second one is about how people behave in certain situations. That is behavioral economics. Both parts are important. These are both huge fields. You can get a PhD in each of those, so it can be overwhelming when you are a designer and just want to learn a bit more about these fields.

I can give you a few practical ideas though. There are few companies out there like mine, the Team W, who keep reviewing the latest scientific journals and try to translate that into practical advice for professionals. You can take their courses, or you can also follow their blogs. I want to caution everyone to find people who really dig into actual research, and not just talk about a summary that they heard from someone who heard a summary from someone who….. You should find the writers who really interpret actual research and follow them.

My second idea is to pick one topic from this broad field, one thing you think is the most relevant to what you are designing, and then dig into that. You might say I have heard that gamification may not work because rewards kill intrinsic motivation and it’s relevant to what I’m designing. So I’m going to find out more information and delve in that one topic.

Susan Weinschenk

Can you tell me a specific example when you applied all these learnings from behavioral science in design?

Sure. We are working with a client right now who has an application for people working on front desks at different companies like airlines, car rentals, etc. This is an application to help them better understand what a customer needs at the moment. At these front desks everything happens really quickly. When you go to the car rental counter they just have a two-minute interaction with you. They don’t have time to really get to know you. This app helps such companies to provide better customer service and also make more money.

But how do we motivate people to use the app? Some people are using it and they really like it, but some others aren’t using it. Why is that? What can we do? Is it the usability or is it something motivational? We found that it is the combination of both. We are working on the usability of the app, but we also looked at some really big questions, like what motivates people to use this or not use this product?

Wow, that’s exciting. At UXfol.io we are building a new UX portfolio platform for designers where they can showcase not just their visual skills, but all the thinking that goes into the design, just like your work with usability and motivations. What do you think, what is the best way to present these in a portfolio?

Yeah, this is such an interesting area. In fact, I’m mentoring someone right now on exactly this. He came to me and he said, “I want to put together a portfolio that shows what I really do.” And I think the best way to do this is through design stories. You have to tell a story about a particular project or client. You can do that in a variety of ways. You can do a video or a slideshow for example, and tell the story. You may not show much visually, because so much of what we do is not on the designed screens. I can show you how a screen originally looked, then we did forty-two things, and this is how it looks right now.

But the heart of the story is not the image of the screen, but the story of what we did with it, why we did it, and what user’s reactions were, and so on. You have to really think about it as a story, and figure out what’s the best medium to tell this story. Is it to tell the story in pictures? It might be. Or is it better to tell it on a video, or to write it out?

“But the heart of the story is not the image of the screen, but the story of what we did with it, why we did it, and what user’s reactions were.”

People think if you don’t have a lot of pictures or you can’t show a lot of visual designs, the person who you are trying to reach won’t like it, won’t get it or will dismiss it. I don’t think that is true. Certainly visuals are very compelling, but even comic books have words in it.

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Is there a structure how we should build up a design story?

There is a whole science of storytelling. You have to make it very clear from the beginning who is the protagonist and the antagonist, in other words: the good guy and the bad guy. You have to establish that right away because it grabs attention. And then you have to very quickly build tension in. Build conflict, build stress.

The most interesting design stories are when there is a problem. You identify who the person is that’s having a problem and lay out the problem. So people will get interested and ask themselves, “What did he do then? How is he going to get out of this?”

“The most interesting design stories are when there is a problem […] people will get interested and ask themselves, ‘What did he do then? How is he going to get out of this?’”

For example, we worked on a poorly designed form for appraising the value of commercial real estate. That doesn’t sound very exciting, right? But here’s the situation. There’s an appraiser who was sent to put the value on this big hotel building before it was sold. But he was hassled, he was told to had to do it by seven o’clock that night, so he was tired, and he goes there, brings up this form that is very hard to fill in, and accidentally he puts in a wrong number. As a result, the company loses seven million dollars overnight.

Oh, that’s the drama here.

That’s the drama! We have this poor hassled real estate guy, just trying to do his job, he makes a mistake, and the company is out seven million dollars. And he is being blamed. So now we have the setup.

If we want to prevent this from happening again, what are we going to do? And now you can talk about the form, the research you did to find out what really was the problem with the form, the impact of stressful situations the users have. We can tell the story of what we did, what the issues were, and how they were resolved. So you want to have a protagonist or an antagonist, build the tension quickly, and show how you resolved the tension.

“We can tell the story of what we did, what the issues were, and how they were resolved.”

That’s the basic story format. That was studied in the 1800s by a German guy named Freytag, who went back hundreds and hundreds of years and evaluated the most compelling stories of civilizations, and he found there was a thing called the story arc. And there is another guy named Paul Zak, who wrote a book called The Moral Molecule. In his research, he showed people various stories and videos, and he drew blood during the story. He could show the release of particular chemicals in the bloodstream, based on the arc of the story

So when you have an initial tension, you’re releasing cortisol, which is the stress hormone, and before you get right to the resolution, you’re releasing dopamine, which means you want to know more and more, and when it’s resolved, you release oxytocin, which shows that you have empathy for the character. So we know that a good story has a real effect on your body as well.

I think this story format is very useful for designers when they build their portfolios. Actually, we try to encourage people to build portfolios this way at UXfol.io, and we build tools to make it super easy for them.

And besides telling design stories about your projects, you can also tell your own story. One of the most effective stories to get a job or a project is to describe your own journey through this space. For example, someone’s story might be: “I started off doing HTML coding, and then I was working on this project when I realized we don’t think enough about this gap between what stakeholders and users wanted, and I became very interested in that gap, so I decided to learn more about….”

Tell your personal story about how you ended up where you are today. I think that is really powerful, and helps the people hiring understand where you are coming from and what you can bring to the table.

Indeed. We always ask the question on designer interviews: “How did you become a designer?” Maybe we should highlight this in UXfol.io even more.

I think you should. People are sometimes ready with a coherent and clear story of their own, but not everyone. In many cases, our journeys are not step-by-step linear; we do have our own zig-zags. To be able to think about it, and craft it as an accurate but interesting story, so you can tell it in a compelling way, I think that would be very helpful.

Thank you, Susan, for the great suggestions. I think we learned a lot from you again.

Susan Weinschenk

Take Susan’s advice and use UX storytelling to impress your readers. In case you would like to present your design stories in your UX designer portfolio, UXfol.io is a great platform for it.

We created our product, UXfol.io to support UX professionals with portfolio building. It is super easy and quick to create a UX portfolio as Susan described. It creates you your portfolio website (no coding, no hassle with hosting), it generates a nice front page, and it allows you to put together nice project case studies in minutes. It also helps you do the copywriting part with great examples and guiding questions.

So start building your awesome portfolio. And if you liked what you read here, give UXfol.io a try. Click here to sign up and try it out!

Founder and CEO of UXfol.io and UX studio. Author of the book Product Design, TEDx speaker, one of Forbes 30 under 30. Enthusiastic about self-managing teams, new technologies and human-centered design.

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A typical mistake I see in UX portfolios is lack of content explaining their contribution to the effort, the images are only the final product and not the process to get there.

UX is very much about strategy and if the person is not showing how they got from A to B, they appear to be another UI trying to move into a UX role.

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