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Building Better Portfolios with Joe Natoli
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Building Better Portfolios with Joe Natoli

Building Better Portfolios with Joe Natoli

Satvik Soni
8th June, 2023

You might remember Joe Natoli from when he taught us to cut the bullshit.

We recently had another chat with him to discuss how to build incredible portfolios.

Keeping his advice in mind, here’s a condensed version of his advice:

  1. Give away the ending immediately. You need to highlight your impact as soon as possible. A recruiter will give your portfolio ~30-60 seconds before they decide whether or not to give it any more time.
  2. Treat it as a sales pitch. Your portfolio should work hard to convince the recruiter that you will be a great asset. It is a sales pitch, not an academic paper.
  3. Treat it as a UX project. Your portfolio is your product and the recruiter is your user. Delight them as you would any other user.

Now that we’ve given away the ending, here’s how to build a great portfolio:

Highlight your impact immediately.

Within the first minute of looking at your portfolio, the recruiter will have a decision to make — should they look at it for another minute?

Their decision would rely on whether or not they see you as a potential asset to the organization. Does your portfolio reflect that you are someone who will push the organization towards its North Star (money, mostly)?

As Joe puts it,

I want to know what you've done for who and why it matters. I want to know what kind of impact you've made. I want to know what you've made better or faster or more efficient or more profitable or more cost-effective for other people…I want to see something that makes me think, okay, I'm definitely going to spend another 30 seconds here, and that's the key ingredient. 

While drafting your portfolio, you can make strategic choices to grab the recruiter’s attention right off the bat. Within the first minute of looking at your portfolio, let a recruiter know:

You have helped companies achieve quantifiable goals.

You can go into the details of your projects later on. At the very beginning of your portfolio, mention how your design improvements increased user retention by 42%. Or how your research helped the company greenlight a new subscription model that doubled its revenue.

You have solved crucial business problems.

What massive problem was your company struggling with? How did your work help them through it? Tell the recruiter how you identified that your users didn’t trust the information available on your website and how your redesign improved the net promoter score (NPS) for that information.

As Joe told us the last time he was here, companies usually look into UX solutions after they have been kicked in the teeth. They are desperately looking for problem solvers. Your portfolio should show that you are the dentist they need (just roll with the analogy, our writer won’t let us edit it out).

You have helped de-risk complex product decisions.

Your recruiter would like to be the hero who helped make complex decisions by hiring the right person. The only way to convince them that you are the person for this job is to highlight how your previous projects have helped companies de-risk their decisions.

Did your research show an overwhelming need for a feature your PMs were debating?
Did you design low-fi prototypes that validated that feature?

Your impact should be visible above the fold

The recruiter shouldn’t have to scroll to get to most of these impactful highlights.

And here's the thing that everybody hates when I say it: above the fold is a real thing! Human nature is “least amount of effort”… Whatever you're going to surface, whatever you're going to tell me about yourself, to say, “I am the person”, it better be apparent right here, right now, in my field of vision, without me scrolling. I'm not looking. I'm not going digging.

Use progressive disclosure throughout your portfolio

Every part of your portfolio should follow a pyramid-like information structure. Give away the ending, then disclose the most important details, and keep the finer details at the end so that they can be easily skipped at once by the reader.

For example, here’s Joe’s advice on framing your case studies:

Give me the summary, the quick bullets on your home screen, then take me to another page with a slightly more detailed summary and quick bullets. And then, if I really, really want it, give me an option to see the entire, full-length case study. At least three stages. But don't just blast it all to me at once, I'm not going to do it.

Think of your portfolio as a Sales Pitch

This flows naturally from Joe’s last piece of advice — your portfolio is not an academic paper!

Your portfolio is meant to convince your recruiter to buy into you. The best portfolios are incredible sales pitches, which makes you a salesperson.

Here’s how to think like a salesperson.

Know your audience

Above all else, it is crucial to remember that your audience is NOT composed of other UX professionals. Your portfolios will reach the hands of another UXer only after it has passed through the hands of recruiters who won’t understand your jargon.

