How to present your portfolio

August 2, 2020

Over my seven years at as a designer at Google, I participated in dozens of product designer interview panels. A group of five of us designers (and some related roles) would gather in a conference room with a potential teammate. Our task for the next hour was to listen to a candidate tell us about their past work - and then decide if they’re really fit for the job.

When I decided earlier this year to look for my next role, I found myself on the other side of the table - and all my past experience didn’t make it any less intimidating. Presenting yourself to others can be hard. So I’ll share everything I know - in hope that it makes the process a little more approachable for you.

Consider your audience

As you would for any design problem, start with your users’ needs and interests.

Your audience is human. Your presentation is probably one of several meetings they have in the day. They have limited attention and limited context on your work. To get your message across, you’ll need to maintain their interest and explain your case clearly.

Consider what attributes your audience might be looking for to evaluate you against others. Some qualities I look for include:

  • Creativity: Can you generate ideas that challenge the status quo?
  • Thoughtfulness: Can you consider all the important criteria and make intentional decisions?
  • Execution and technical skills: Can you execute on your ideas and bring them to launch?
  • Collaboration and leadership: Are you a team player who complements and amplifies others?

Structure

Here’s the general framework I like to use for a presentation:

  1. Introduce yourself

For each of 1-3 projects:

  1. Introduce the project
  2. Tell the story
  3. Show the impact

Introduce yourself

I like to keep this brief. A few slides summarizing your background and past work experience. In my recent round of interviews, I opened with a childhood picture of me with a computer. Besides breaking the ice, it gave me an opportunity to talk about how my interest in technology began from an early age.

This is also a good moment to describe why you’re interested in the company you’re interviewing for. What about this opportunity excites you?

Introduce the project

Talking about your project is different with an unfamiliar audience than with your teammates. Your audience doesn’t know all the internal project names, team divisions, and company goals. You’ll need to start from what they do know and fill in the rest.

If your product is less mainstream, you may need to start from scratch. In my case, to introduce my work on Google Chrome, I was able to rely on the audience’s familiarity with the product. I then filled in the context for my specific subteam’s mandate (complex information finding tasks).

Questions to address here include:

  • Why does this project matter to the company?
  • Who are your users and what are their goals?

This introduction is an opportunity for you to demonstrate ownership of your project. In my case, I could say, “My team was given this scope” and then jump into the mockups I made. But the truth is that as a product designer, I helped shape this workstream - not just the ways we solved the problems, but the problems themselves. The intro is the time to put on your best PM hat and pitch why your project matters.

Tell the story

There are several ways you could structure the bulk of your presentation, but I prefer a narrative format. Good stories help the audience relate to you, keep them wanting more, and stick with them when they leave the room (as Chip and Dan Heath’s popular Made to Stick discusses in detail.)

You’re the protagonist in this story, as you navigate the difficult terrain from idea to launchable product. In product development, all sorts of unexpected challenges come up: incorrect hypotheses, organizational tensions, and tricky trade-offs. Embrace this chaos and show how you overcame these challenges. That experience is one of the most valuable assets you have to offer a new employer.

Don’t include all the details. Remember: Not only do you have limited time, but your audience has limited attention and memory. Your goal today isn’t to give a full walkthrough of your product; it’s to convince this group that you’re the best candidate for a job. Make sure each piece of information you’re asking your audience to process contributes to that message.

Show the impact

While telling the story of your project engages their emotions, you can’t stop there. An audience could rightfully question your portrayal: you’re a biased narrator.

What can win them over is data to back up your claims. You need demonstrate that you did resulted was successful for your business and your customers.

Possible ways to show impact include:

  • Important metrics that moved in the right direction (You may need to contextualize them: Is it a big deal that MAUs went up 1%?)
  • User research reports (Ideally a combination of overall results and individual quotes)
  • Launch materials (Press reports, app store reviews, etc.)
  • Testimonials from your coworkers about your contribution

A note on slides

Slides are an opportunity to complement, not duplicate, your words. You don’t want your audience distracted reading a slide while you’re speaking to them.

The most effective use of slides is for content that can’t be expressed vocally: graphs, diagrams, and - of course - your actual design work. Text is less necessary.

When I do use text on slides, I like to keep it limited to just the main point - a sentence or two at most. It serves a dual purpose, reminding me what to talk about and emphasizing the main takeaway for the audience.