Before looking at the portfolio and when deciding whether to contact a candidate for a conversation, start with the resume to establish some expectations. For example:
- How many years of experience do they have?
- Does the candidate have a formal education in a relevant field? Common and acceptable backgrounds include graphic design, human-computer interaction, cognitive psychology, information architecture, and computer science.
- Has the candidate worked with any notable companies or agencies that are known to have strong design teams?
- Has the candidate hopped around at a lot of companies (usually a warning sign)?
After you’ve gained some context for the candidate, take a look at the portfolio. Some things to look for:
- Does the portfolio look nice? The portfolio is how designers represent themselves and their work. Does it look nice? Does it look professional / does it reflect good taste? Even if the portfolio is for an interaction designer who doesn’t focus on visual design, you want to make sure they understand what good design looks like.
- Is the portfolio easy to navigate? Can you move through the site easily and quickly? Are they sensitive to the ways in which people want to move around in a portfolio site? How do you feel when you move through the site and look at it?
- Did they design the portfolio with the target audience in mind? Does the portfolio reflect what the designer’s point of view is, what their strengths are, and provide supporting examples of their work? Do they tell the story of their work, challenges they’ve overcome, and how they’ve solved problems, and not just show static screen shots?
Note that some designers may not have a portfolio posted online, even designers that are really good and very experienced. You shouldn’t rule them out, especially if they come highly recommended. Some designers may not be actively looking for a job but came to you through a referral or a headhunter. Still others may be so busy and/or committed to their current job that they haven’t had a chance to put a portfolio together (and don’t need to).
Based on the resume and the portfolio, assess generally what kind of UX person the candidate is. See how their skills and experience align with the UX skills described in Understanding UX Skills and decide whether the person might be a fit for your needs. A few general buckets you might encounter:
- New grad: The portfolio is heavy on student projects. Look for potential and ability to learn quickly. Most likely they do not yet have a strong design point of view developed and will need a lot of coaching, but they may have shallow experience in a wide range of skills. Beware the inclination to hire a “jack of all trades” UX person: usually that leaves only the new grads who qualify.
- Visual designer / UI designer: Usually with a background in graphic design, may have portfolios that don’t say a lot but have a lot of pictures. If you are hiring a visual designer, make sure they understand how to design for interactive use, and can create a consistent brand and visual system that includes grid, layout, typography, color palette, and iconography.
- Interaction designer: Usually with a background in human-computer interaction (HCI), they may have strong user research skills as well. Try to decipher what was their specific contribution to projects they’ve worked on (many projects are the result of a larger team effort) and what their unique contributions were. Sometimes it’s research, sometimes it’s coding and making prototypes, sometimes it’s thinking through the interaction and product model.
- User researcher: These portfolios may be the least appealing aesthetically but don’t let that turn you away from the substance which matters more than style for this role. A good portfolio for a research candidate should give you confidence that the candidate can design and execute a variety of user studies (user interviews, field studies, usability studies). A great portfolio will not only cover the actual design and execution of studies, but will include a synthesis of what was uncovered and how insights about users inspired action from the development team and influenced the final outcome.