Portfolios: Thoughts from an intern review

At Amazon, the first time UX teammates see our potential candidate pool is what’s called a “materials review.” A group of 3 people has 90 minutes to review 15 candidates, and judge if they’ll move on to a phone screen and the actual interview loop. This means you have 6 minutes to make an impression on the reviewers. If you’re a candidate, this probably seems horrifically unfair. You (hopefully) spent far more time pulling together your case studies, and you’d like the reviewers to invest a fair chunk of time when reviewing them.

That’s not going to happen.

You need to evaluate your portfolio and understand if, in a 5 minute review, a hiring manager can see the contributions, quality, and impact of your work. This review isn’t everything – it’s just there to understand if you’re worth pursuing further, or if you’re immediately going in the rejection pile.

Note: As of this writing, I haven’t significantly updated my website in years. It doesn’t follow my own advice.

My advice

Make sure I can view multiple projects at the same time. Most reviewers try to open every project in a new window or tab. Don’t use a provider or template that forces me to click through read a single case study, scroll back up to your navigation, and click through to another case study.

Lead with the results. Show me what you created, what you contributed, and what the impact was before diving deep into the process.

Share the entire process. Don’t just share your problem, the solution, and the outcome. Particularly for student, intern, and personal projects, the process is generally an idealized double-diamond (or whatever process you pick). Take advantage of that to share the different ideas you explored, how and why you chose one solution to move forward with, and how you iterated based on your discoveries.

Seriously, show me the other things you considered and why you chose your particular path forward.

Edit your case studies. You are not writing the next great novel in your UX portfolio, and if I start to get bored, I will move on.

Be clear about your personal contributions.

Make sure your problem and your solutions align. I’ve seen multiple case studies where research identifies a unique and interesting problem, only to be completely ignored in the rest of the case study. Two examples spring to mind.

  1. An intern candidate shared a personal project on social media design. They flagged endless scrolling and a lack of meaningful engagement as a problems impacting the mental health of heavy social media users. They ended up designing an endlessly-scrolling photo sharing app with quick-reaction “swipes” as the primary engagement. Based on their own problem statement, they’re repeating the same problems.
  2. A designer created an app focusing on childhood obesity. The UI design was beautiful, and I’m sure gathered a ton of engagement on Dribbble. They did not however, consider how they would speak to children, leaning heavily on medical terminology and “adult” langauge. At no point did they show any awareness of mental health impacts or the risk of eating disorders or other physical harm that could be triggered by this app – or even show any awareness of this.

Related to the above: don’t be afraid to go deep on a single topic. I look for interesting, complicated problems like the above. I admire the ambition to tackle them even if the solutions aren’t perfect – particularly for personal projects – when considering intern and junior candidates. I’d rather see candidates go deep on these problems, instead of ignoring them because they’re hard to solve, or because they feel compelled go wide and communicate an entire product vision.

Focus on your strengths. If you’re not a strong visual designer, focus on your research, user flows, wireframes and other non-UI deliverables. While UX work isn’t only UI, it’s possible to derail an otherwise good UX case study with an absolutely awful visual design.

If you can’t design a good UI yourself, you can at least demonstrate good taste in your use of design systems and UI libraries, as well as a basic understanding of design principles. Learn about gestalt theory, use heuristic evaluations, and design for accessibility.

Make sure your content is correct. We notice when images don’t load, or when you forget to remove placeholder content, and we absolutely hold that lack of attention to detail against you. We are, generally, far more forgiving of minor typos or minor sentence awkwardness, particularly if English is your second language.

This doesn’t guarantee you a job anywhere. But maybe you’ll have better luck.