Paul Farino, Senior Product Designer at Spotify, on How to Build a Great UX Portfolio

Over the last few years Paul Farino has spent an equal amount of time working on digital products as a manager, practitioner and in customer-facing design roles.

Now Paul serves as a senior product designer at Spotify.

Passionate about bringing design and engineering disciplines closer, he often translates this into working in code, facilitating workshops and spreading awareness through design education.

I talked to Paul about the skills UX designers need, the selection process at Spotify, and how to build a product design portfolio to get your dream design job.

Paul Farino, Senior Product Designer at Spotify, on How to Build a Great UX Portfolio

Hi Paul! Thank you so much for coming onto our blog. Could you share some details of your career path? How did it start and how did you end up as senior product designer at Spotify?

Yeah, totally! I feel like this is the case with a lot of designers: We don’t have a direct career path into what we’d consider product design UI/UX today. I started getting into design just fooling around with different tutorials when I was younger. I had Photoshop downloaded one day. My father had a mortgage company out on Long Island here in New York, and he got a logo from some agency. And I was like, “Hey, I can do better”. So I started trying to iterate on the logo this agency sent, and I was immediately hooked.

I got into designing brands and identities, some spec work and free work. Then I got referrals for smaller clients and family and friends. Then eventually I got into web design, working on platforms like Joomla and WordPress and Magento and all these platforms that were super popular a few years ago.

And then I had this crossroads, “Do I want to go down the agency route and work for ad agencies or pivot into software?” I was always fascinated by technology and was starting to code. I decided to go down the software route.

So the last few years, I’ve bounced around between product companies. I worked at a tech company in New York called Visual Revenue – a predictive analytics company – after college. We eventually were acquired by this ad tech company called Outbrain. So I worked at two product companies.

Then I pivoted into consulting and worked the last five years at Pivotal Labs. During my time there I learned a ton. I worked with a lot of different organizations looking to improve their process for software development. I worked with other designers at all these Fortune 100 and large companies to improve their design process and improve the way they build software.

With that, as a byproduct I got to see how design was run at different organizations. I started to become involved, and tried to learn as much as I could about process. At Pivotal Labs, towards the end of my tenure there, I moved into a design manager role. So I started managing people and doing some things like design ops, allocations, resourcing and hiring. I got excited about that type of work.

And then pretty recently, I joined Spotify as an individual contributor, a senior product designer. Now I get to work on a new exciting initiative in the podcast space today. I’m doing a lot of work across teams, working on something new. I’m doing a lot of very hands-on things. That motivates me and gets me excited, and made me excited to join Spotify.

That sounds really exciting.

Yeah, it’s been an interesting path. You have this vision of where you want to be in a few years, but what you learn and what you experience may help shape where you actually wind up. A few years ago I wasn’t super-focused on process. Then I started to learn a lot about process. What I’ve learned at Pivotal has helped me now for the few months that I’ve been at Spotify, taking those skills and applying them to what I’m doing today.

So you just mentioned skills. What skills does someone need to work in a company like Spotify or to become a good product designer?

Spotify has a particular scale now where it would be considered fairly large. We have upwards of a hundred and fifty or so designers. There’s a lot of design work going on and with that you’ve got to make sure you’re communicating well. You don’t want to have a lot of duplication of effort. You want to make sure of consistent patterns, not only internally to reduce waste, but also for the end user and all the different stakeholders we work with. You want to ensure a consistent experience.

Communicating is important, also internally to the team and to the greater design community about what you’re working on, the value of what you’re working on. And how it may impact others’ work is important.

The second thing is passion about what you’re doing. A lot of us are working on very specific spaces, trying to help out one or multiple stakeholders. That includes the people creating the content: musicians, podcast hosts and producers. You have advertisers and – of course – the end user, the listener. You have Spotify as a business, so you have a lot of different people involved. And when you’re making design decisions, you want to make sure you’re helping all those people. That creates a really good product.

I’m a systems thinker, too. At Spotify, things get pretty complex. It’s a very large code base. A lot of different teams are working on different things. So how does what you’re doing fit into the greater picture? And what does that look like progress-wise, too? This quarter what you’re going to ship, what’s your team, how does that fit into the greater company strategy and vision of where we’re going? So think about your work in relation to the whole team.

And generally, just keep a growth mentality. Naturally, stay curious to know what other people are working on to improve your craft.

And I find a lot of it boils down, even though craft is super important. So communication holds the key to becoming a successful designer. If they need help, it’s to ask for help, whether from leadership or from other teams. A lot of times other teams may be working on something and we need to get answers that will help impact our work. Speak to other teams and try to work through problems together and have this team mentality.

