strategic ux

Portfolios are silver, LIVE design is gold.

If you’ve spent any time hiring User Experience Designers chances are that they’ve shown you some examples of their work in a portfolio with the following disclaimer:

don’t look at the website though, it’s terrible.

We’re currently operating with this tacit agreement that you can do great design ‘in theory’ but that it’s not our fault if that design never makes it to market. Or if it gets totally transformed so that it’s unrecognisable by the time it goes live.

Can we really go on like this? Doesn’t it make you question your own existence?

Sure, there are a LOT of things that come into play between the time you present your awesome design and when the code hits the live server, but it seems to me that, as UXers and designers, we’re largely stepping away from the plate to wash our hands clean of responsibility for what happens. (How’d you like that mixed metaphor?)

I think we might be letting ourselves off a little too lightly and, for myself, I’m going to take starting a lot more personal responsibility for whether and how much of my design sees the light of day by thinking more about:

  • the nature of my engagement with clients and the shape of my projects – as a freelancer, the way that I engage with clients can vary a lot from client to client. I’m going to think more about how I can design engagements that maximise the chances of good design going live (this is part of the reason I recently kicked off UX Tuesdays)
  • communicating design and user experience strategy – are you spending enough time on communicating your design to the project stakeholders? Are you giving them tools that they can use to help make good decisions as they move through the implementation process (where, let’s face it, some of the most important design decisions are made in the absence of a designer). Do your clients/managers understand the implications of the decisions they’re making on the integrity of the user experience? Quick tip: a functional spec does not tick this box.
  • staying in the debate – are you still around when your design is being taken apart? are you engaging in a discussion to help save your design work? It’s easy to swan off like a princess mumbling under your breath about people who don’t appreciate good design work when they see it. Are you helping them (sometimes with a little force) to learn to appreciate it?
  • making sure you’re designing things that can be implemented – it’s all well and good to design a thing of beauty but does the team have the resources to bring it to life? Have you made something that’s beyond their current capability? If so, then, how good is your design really?

From this point forward I’m taking personal responsibility for the design that goes live, no matter how far it is from the documents I might show you from my portfolio.

In the Drupal community they say ‘talk is silver, code is gold‘.

Let’s make a new UX motto: ‘portfolios are silver, live design is gold‘.

Let’s own the work that goes live, understand and explain why it is as it is, and work on the skills we need to make sure more good design actually makes it over the line. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Are you in?

14 thoughts on “Portfolios are silver, LIVE design is gold.

  1. Often the challenge I’ve faced (and I’m more a visual designer than a UX designer) is that, unlike a print piece that’s non-interactive and, once made, stays the same, often sites I’ve worked on over time will transition to a larger team or other people solving more and new problems and therefore the design changes as well. We work in an iterative medium. That being said, I enjoy your thoughts on this and your key points to think about are fantastic!

    1. yep, this is a great point – capturing and sharing your work is important, and I hope this post doesn’t imply otherwise. Pointing to a website and saying ‘I made that UX’ is just as useless as a portfolio of work that was never made… I’d say that if you were a good UXer there were plenty of great design decisions on the live site that you didn’t make yourself – and you should see this as a good thing and happily give credit to the rest of the team.

      The more you think about it, the more complicated it is. I do have idealistic thoughts that if we were really good UXers then even once we’ve left the project the design principles, the stories behind why the design was made the way it was would be retained in the team enabling them to keep making good decisions not bad. (Disclaimer: I am totally aware this is some kind of nirvana…)

  2. Can’t agree more, and we should all strive to achieve gold.

    Somehow I feel it should be something that all agencies and consulting companies should believe in (and sell as part of their services), thus allowing the power to ux designers to keep control over their work all the way.

    If an ux designer is working in a classic waterfall / throw-over-the-wall environment, and the company that employs them goes as far as say a prototype, I doubt that gold can be achieved, even if the work is tested, commented extensively, even discussed with designers and developers before ending participation in the project.

    So this designer has few choices:
    – do some serious evangelising in-house to change from waterfall to agile, from over-the-wall to hand-holding
    – venture out on their own and hand-pick clients that will let them be around until go-live and beyond
    – find another company which believes.

    Interesting debate.

  3. As someone who goes on a lot about portfolios, this will sound strange but I do whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment of seeing things through.

    There are too many UX people who sit in ivory towers bitching and moaning at the client and developers for ruining their design. We have to be able to see things through, and that’s not always fun. It is rewarding, however, and I guess that is why the whole agile thing seems so appealing to people who have done it. UX people just need more patience, persistence and perseverance.

    However, Jared’s point is valid. Interactive work should iterate and evolve. Live work can never be the record of your work. Your portfolio is needed to explain what you did. I hate it when people send me a bunch of links to stuff they worked on a few years ago. So, it’s so good that it didn’t need to change. Really?

    The other flip side to this, is that prototypes, conceptual work etc. that doesn’t go anywhere is often necessary as part of an organisation’s portfolio of product development.

    For decades, Industrial Designers have worked on things that never see the light of day. It’s not that they weren’t worthwhile or great design. Just maybe not suitable for that time. I think there’s a quote from Steve Jobs about Innovation being about saying no to 1,000 great ideas and products.

    Live work is no replacement for a portfolio. A portfolio captures your work and thinking in time. Live work changes and adapts after you were involved. It’s great if your work did go live. However, sometimes your work doesn’t go live and it isn’t always your fault.

    But if you try to get off a project after the fun conceptual and definition phases, before the hard grunt work of seeing it through, that’s a whole other thing. That’s what we need to change.

    The contract market and the engagement of non-build agencies makes this incredibly tough however.

    1. we’re in agreement here Jason, which is why I went for the Silver/Gold metaphor rather than the Live Design is everything and portfolios are useless. There is a whole other post to be written about the value of capturing your working and thinking, I suspect you’ve already written it :)

      1. @LSF – excellent question. For myself, I don’t have much of a portfolio at the moment. I am fortunate to get pretty much all of my work through referrals. I do document a lot of my work though, sketches, workshops, research, all kinds of things that show what I’ve done and the process/thinking I’ve been through. When I do get around to a portfolio, those will take pride of place.

  4. Great point about seeing the project through. It’s easy when you are working alongside the designers and developers building the project (well, if you are of an interfering nature) but takes a lot more effort if you are working in a consultancy or freelance. Part of our professional practice needs to be taking on the role as the custodian of the user experience and the experience of the final ‘product’.

    I will definitely use the ‘silver’ and ‘gold’ description in the future :-)

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