Smashing Magazine’s Paul Boag on the Power of Enthusiasm and an Honest UX Portfolio

Paul Boag’s career kicked off in 1993, when the internet as we know it had just begun. Since then, he’s co-founded the UK web design agency Headscape and become director of Smashing Magazine. Now a revered UX strategist, speaker and writer, he advocates for digital best practice. His books Digital Adaptation and User Experience Revolution and blog Boagworld make the reading list for those starting out in digital or UX.

We asked Paul about the essential skillset for UX professionals to showcase in their UX designer portfolio when just starting out. Further, we discussed how blogging and sharing your knowledge as well as your failures can help you advance your career.

Hi Paul! Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions! Could you tell us a bit about your career?

OK! I started off before the web was even a thing. Right after finishing my degree in art and media studies in the early 90’s, I became an intern at IBM. I was working on multimedia CDs for their first-ever multimedia PC, one with a sound card and CD-ROM. Towards the end of my internship, our team was getting asked more and more for help with this thing called The Web. All the senior designers turned their noses up at it in disgust because at the time it had no design, just gray background and centered text. So they gave it to the intern, which meant I started doing the web from 1993-94.

After IBM, I worked for a dot-com. I planned to become a millionaire, retire at the age of 30 and fly around the world. I did for a while. New York stock brokers said I’d be a millionaire. Then obviously dot-com crashed. From there I set up my own UX agency with two of my colleagues from the dot-com company, which I ran for 13 years. Finally, I became an independent consultant in UX and digital transformation. However, I’m still a non-executive director of Headscape.

In your experience, what skills does someone need to work in a famous design agency as a UX designer or researcher?

The primary skill that you need to work in any field that has to do with user experience: the ability to collaborate. No one can create great UX by themselves. It involves different disciplines working together. Hence, working in a team, getting the best out of your teammates, empathizing with them, understanding their role, and supporting that role all make up crucial skills.

“We could apply the principles that we use with users to our work with colleagues and become better team players.”

A huge part of our role requires empathy, whether empathizing with colleagues or with users. You often find that UX professionals empathize well with the end user, but terribly with their own colleagues, their role and what they’re trying to achieve. We could apply the principles that we use with users to our work with colleagues and become better team players.

In your opinion, what main challenges face a UX designer?

Organizational culture sets one of the biggest barriers UX designers have to face. Most businesses work with people and companies of different era, an era of mass media, mass marketing and product-centric approach which viewed the consumer as a commodity, something you extracted value from. That diametrically opposes post-digital businesses like Netflix or Facebook, who have providing value to the consumer as their driving force.

Sometimes it manifests on an individual level. People are difficult, colleagues are difficult, management are difficult. Other times, it is more institutionalized as you come up against things like key performance indicators, clashing with the marketing department. In theory they know the importance of customer service. At the same time, they might resort to dark patterns as they come under pressure.

Portrait of Paul Boag
“Independent consultants can often challenge the norm in a way someone in-house can’t.”

Do you think the same holds true for independent consultants?

In general, but the challenges take slightly different forms since we are not that deeply immersed in it the same way. That means I can often challenge the norm in a way someone in-house can’t. On the other hand, it’s a disadvantage, not being aware of those things. 

Oftentimes a client comes to you and says one thing, but may actually have an underlying issue there with the culture that you have to discover. For that reason, a good UX professional must dig deeper and not take what the users or the stakeholders say at face value. You’ve got to challenge those perceptions a little bit.

How can you showcase such soft skills in a portfolio?

It is a challenging task. A lot of it comes down to compelling storytelling, so a good case study plays an important role in it. You need to write about the collaboration and challenges, as well as the issues.

Then you have to present the services you provide in an empathetic and personal tone. Let’s say I do prototyping. Two ways can communicate my services. I could just list what I do and how I do it, focusing on “I delivered this, this and this.” Or, I can present this in a way that highlights my understanding of the challenges that the clients faced. Showcasing situations I had to deal with can reveal how I can help.

For example, I’m regularly doing website audits, looking at a site and how to improve it. In this case, the fact I’m delivering a report has no relevance. The person hiring me feels pressure to increase the conversion. Therefore, that my work can help them achieve that conversion rate really matters.

Also, I express my expertise via blogging. I have been writing extensively for 13 years, sharing all of my all of my knowledge without limits. To some that might sound counterintuitive, giving away what people hire me for. Yet, they hire me anyway because they find the task at hand too complicated or don’t have the time or resources. It is my portfolio. Name any challenge in the UX field, and I can send an article showing I understand the problem and have got a way I go about solving it.