You mentioned you also hired some people at your previous work place. What were you looking for when you checked the designer candidates’ portfolios?

I haven’t had a chance yet to work at Spotify on hiring. I probably will get involved a little bit in the future. I can speak to my experience as a manager at Pivotal, and before I was director at Outbrain.

For designers, you want to see enough breadth in someone’s portfolio, so they worked on more than one project. You want to see projects that have shipped or are solving a particular problem in the marketplace. With that breadth of showing the type of design work that you’re doing, show enough. So whether it’s through a case study or some way of telling a particular narrative about “Here’s where we started; here are the challenges we faced; and here are some of the outcomes”.

“[In your portfolio] tell that compelling story and also make it super clear. […] “Here’s where we started; here are the challenges we faced; and here are some of the outcomes.””

Tell that compelling story and also make it super clear. A lot of designers, including myself, have worked on very complex enterprise applications. Sometimes they have a lot of jargon and their own type of language. In your portfolio, translate that to something others – whether a hiring manager or a recruiter – can understand.

You’ve got to really know your audience when creating your portfolio. Just make it simple. But tell a compelling story.

You mentioned telling about the project subject, the challenges, the outcomes and to tell it as a story. What format or structure would you recommend using to do this in a design portfolio?

I normally see portfolios broken into two parts. In one, the person will talk about themselves and their experience. It’s interesting to even look at that and read between the lines, how this person positions themselves from a personal brand standpoint, whether they hyper-focus in a specific area.

I see a lot of portfolios where designers have worked a ton in data visualization, and their About page and whole portfolio focuses on that. Illustrators, another type of designers, focus on illustration. Then you have other designers who go very broad, where they worked on mobile apps, desktop apps and everything in between.

And position yourself to the type of work you want to be doing, and also the work you’ve done to show “Here’s some things that I’ve done”. Maybe even mention, “In the future, I want to take on this type of work”. It’s informative for anyone reading the portfolio.

“Stick with the best [portfolio] pieces you have. And make about four or so case studies.”

The second part is on the actual portfolio work section. I generally see people put anywhere from four to six – sometimes even more – portfolio pieces. Stick with the best pieces you have. And make about four or so case studies.

It works better than just showing final mock-ups or prototypes. Talk about your process. Hit a few key points in your portfolio case study.

“Talk about your process. Hit a few key points in your portfolio case study. But at the same time, don’t make it super lengthy.”

But at the same time, don’t make it super lengthy. A lot of these large companies, like Facebook and Google and Spotify, get just a ton of applications. Make the writing succinct, very to-the-point, and give an overview of the work you’ve done and the impact that you’ve made.

I’ve seen this mistake of designers writing too much, just a huge page of text. Any recruiter or hiring manager finds it hard to parse that, especially when they have a ton of portfolios and applications to go through. Hit on the main points, but don’t get overly prescriptive about it.

And then what I like to see, personally, in projects is talking a bit about the project you worked on. What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? And then with that, usually, what trade-offs did you make? Did you want to go in a particular direction but come across technical constraints or product constraints? Tell that story a bit.

Show some iterations or examples of your work. If you’re doing a new navigation, show what navigation examples you tried, that you tested that didn’t work. How did you make decisions? What made you drive to that final outcome? Qualitative research? Data, some quantitative data you had?

And then, what outcomes or impact did you make, or did the release make? Did you improve conversion score? Did you improve sentiment for the product? Did you make it easier for internal sales people to make calls? If you can quantify that, great! That’s probably the best, to wrap up the case study with the outcomes there.

“How did you make decisions? What made you drive to that final outcome? […] Also talk a little bit about your role and who else the job involved.”

And then probably the final thing: Also talk a little bit about your role and who else the job involved. A lot of times we see portfolio case studies at a large company and you know it had a ton of other designers, whether researchers or product folks involved in those decisions. It usually makes for good karma to give credit. Also it gives the hiring manager and recruiter a good idea if you took the lead on this project or in what way you contributed to this project.

The last thing that any designer wants to do: Have work in their portfolio they didn’t really accomplish. So staying transparent and truthful about provides probably the best way to go, just as general career advice.

Find a good way to present your work as well. Another mistake I see for designers: They may have artifacts that aren’t super visually appealing. That’s OK in some cases. If your whole portfolio doesn’t have some visual element to it, present your work and your brand in a particular way. Put in the effort for the portfolio, especially early in your career, even more so.

