Why You Should Use Storytelling In UX Portfolio Presentations

Learn how to harness the power of storytelling in your UX portfolio to enhance the user experience.

Alexa Harrison
Alexa Harrison
Oct 1, 2019
Min Read

As a species, we are addicted to storytelling. More specifically, we are addicted to oxytocin—the hormone released in our brain when we hear a story that resonates with us. 

Oxytocin, also referred to as the “love hormone,” promotes trust, empathy, and openness. This is the same hormone released when we hug someone or bond socially. Because of this, storytelling (much like love) has great power.

Design executive Jim Antonopoulos said, “Great design is storytelling at its finest”. Whether or not you’ve realized it before, all designers are storytellers. And as a designer and storyteller, you are ultimately a mentor who envisions a brighter future and inspires others to come into that future with you. 

Storytelling brings UX project presentations to life. It’s the difference between just talking to your audience, and taking your audience on a journey. And it’s a game changer.

While storytelling plays an important role in the design process itself, it can also be particularly helpful during the interview process. Your UX design portfolio gets you the interview, but your UX design portfolio presentation is what will get you the job. 

By using storytelling principles in your portfolio presentation, you’ll set yourself apart from the competition. Read on for 7 ways incorporating storytelling principles into your UX portfolio presentation can help you nail your next interview!

Know Your Audience So You Can Transform Them

The purpose of any great story is to transform. Even in a job interview, you want to transform your audience from frustrated skeptics with a UX problem, into excited optimists who believe you’re the answer to their woes. 

Aim to understand your audience before giving your storytelling presentation, and define who you want them to be afterward

Here are a few questions to help you know your audience better:

  • What are their motivations and goals?
  • What problems are they trying to solve by hiring you?
  • How can you help solve these problems?
  • What kind of resistance might they have?

Once you know who your audience is, you can tailor the projects you choose to share, and the stories you tell, so that they’re relevant to their situation. Show other teams who have gone through a similar transformation to the one your client is searching for—it will go a long way towards establishing common ground.

Showcase Your Personality With Personal Stories

The best UX design portfolios are ultimately a story about what you offer as a designer. This is your journey through the chutes that brought you down, the ladders that escalated you upwards, and the sweet taste of success once you made your way through the Molasses Swamp and arrived at the Candy Castle. 

When preparing your portfolio, carefully consider which of your previous projects tell the most compelling story about you and your design abilities. Keep in mind that it’s key to not only focus on the quality of your work, but how the work impacted your practice as a professional. 

Try asking yourself these questions when selecting projects for your storytelling portfolio: 

  • Do these projects show how I became the designer I am today? 
  • How did these experiences change or transform my approach to the design process? 
  • Can I show growth through conflict with these examples?
  • How does this work showcase my ability to manage client needs and goals?

Don’t shy away from talking about projects that were difficult. There’s a reason why interviewers ask questions like what are your greatest weaknesses, or, tell me about a time when you failed. Talk about your setbacks proactively, and lead your audience through how you overcame them.

Telling a personal story—especially one that makes you feel vulnerable—can be a scary thing to do. But it’s also a guaranteed way to build trust between you and your audience. And for companies who are going to be placing confidential information—like new product releases—in your hands, trust is very important.

Need more guidance on how to properly prepare your portfolio? Read What Should Go In A UX Designer Portfolio? and Building Your Design Portfolio: 10 Dos and Don’ts.

Establish Your Expertise Through Experience

Seek to showcase your maturity not only as a designer, but also as a working professional, by talking through the reasoning and decision-making in your processes. By showing the what with visual aids, and telling the why with an engaging narrative, you’ll demonstrate the most crucial skill of all: clear and concise communication.

Try writing out a script to accompany your UX portfolio presentation. Writing will encourage you to think deeply about why you do what you do in during the design process. I’ve personally found that writing about my processes has helped me become a better designer.  

When presenting a project through a static project page on your portfolio site, a good rule of thumb is to try and keep the text below 200 words, unless the project you’re presenting is very substantial. 

Explaining complex work efficiently and concisely will impress your audience, and help them remember the key messages. If you have to go longer, conciseness and structure are even more important, because the content needs to accommodate scan-reading by hiring managers.

When presenting work in person, remember that people can’t read and listen at the same time, so keep text on your slides to an absolute minimum: bullet points and labels for images is enough, and will keep the audience focused on what you have to say.

Hiring managers at top design firms have actually told us that they’d prefer to focus interviews less on the finished product, and more on how the designer got to that product. So be sure to include the timelines, sketches, prototypes, personas, and anything else that will help bring life to the UX design process you followed.

Here are things we’ve heard from hiring managers about what they’d like to hear more of in UX portfolio presentations:

  • What the goals of the project were
  • What you were given to work with
  • Who else was on the project with you
  • How you collaborated with team members
  • How you overcame major challenges

The best designers don’t just show a glossy finished product, they walk their audience through the messy journey—and the ones with the best stories (filled with setbacks and triumphs), are the ones who get hired.

Want to become a better writer, and in turn, a better designer? Check out our 12 Writing Tips For Non-Writers.

Move Your Audience Easily Along The Journey

When selecting projects for your storytelling portfolio, keep in mind how you might connect one project to the next. Try thinking about these projects as episodes in the binge-worthy Netflix original series that is your career. 

For example, “The redesign of Project A helped me realize I was highly interested in Industry X, so I was excited when the opportunity arose to work on Project B. After Project B concluded, I realized I wanted more experience in Skill Y so I pursued several options and found Project C, which helped me become the designer I am today.”