Do not use a term that your colleagues might understand but someone from, say, HR wouldn’t. Instead, use simple English to describe the term or discard the term altogether.

You didn’t “run 10 moderated prototype usability tests to assess information architecture”. You observed 10 users to see if they could navigate the website easily.

Speak about the dollars

Your recruiter might be momentarily impressed with sleek designs, but they won’t hire you based on them. They’re more interested in how you will save or make them money. You can show this by highlighting your financial impact on prior projects.

Add (short) testimonials

There’s a reason we have testimonials from our users on our homepage — they are the strongest signal we have of having delighted other UXers like you. Your portfolio should absolutely include testimonials from people you’ve worked with in the past.

Do note, however, that testimonials must be crisp and easy to consume. If a manager from your last job wrote you an entire paragraph of praise, you should pick a few sentences (at max) from it — if everything is important, nothing is important.

Show yourself!

Your portfolio probably already has a photo of you — add one if you haven’t yet!

Seeing you will immediately make you more personable.

And I will also say, with photos, I prefer to see a shot of that person in action as opposed to a glorified headshot. Show me you at a whiteboard. Show me you sketching something in a notebook. Show me you working

Give it some personality

Your portfolio should be written in your voice — it should only be neutral and corporate if you talk that way (and why would you?). 

I want people to hear my voice in those words. That's more important to me than a formal statement. I'm not saying you should have poor grammar, that you should construct a sentence that sounds like a three year old wrote it. But I'm saying there has to be some YOU in there. 

Here is a screenshot from Joe’s website. With that goatee, wouldn’t you hate it if the copy sounded like a boring instruction manual?

Your portfolio is a UX project

Probably the most important one for you!

A portfolio that looks shabby and is tough to navigate will reflect poorly on your abilities as a UX professional.

Make it efficient

The easier it is for a recruiter to move around in your portfolio, the easier it will be for them to send you an acceptance letter.

You're introducing efficiency and my recruiter brain goes, oh, that's awesome. I don't have to scroll through everything. I just click these links.
  • A navigation bar at the top of your portfolio is crucial — let your readers move around as they please.
  • Use dropdowns wherever possible. Instead of a giant paragraph, include a header and offer the option of expanding that header to read more details.
  • Cut down your text wherever you can. You might be an excellent writer, but Joe reminds us that it’s not a novel that we’re writing. Get your point across as easily as possible and save the flourishes for when you’re writing your own Gatsby.
  • For building a sleek website portfolio quickly (without losing a year on it), you can just use a nice website builder tool like Template Toaster, Webflow or Squarespace.

Make it beautiful (or not ugly)

Your portfolio should be visually appealing. You’ve worked so hard to build it up, might as well go the extra mile and make it easier for the recruiter to appreciate.

The majority of what I see fits that criteria. There are a lot of people who have tremendous talent, tremendous ability, and deep inside their case studies, in some cases, there are really compelling stories there. But I have to work to get it. And the ONLY reason I'm working to get it is because I happen to be helping them in a coaching capacity or in a review capacity. But the majority of portfolios FAIL in terms of how they present themselves, and I really mean that.

Think through the graphics you use

Pie charts look cooler. We all know that.

Unfortunately, that shouldn’t be why you use them in your portfolio.

As readers, our eyes love to see charts and graphs to help us skim through the information in front of us. While drafting your portfolio, you should constantly keep a check on how easily your graphs are conveying the information you want them to.

For example, if the sections of your pie chart look identical, it won’t convey the information you want it to. Go for a bar chart instead.

Final, super-specific tips

  • If you include a low-fi prototype, it should be more than just “Here’s a few components with some labels.” Use the prototype diagram as an opportunity to highlight your thought process behind your design.
  • Never bring up user research without mentioning the impact of your findings. Did they help make an important decision? Mention that!
  • Three case studies are a minimum. Six case studies are generally a maximum. Always prefer quality over quantity here.
  • Never centre-align a list. It gets harder to read.
  • Run your portfolios through the Hemingway App. Simplify them.
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