Actually, this is exactly what we are focusing on at UXfolio, to provide the platform where they can create case studies and showcase all these parts that you’ve just mentioned.

Cool.

You kind of already answered this question, but how important is it to show the design process and design decisions in a UX designer portfolio in your opinion?

It’s important. There’s no hundred-percent-right way to do a portfolio. Depending on hiring managers and the type of design work you’ll be doing, that may differ from doing in-depth case studies.

But beyond just the final output of your design work, it’s interesting and important for hiring managers to understand how designers think and their process that leads up to a specific decision.

“Beyond just the final output of your design work, it’s interesting and important for hiring managers to understand how designers think and their process that leads up to a specific decision. […] Telling that story of what decisions were made and why is super important.”

If you’re just looking at final design work, it’s hard to tell how they arrived there. At least from my workflow in the past two years, I spend a lot more time thinking about the strategy and ways I’m going to test the work that I’m doing, versus actually producing the final output.

So it’s more reflective if the type of work you’ll be doing at your next design job. It’s going to be more thinking about the problem space and trying to find the problem space versus specifically working in the design tool, like Sketch or Figma. You’re going to spend a lot of time communicating with people on a team, speaking to your customers, trying to make the best-informed decision before you actually even jump into that tool.

Telling that story of what decisions were made and why is super important.

UX Folio - UX Portfolio Builder Tool

I see. So you already mentioned quite a few mistakes you’ve seen in some design portfolios, such as writing too-long case studies and not having good enough visuals. Does anything else come to your mind that you consider a typical mistake in a UX portfolio?

I would say if someone has a ton of misspellings or grammar mistakes, usually it means they rushed through it and don’t have the best attention to detail. Me personally, I’m apathetic to some of those people because I’m not the greatest speller myself. I’m trying to get better at that.

Another thing, some people try to be too unique. I see some portfolios that may take ten seconds to load and it’s very flashy and there’s a lot going on on the screen. But those animations and that extra flare don’t contribute to the story you’re trying tell. It actually just makes it a poor experience. Maybe people over-designing would be a good way to articulate that, and over-engineering their portfolio.

Other things that I’ve seen mistakes in: If you’re going for a role like more of an interaction designer, try to show some work that has some either clickable prototypes or some fidelity of a prototype as one of your portfolio works. Because that’s the type of work you want to be doing as an interaction designer.

So try to design your works and portfolio section to the type of work that you’re doing. I see a lot of people apply for interaction designer roles that had no interactive type work. They just have everything as super static. Show you have those capabilities to do prototyping and these types of flows you normally would be doing at your job.

At the same time, I totally understand if you have a job, or if you don’t have a job, creating a portfolio can be super daunting. My biggest suggestion: Before you create your portfolio, look around at other people’s portfolios for inspiration. If you want a job at a particular company, look at the X amount of designers that work at the company. See how they positioned their portfolio if it’s public. That’s a good way to learn and you can start to see some patterns and reverse engineer. “Hey, this probably works. I’ve seen this as a pattern of how they present their work.” That’s a good way to not only learn about how people create portfolios but also to understand if that’s the type of work you want to be doing as well.

I followed some designers on Twitter and some other platforms where I’ve noticed their portfolio has changed a lot over the years because of where they are in their career. So I’ve taken note as to how that changes as well. When you move into management or director roles, you may not have the same type of portfolio as someone just starting out in the industry.

So try to understand when you design your own portfolio how you want to position yourself. More towards people management? You may do more writing. You may talk a little bit more about hiring and building a design culture and things like that. If you want to get very hands-on as an individual contributor, your portfolio may be geared more towards the work that you’ve created and created with your product team.

I believe you had a portfolio when you applied to Spotify. Did you make it personalized?

Mine was not personalized to Spotify, but I did hand-code the website. Mostly because that’s one of my skills as a designer. I also do a bunch of front-end engineering and prototyping, so I wanted to show I can do that type of work.

If you’re not doing that type of work, then a ton of other ways can get a portfolio online and probably a lot quicker. I would say my background has helped show work relevant to the work I’m doing at Spotify.

So working at various companies, I’ve learned different skills from what I’m doing at Spotify isn’t very different from that. It just worked out that way.

And what was the selection process at Spotify?

Pretty similar to other large companies: a bunch of calls and video chats with recruiters, hiring managers, talking about your background. They’re trying to learn as much about you and to understand if your experience has relevance to the type of work they’re doing. And at the same time, as a candidate you’re trying to ask questions to understand as much as you can about the culture, the team, the type of work that you’ll be doing.