Keep your tone and language relatively neutral to make your stories more trustworthy to hiring managers, who might interpret emotive or evaluative language as self-promotional or spammy.

Once you’ve selected the best projects to showcase, don’t just jump right into screenshots of the finished product. Create introduction slides for each project that outline the following:

  • Problem
  • Process
  • Solution
  • Results
  • Your Role

The insights from these slides will help propel your narrative from one project to the next seamlessly. The more clearly you spell things out for your audience, the easier it will be for them to follow along, and make a positive decision about your application. 

Telling the story of a project can be difficult. Check out this case study from Annie Devine, who shares the story of how listening to feedback and iteration can open up new directions and lead to a stronger final result.

Create A Three-Act Structure For Your Story Presentation

Almost all effective stories follow the same three-act structure: a beginning, middle, and end. We are addicted to this structure. In fact, 90% of people believe that a strong narrative in a presentation is critical for engagement. 

It usually goes like this: we are presented with a likable hero, the hero goes through hardships, and ultimately emerges victorious. When presenting your UX design portfolio, each project should be its own story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. 

Many designers make the mistake of jumping immediately into the details of their designs without first showing showing the thinking, ideation, and research. The beginning of your story should provide that context by addressing three things:

  • The Problem: Why you accepted the project, who the project was for, what the challenges were going to be, and what the stakes were.
  • The Solution: What you planned to do to tackle the project.
  • Your Role: What specifically your responsibilities were for the project.

The middle of your UX portfolio presentation is where you highlight the hardships and obstacles you overcame. This is the time to tell how you experimented and failed, creating tension and release within your story. By leading the audience through the problem-solving process, so that they can "see" the problems for themselves, you create audience empathy, and therefore memorability

Finally, in the third act, the end, it’s time to showcase the finished product.

Engage Consistently with Contrasting Content

Future employers won’t really remember what you said or did in an interview, they’ll remember how you made them feel—in fact, this goes for most people and situations.

A few emotions you might want to evoke in a job interview include suspense, surprise, delight, and wow-I-need-to-hire-this-person-right-now. Some of the emotions you should steer clear of include boredom, apathy, and lethargy.

Never deliver a UX portfolio presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through yourself. Check out Laura Vanderkam’s TED Talk on time management for a great example of how a very short, calm, and concise presentation can still be very rich in content. (She didn’t even use her full 15 minutes!)

Keep your presentation engaging by contrasting emotional and analytical content, or, storytelling and fact-telling. Here’s an example:

Fact: We completed the project for our client, Maria, on-time, despite multiple setbacks. 

Emotion: Later, Maria shared with us how thrilled her boss was with the finished product. He gave her a bonus at the end of the quarter, which meant a lot to Maria as she had just had a baby earlier in the year. As a UX contractor, this made me feel like I had really made a difference in someone’s life. 

Fact: We went on to complete two additional projects for the company.

Keep the on-screen info (website, PDFs) relatively neutral in tone (a bit of emotional content, but not too much). Then in face-to-face presentations, supplement the facts and figures will lots of natural enthusiasm and emotion, including extra remarks, insights, and asides that make your audience feel like you’re sharing a secret.

When you are only stating facts, you risk losing your audience’s attention. Don’t forget, most of us have a lower attention span than a goldfish. Keep them rapt!

We like to incorporate contrast in our blog, too. Need a break from tips and tricks? Check out 15 Quotes To Inspire UX Designers.

Tell a Visual Story with Beautiful Imagery

Many designers only think to put screenshots of finished products in their UX portfolio. But it helps to tell a story of transformation when you provide visuals from every step of the way.

Save notes you scribble while brainstorming, research you’ve printed on personas, iterations of storyboard sketches, wireframes you reworked, and anything else that might visually illustrate your process. Just make sure that any content you do choose to include is meaningful (and readable), otherwise it’s just a pretty picture. 

Take this step a bit further and photograph these notes in a thoughtful way by placing them on colored backgrounds or inserting props. After all, the design’s in the details.

Check out this example from Simon Pan’s portfolio, where he inserted a screenshot of the final project product onto an Android device and placed it on a wood background next to a sketch of the client’s logo. Just be sure to avoid creating a storytelling portfolio that looks too samey

Need help creating beautifully Photoshopped images like the one in Simon’s portfolio? Enroll in our free 7-day Photoshop 101 course.

Wow Your Audience

During a UX design portfolio presentation, using storytelling principles can make you a much more memorable candidate over someone who does not. Not only does storytelling show that you know how to communicate well; it also emotionally engages listeners in a way that persuades at the psychological level.

Learning to implement storytelling principles in your case study writing and UX design portfolio presentations will help you advance in your career as a UX designer—both by expanding your soft skills and by making you a more persuasive communicator.

Great storytelling creates a lasting impression in the minds of your audience. So grab that dusty old UX design portfolio deck, and give it the splash of life it needs by implementing these storytelling tactics! Soon, you’ll be wowing your audience with a UX design portfolio presentation that sticks, and lands you that dream job.

Ready to take your career to the next level? Learn UX design with our UX Academy career accelerator, and build out four full storytelling portfolio projects. Find out more!

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Launch a career in ux design with our top-rated program

Top Designers Use Data.

Gain confidence using product data to design better, justify design decisions, and win stakeholders. 6-week course for experienced UX designers.