actual whiteboard from student coaching session re: portfolio storytelling

Process vs. Story

james helms
4 min readMay 19, 2023

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I’ve been reviewing portfolios for incoming junior designers and interns — folks coming out of school — and a trend I’ve observed is the inclusion of the design process in case studies. It’s a good demonstration of the various phases of a design project. It’s a chance to get credit for the customers you interacted with as part of your research and usability studies. It’s a good chance to capture a picture of yourself facilitating a brainstorm or “in the field” showing your prototype to customers. Unfortunately, the design process is a terrible storytelling framework. Sorry. Disagree? I’d LOVE for someone to prove me wrong.

What makes a design process effective as a value creation process is precisely what makes it difficult as a storytelling framework. Design is about wrestling with ambiguity — uncovering the “character” of your user through hypothesis and testing. Diving into that user’s needs and challenges with explorations, provocations and a lot of false starts. Making broad hypotheses, dissecting those into discreet assumptions, and then methodically narrowing and testing those assumptions. Critical work. But not captivating.

Especially if you consider your audience: A hiring manager, who’s likely reviewing 5 or 15 or 50 portfolios. And balancing that with a lot of other work. They are looking for beacons of clarity. They want to see that in 3 minutes or less. If your design process takes 10 to read out loud, you’ve almost certainly lost your audience somewhere around your first sticky-note illustration.

Here’s an effective case study presentation outline that I borrowed from Intuit’s Chief Innovator, Scott Cook:

Where were you focused?
What did you do?
What did you learn?
What surprised you?
As a result, where will you focus next?
— — — — — —
Appendix

Above is an example of a learning loop. Perfect for students presenting a case study. Perfect for a team sharing progress with their stakeholders. Evidently, perfect for sharing with Scott Cook, Founder, Former CEO and current Board Member at Intuit.

Why is this deceptively simple framework so perfect?

It forces you, first and foremost, to be incredibly intentional and brief.
As I mentioned, your audience is constrained for time. They are looking for designers who recognize that and can make a long story short — and deliver it with style and impact.

It is perfectly formulated for you to share the prototype(s) you created to probe your problem space, the experiments you ran, the data you collected, the insights that drove decisions you made, and the final design if you choose.
This is not your opportunity to share EVERYTHING you did. This is an opportunity to share a few strategic artifacts that tell the story of who your customer is, what’s important to them, your novel approach as a designer to illustrate where your solution space lies on that customer’s journey, and the key insight that focused you here.

It includes this wonderful window for you to share failure: How customers “misused” or “misunderstood” your product — some of the most important findings are “what went wrong — what sidesteps, repurpose, or fundamental gaps emerged?”
This is how we know you’re curious. That you go deeper than validation. That you’re open to the data leading you away from where you hoped it would. And that you’re open to being wrong and learning from it.

And it ends with an invitation to take next steps — Persevere? Pivot? New, more important opportunity or area of curiosity?
Again — design is a journey. This is but one loop. This is your opportunity to show how you use judgement, informed by data, to propel you forward.

And of course: get credit for how you got there.
In the Appendix.

Annotate your insights with reference to the research studies you ran — and with whom. In the Appendix.
Show me your killer facilitation set-up. In the Appendix.
Drown me with data gleaned from your secondary research. In the Appendix.
Show me wireframes, usability studies, and design system ideas. In the Appendix.
Give me an end-to-end view of your process. In the Appendix.

If you can read through your case study in 3 minutes — with natural breathing — it’s still probably a minute too long. But it’s better than the 10 or 15 or 30 minute one you started with.

Whether you’re a studying designer, building out the most important “foot-in-the-door” artifact you’ll create (your portfolio). Or whether you’re a working designer sharing progress with stakeholders — keep this framework in mind. It’s tried and true. Proven and tested. Approved by arguably one of the smartest innovators in Silicon Valley.

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james helms

Design Leader, Advisor, Speaker, Student, Advocate, Enabler.