And then the final step, in an on-site interview you’re doing a design exercise. Then you’re also meeting with a bunch of different people, so you’ll meet with product folks. You’ll meet with other designers, some engineers. A lot of times the people you meet with you’re probably going to be working with. So they get to see your work, they can see you, your system thinking skills and your whiteboard skills. You’re doing a design exercise and talking through a problem with them so they get a good sense of how it is to work with you and how you’re thinking about problems.

And then you get to ask a lot of questions to the people who work there just to understand as much as you can about the company. I’ve been through other interviews as well and it’s pretty similar. The one unique thing about Spotify: It felt very informal, but it had some structure around it. I felt I was going into a company and visiting and trying to understand as much as possible. Whereas other interviews I’ve been on, the interviewer was very much asking me questions and I had to respond. There was a lot of back and forth, whereas this felt a little more fluid.

I’ve read somewhere that the interview process and the recruiting process at a company gives a good reflection of how it is to work at that company. And with Spotify, it felt it went pretty smooth. I enjoyed the people I met and that got me really excited about working there.

That’s interesting. And how long was this whole process, more or less?

For me it took about two months, partly because of my schedule. Ideally it would go much quicker. Recruiting teams have different goals that they want to hit. And they are speaking to a lot of different people, so people have different experiences. Some go through the process a lot quicker than others.

For me, I interviewed towards the later end of the year, so there’s vacation, holidays, things like that. Plus, I’m in New York right now, but before Spotify, I was located in L.A., so I had relocation and my on-site scheduling took some time to set up. So you gotta take all that stuff into account.

Spotify product designs

Yeah, sure! My last question: What would you recommend to juniors? How should they create their portfolio and start up their UX career? The problem we see quite often: They don’t really have experience and projects to talk about in their portfolios.

Totally. The chicken and the egg problem: You need experience before you get hired.

One of the things junior designers can do that will help them out a ton, and it helped a lot in my career: Write more. A few years ago I was writing blog posts about things related to design, and it helped get me some visibility from some people. But it also gave me another avenue where people can understand how I think about certain problems.

Sometimes those blogposts were tactical about how we approached a problem at a particular company and sometimes they were more general, something I was interested or passionate about. Both are good ways to produce content.

“Try to produce as much content as possible. Get active on all the platforms. Try to work on side projects and things like that where you can actually show your process.”

So my advice: Try to produce as much content as possible. Get active on all the platforms. Try to work on side projects and things like that where you can actually show your process.

Even deconstructing apps that are out there and trying to understand why they made certain design decisions makes for a good exercise as well.

If you’re working at a company, you may be spending six to nine months, a few years on a particular project, and only one portfolio piece. If you’re critiquing work, that’s so much content you can put out where other people can understand your skillset.

Also talk in your portfolio pieces about your relationship to the PM and to engineering and how you worked together. Because whether you’re working at a consultancy or a software company, you’re going to be working a lot with those other disciplines. Improve your skills and understand how people work and how process works at different places, to see this is going to be my rhythm from day to day.

And then the other thing for a junior designer: Reach out to people on different platforms like LinkedIn and Twitter. Have thirty-minute chats with them and try to understand what their day to day looks like, what challenges they face. Most people are receptive to those conversations and it builds your network as well. Probably do a little bit of all those things.

Thank you very much. These were all my questions for now. Would you like to add anything else?

Yeah. Anyone can feel free to reach out to me and if you’re interested in roles at Spotify. We’re always hiring for every different discipline. And again, never feel afraid to reach out to people. You may get some no’s, or you may find some people are busy. But for the most part, for myself, it’s been a positive experience, reaching out to designers and other disciplines at different companies to learn about the work that they’re doing, and just to build relationships.

Perfect! Thank you for this on behalf of our readers too. And thanks for all the great tips!

Take Paul’s advice, present not only the final visuals but also your design process and the story of what decisions were made and why. If you want to do it quickly and easily, UXfolio is a good platform for it.

We created our product, UXfolio to support UX professionals with portfolio building. It generates you your portfolio website, a stunning portfolio cover page, and it helps you put together nice project case studies in minutes.

It helps you in the copywriting part with great examples and guiding questions. And you can even ask for detailed reviews on your case studies before applying for your next job.

Start building your meaningful UX portfolio with UXfolio.
Click here to sign up and try it out!

UX portfolio expert. Foreign-language learner, yogini, dog owner, volunteer, with an incurable case of wanderlust and a desire to help others.

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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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