how-to-ace-the-product-design-portfolio-review

What VMware Design is looking for in candidates

Kevin McBride

The VMware Design team is growing. In the past year, we more than doubled the team to over 100. We expect to continue this rapid pace of hiring — and not just for junior product designers, but for design leads and managers as well. One important element we look at when evaluating candidates is their design portfolio. In this article, I will detail what we look for in a good one.

  1. Representing breadth and depth
  2. Focus on the user and the stakeholders
  3. Storytelling
  4. End-to-end design process
  5. Project roles and leadership
  6. Design craft
  7. Domain knowledge
  8. Scope of work
  9. Results and impact
  10. Team building
  11. Influencing others
  12. Design of your portfolio

A great design portfolio will show us the breadth and depth of a candidate’s understanding and practice of design. It will show not only a high-quality design product that solves user problems but also the team and the process by which that design was created.

We expect the focus of your designs to be on the users — understanding their needs and showing how the design was shaped by those needs. So, any design project description should start with your target users, how you chose them, and how you learned about their goals and pain points. Even if the target users were given to you by someone like a product manager, they should be your starting point for any design.

Persona cards

Persona cards

Who are your users?

And the stakeholders

For design lead and design management candidates, we expect the focus on users to go beyond the immediate hands-on users to the stakeholders in the organization for which they work. Again, VMware is an enterprise software company selling to organizations. Those organizations have stakeholders who set goals and measure results. They are often the ones making buying decisions. Design leaders will show this context in their portfolio projects.

A good designer is a storyteller. A portfolio should demonstrate the ability to tell both the user story and the designer’s story. We like to see user stories that show the original user problems as well as how the user’s story has changed as a result of the final design. For the designer’s story, we want to hear about the end-to-end design process.

Storyboard

Storyboard

How did you tell the story?

A good design portfolio shows the end-to-end design process you used to deliver the design to market. A conceptual diagram of your design process is always a good start. Whether is it a double diamond, triple diamond, design thinking, user-centered design, or some novel combination, show us this at the high level. However, a conceptual process is not sufficient, you need to show us the process in action.

Double diamond design process

Double diamond design process

What is your process?

You should have one or more design project examples where you walk us through the process from understanding users to ideating on design solutions, to early user feedback, to design prototypes, to iteration on designs, to delivery of working code, to the measurement of user outcomes. The more senior the designer, the more complete and detailed we expect this process to be.

Every design project in the portfolio should describe your role. Even for in-class projects and small startups, there are often multiple people involved. It’s important to show interaction with product managers and engineers. If you were the only designer, tell us that. If you were one of a team of designers, explain your role and their roles.

“My role” section of a portfolio

“My role” section of a portfolio

What was your role and who did you work with?

If you were leading or managing the design team, tell us about how you gave direction to others and communicated with other project leads. It’s fine if portions of the project that you show were completed by others, as long as who did what is clear. It’s great for design leads and managers to show how design work was assigned and tracked, such as the use of Jira, Pivotal Tracker, or other project management tools. How was the design work tied to development work? How were design reviews conducted, by who, and how was design complete decided?

JIRA board

JIRA board

How did you keep your team on track?

After those basics of user-focus and design process, we look at design craft. For junior designers, we expect an emphasis on the basic craft of design like interaction design, visual design, motion design, prototyping, user research, and storytelling at a feature level.

We don’t expect junior designers to be experts in each of these areas, but we are not big on excess specialization of design roles. We expect any product designer to be somewhat proficient in each of these skills. Expertise in one skill is a plus and could be highlighted with a separate section in the portfolio showing that skill practices across multiple projects.

Design craft leadership

Design leaders should have expertise in multiple areas of design craft. They should be able to show not only examples of their work, but how they set the standard for others and mentored others in their organization. A design leader can also demonstrate their ability to recognize design excellence in the work of their team they choose to highlight. We are quite open to seeing a project from a design manager who did none of the hands-on design work but could show how they led the process and mentored others in delivering high-quality design.

The enterprise products we create at VMware are often targeted at highly skilled computer science professionals like IT administrators and application developers. Designers working with these users need to be able to understand how they work and the complex problems they are solving. Though not absolutely required, it’s a big plus for junior designers to have designs in their portfolio targeting these highly skilled users.

For design leads, this domain knowledge is even more important, often a requirement. Not only are leads more likely to be leading research with these users, they also need to have discussions with technical architects and product managers. We want to see that you are able to understand and communicate the goals and pain points of these types of users.

Another area we look at is the scope of your designs. Were you designing a single feature of a product or were you designing across the whole product? Was this the first release of the product or an incremental revision to an existing product? For junior designers, solid work on a single feature is fine as long as it shows a complete design process.

For design leads, we like to see work on a good size product or even a portfolio of products. Some of our more difficult design projects at VMware require integration across multiple products, so we like leaders with experience working with multiple teams at once. How do you get consensus across products, ensure consistency, and deliver an integrated experience? Can you show impact across a portfolio of products?

It’s not enough to just show your design activity, you need to show us that the design worked for your users and your organization. Show us how you measured success both quantitatively (data analytics are a plus) and qualitatively. Google’s HEART metrics (happiness, engagement, adoption, retention, and task success) are a good outline of measures we look for.

Impact section with data on satisfaction, task completion, and market share

Impact section with data on satisfaction, task completion, and market share

How did you measure success?

For design leaders, we would also ideally see some attention to the business value generated by the design — both for customer organizations and for your own business. Metrics in this area might include increased revenue or market share, decreased costs or time to value, or increased customer satisfaction. We know these measures are sometimes difficult to come by and not always fully under the control of the design team. But, we are looking for design leaders who are aware of the business goals and showing the impact of their designs.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the VMware design team is growing, and we are looking for leaders who can help accelerate that growth. To that end, showing how you have built a design team is helpful. How did you go about recruiting? How much did you grow the team and how fast? Did you work on a design team career ladder that helped grow your internal talent? This is important leadership work that could be shown in a graph.

For design leaders and managers, in particular, we look for documentation of how they have influenced others. In Project roles and leadership above, I talked about how we look for design project leadership — organizing and assigning the work, setting goals and tracking progress. Beyond that, we want leaders to evangelize and educate the whole organization on design.

Organizational leadership might take the form of communicating design vision and strategy to executives, initiating new design systems or processes that influence engineering practices, or organizing internal design workshops or conferences to up-level design at the company.

Finally, your design portfolio itself is a chance to demonstrate your design skills. Is it beautiful and easy to use? Is the navigation intuitive? Have you thought about the target users — recruiters and the design teams doing the hiring? Will they be able to easily evaluate your experience and design skills? Is it concise and scannable? Remember, we are looking at hundreds of candidates and can’t spend too much time on the initial screening.

Design portfolios are a key element of our initial screening of candidates. A good portfolio will get you past the first look and into a phone screen where we will ask you to walk us through your work. Pass the phone screen, and we will invite you on-site for a series of interviews and one of them will again be a portfolio review with a panel of interviewers. Being prepared to show us your work with the content above will be your best shot at joining our team. You can know that your colleagues here at VMware Design have met the same high standards.


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