Everyone knows Jake Knapp for the design sprint. He spent ten years at Google and Google Ventures. There he created the one-week design process now used everywhere around the world. Readers made his book Sprint a New York Times bestseller. This article covers his thoughts on design portfolios and how to get onto design teams at the best companies. Jake also shares some images from his own 2006 portfolio that got him hired at Google.
When I first asked Jake about this interview, he admitted he has to decline several requests as he gets so many. He made an exception for us because he likes the concept of our UX portfolio platform. He directed me to a blogpost of his which shares suggestions and ideas very similar to those we have here on the UXfol.io team.
Jake counts among the designers who perceive a strong connection between writing, UX storytelling and design. This quite common theme also arose earlier when the behavioral scientist Susan Weinschenk and Ryan Singer from Basecamp shared similar views in my interviews with them.
“Tell a great design story.”
Jake has a simple suggestion about design portfolios: Tell a great design story.
Choose one project and tell the best possible story about it. Choose the coolest, most interesting project you’ve done. Don’t necessarily make it your prettiest project or the one for a very famous brand, but the most exciting project.
Once you’ve selected it, tell a story. Become the screenwriter of your own movie, telling a tale, or a hero’s journey. Jake actually suggests starting with a list of the storyline’s main points. But what does a good one look like?
First tell how it all started. Say your team came up with a great idea on how to solve a painful customer problem, but you didn’t feel sure it would work out. An introduction to this situation and the challenge you faced will excite readers and arouse their curiosity about how you solved this whole thing.
Now to introduce the characters. Who made up the team? What role did you take?
“Keep up the mystery; make it human; make it simple.”
You and your team will play the heroes in this story. You went on a journey, your design process! Show how you got from A to B, and talk about the main design decisions. Tell it like a good yarn. And as Jake says: “Keep up the mystery; make it human; make it simple.”
He also encourages people to talk about what didn’t work out well. Telling your future boss how you handled and solved these issues can build great credibility.
Start with the story, not the look
Since Jake holds that the story should play the most important part in the UX designer portfolio, start working on that. Don’t begin by designing pages or looking around for WordPress templates.
He suggests collecting images of the project after the key points of the storyline. Put them in the right order and try them out as a UX portfolio presentation. And here again: Look for those that support your story.
It doesn’t matter if the first sketches of the product you designed look nasty; include them! Tell how you came up with the first raw ideas and tried them out with a prototype. Cop to how badly they failed and how you discovered that other direction which worked like magic in the end.
“Craft one coherent storyline of your work.”
The main point: Craft one coherent storyline of your work. Don’t shy away from adding some drama here and there.
In Jake’s opinion, you can pretty up your portfolio in the end, but don’t make it the first step.
How to craft a simple, coherent design story
We can easily understand though, that many designers working on digital products might find it difficult to present their work as a simple, coherent story. In modern product teams, design never finishes, and we are doing so many things all of the time.
According to Jake, telling a story over and over again makes for the best way to craft a great, coherent one. He encourages everyone to tell theirs out loud. Tell them to friends, coworkers or family. The less your audience knows about design or the tech world, the better. Your story should interest someone outside your bubble as well. This will nudge you to use plain English instead of jargon.
Regale meetups or conferences or one single person with your adventure. Jake admits that performing one-on-one actually poses more of a challenge than for a whole audience.
He encourages everyone to practice their stories as much as they can, to tell them many times, again and again. In his experience, every time he tells his, it gets a bit better. You will learn how to make yours compelling. You will see which parts get boring and where the audience has the wow moment. After a while, you will know where to put the jokes.
This leads to how your simple, coherent story comes to life. Practicing it will help you find the “why” and the “how” behind your project and let you understand it better.
It also makes for very good interview preparation.
How good design story got Jake in at Google
Jake has worked for many great companies, like Microsoft and Google. He used the same method to get onto these design teams, crafting a great story and presenting it on a website. It worked when he applied at Oakley, Microsoft and Google. And it did when he pitched his book Sprint as well.
He applied at Google with the portfolio below. He had made it in 2006, using Flash. Yes, it looks very funny now, but he put it together 12 years ago. The site had only a few design stories. He told each story step-by-step, with an image and some text explanation on what happened there at each step.
The important part of this old portfolio still has relevance today: a good story told, with a single image and some text about each step.
And if you need a tool that helps you tell a great design story quickly and easily, give UXfol.io a try. You can put together a beautiful UX portfolio in little time, in a format in line with Jake’s suggestions. For the curious, you can sign up here.