So, those three elements: case studies, blogging and the way you present your skillset.

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These three together make quite a good combination. You stressed the importance of a case study. Should it include all the processes you followed during your work? The challenges, the decisions and the design process?

Yes. A potential client wants to know you understand their problem, you’ve encountered that problem before, and you have a methodology by which you can address that problem. A good case study addresses all of that. If you can do that, it puts you in a strong position.

You mentioned your blog basically serves as your portfolio. When you started your career, what did your portfolio look like? How did it change with time, if it did?

My blog has changed a lot over time. It started as my place to think out loud and to learn. When I learn something new, I write it down to articulate that to myself. You need that type of motivation to start with because nobody’s reading what you write. You need to do it for yourself. As my blog started to get traction, it began to evolve. Now I think of the problems and questions that the people I’m trying to reach have and I address them. Overall, my approach has become more user-centric over the years.

With my early content, I was trying to impress, never admitting to mistakes. However, as you mature in your career and become better known in your career, you try less hard. Sure, most of the time I’ll still ensure a happily-ever-after, although occasionally I will also come out and say: “No, it was a disaster and we ended up parting ways.”

I share those experiences because I find them quite interesting. I try to stay more open to sharing the challenges and the problems I face. I think people warm up to that as well. If you look at any expert in the UX field – in any field – they are the most open about their mistakes, and the challenges they face. And I consider that a sign of maturity.

Photo of Paul Boag sitting in grass
“Clients and potential employers can sniff it out when you talk rubbish to them.”

Do you advise juniors to talk about the mistakes they make as well?

Yes, I’m not saying only seniors get to do that. For sure, with age and experience you get more comfortable talking about mistakes and limitations. You worry less saying, “I don’t know”. I wish I’d been more open in that way from the very beginning of my career.

Also, clients and potential employers can sniff it out when you talk rubbish to them. So you do much better with honesty because people warm to that. They can find it friendly, and it‘ll make you look much more trustworthy. So instead of pretending, just say, “I’m just starting out in the field. I’m looking. I’m keen. I’m excited for an opportunity. I’m willing to learn.”

You can turn a perceived negative into something positive quite easily. If someone says to me, “I’m just starting out in the field” and as a potential employer I see lots of enthusiasm, I will have three thoughts. A, this person is going to be less expensive. B, they are going to work hard. C, I can teach them my ways as they are not bringing their own bad habits. Therefore, always be honest about where you’re at.

Besides honesty and openness, what else would you suggest to juniors?

Enthusiasm. You’ve got to be passionate. Now, that doesn’t mean your job should take over your life. I don’t live and breathe every second in UX. Ideally you’ll be learning your entire life, right? If you’re not passionate, then learning is going to become a hardship and a trial.

 But the most important reason to be enthusiastic is because it’s infectious. If you’ve got a client or an employer, they want to know you’re enthusiastic. They want you to show passion about their project. Also, if you want to persuade somebody, whether a colleague, a stakeholder or whoever else, your enthusiasm will get you far.

Once a client said to me, “How could I say no to you, Paul? It’d be like kicking a puppy.” That’s always stuck with me. You become incredibly persuasive if you just get overexcited. I’ve said this in the past to people, and they come back, “Oh, well, all right for you, Paul. You are working with the likes of UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders and Puma on some exciting international project. I’m just sitting here working on some crappy website.”

I totally understand where they’re coming from. I’ve done my time doing that kind of thing. Once I worked on a chicken incinerator plant’s website. Why a chicken incinerator company needs a website in the first place is beyond me. But something exciting always lies in any project and you need to find that thing.

It might be a user group you’ve never worked with before. It might be the challenge of thinking about ways to make a chicken incinerator plant sound interesting. It might be a new client, a new relationship. You might get to try new bit of technology or a new working methodology. Whatever. Find that thing you can get enthusiastic about. If you find that, it’ll take you so, so far.

“Something exciting always lies in any project and you need to find that thing.”

Do you have any closing thoughts in mind?

Overall, for me it comes down to soft skills. I’ve been doing this 23 years. I’ve seen Flash come and go. Personas were all the thing, and now we’re moving on to customer journey mapping. Things come in phases. Those things you’re going to be re-learning your whole career. The soft skills stick because you’re always dealing with people. It’s always going to deal with empathy, enthusiasm and collaboration. Those things don’t change, so invest your time there.

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