How to Tell Your UX Story

Simply put, your UX portfolio should tell a story. Why tell a story? How do you tell a story through the presentation of your work? The following is inspired by Patrick Neeman’s UXmas article “The UX Portfolio: Telling Your Story”. I had the pleasure of collaborating with him for our presentation at the Seattle Information Architecture & User Experience Meetup.

© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

© Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Why a Story?

© & TM DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

© & TM DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Stories connect with an audience while differentiating yourself from the crowd. The biggest mistake I see in User Experience (UX) portfolios is “letting the work speak for itself.” Great stories don’t just happen, but like UX, require thought, practice and iteration.

Stories telegraph meaning. I am fond of saying “show the trailer before the movie” when presenting work for an approval process. Clients and stakeholders need to know what they are walking into. The same holds true for presenting yourself to gain approval – you only want pleasant surprises. Leveraging a familiar plot, theme or idea in presenting, communicates on a deeper, almost unconscious level.

© Peanuts Worldwide LLC.

© Peanuts Worldwide LLC.

You are not selling your portfolio, wireframes or even UX. You are selling yourself and your ability to develop solutions to problems. You are who you are. You can’t recreate your history, but you can show how your experience helps others. It is possible, but not probable, to get a UX role without a portfolio if you can demonstrate clear thinking, teamwork, problem solving and an ability to execute. Sell the dream, not the deliverable.

The most powerful aspect of storytelling is being a transferable skill. As UX Designers, we should be able to move into a completely different industry or business vertical with our core skills. Being a storyteller – regardless of the content – is one of them.

How to Tell Your Story

How you tell your story is as important as the story itself. We are not fabricating fiction – stories need to be authentic and true to you. Don’t know where to begin? Start with leveraging the Three Act Story Structure of Setup > Confrontation > Resolution.
Applying this format to product launches, UX projects and portfolio examples can take the following forms:

Challenge > Process > Outcome
Need > Proposal > Impact
Problem > Solution > Result
Existing Product > Changes Made > Performance After

Start with a simple sentence or slide for each “Act”. For short stories, a single sentence or Before and After snapshots will be more than sufficient. Don’t worry about showing every step in the process, that will come up a little later. (Yes, that is foreshadowing…)

Two Sides to Every Story

You will need to be able to tell your story in two distinct ways.

The first way is out of any context, as with an online portfolio. This is for giving an overview or allowing a self-guided tour of your work. This side of the story is told in broad strokes and must be something that you have practiced, refined and repeated a number of times. Think of it as your go-to story or 7 second elevator pitch.

The second way is in context, where you can embellish and tailor a story or presentation to a specific audience. This is most often during a phone, in-person or 1 on 1 interview. It will not be enough to gloss over at a high level. You will need to be able to explain the story more deeply, on the whiteboard visually and in a way to keep that particular audience engaged.

If you have a clear idea of the target audience or know the names of the exact team interviewing you, research about them in advance. Ask questions and find out if they are UX Designers, Developers, Product Managers or executive stakeholders. Often it can be a mixture, so lose the jargon and include something for everyone.


Short Stories and Tall Tales

Tell Some Short Stories

Not every project is going to be a complete end to end life cycle. You still need to tell a short story with a good morale. This is your chance to show how you dealt with a less than ideal situation, a passionate side-project or your ability to be an adaptable team player.

Patrick has worked at Microsoft, Jobvite and on scores of products from a laundry list of big name clients. His go-to short story is Bob the Chiropractor. In two slides, Patrick outlines his remarkable impact on solving the common problem of lead generation.

Patrick Neeman –

Tell a Tall Tale – A Big Story

The big story – your crown jewel – is the one project you want an interviewer to remember you for. Show the vision, describe the key turning point and a few of the surprising twists.

Start with the same structure as the Three Act Story but include additional relevent data points, moments of clarity and a bit of the process behind the scenes. Things to consider including in your Big Story:

  • Problem
  • Audience
  • Research
  • Process
  • Involvement
  • Demo of Product
  • Press / Awards
  • Metrics / Outcomes

Big Fish Unlimited is a recent big story in our UX work at Big Fish Games. Unlimited is an instant games service across PCs, Android tablets, Android phones and Roku enabled TVs – with no game downloads. Powered by the cloud, Unlimited streams a new game everyday and features saved game states across your devices.

Troy Parke - Big Fish Unlimited

Start at the End

I have given this word of warning before, and only because I am guilty of it myself. When talking about portfolios, I suggest sketches, wireframes and iterations are good, but do not over do it. The same is true of stories.

Be on guard for the meandering story leading down a long and winding road that fails to deliver or worse, loses your audience entirely. I often give this analogy of what too much process (set up) feels like: Watching the making of a bad movie you regret watching in the first place.

How do you know when to go into process? The trick is to get “permission” to dive deeper from the audience by starting at the end.

For your UX projects, starting at the end is not necessarily the results, but also flash-forwarding to the final iteration, service or product. Think of it as using the in medias res technique. Start with where you ended up on a project, then peel back the layers of how you and the team got there.

Key UX Story Plot Points

Show and Tell

You can’t rely on the project to “speak for itself” on every aspect, but when it can, let it. When an image is going to be worth a thousand words, show. If it is clearer to talk about the impact on the customer and revenue in a few short snippets, tell.

Apple does this exceedingly well in their keynote presentations. Apple uses a number of techniques including Sticking to One Theme per Slide and Making Data Visual. Much of Apple’s presentation style is now effectively the industry standard in any product launch announcement.


Have a Great Ending

This is hard, but an absolute imperative. Do not end your story with “… and then the project got killed” or “… and I left right after it launched.”

End on a significant measurable return on investment (ROI), impressive stat or emotional high note, such as a quotable review. If you are having trouble, identify this first before laying the groundwork. That is what Pixar does according to the their 22 Rules of Storytelling.

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Be Epic

Each of your projects should be like story beats that build up to the big picture. Every slide in a presentation is a story that adds up to an epic – the story of you.

At you enter the main lobby of Big Fish, our Founder and CEO Paul Thelan has a wall-sized plaque of the Holstee Manifesto. It is an unapologetic reminder to every employee, contractor, partner, prospect or customer about being epic:


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