How to Structure your Conversation Design Portfolio

Title image courtesy of Voiceflow!

Voiceflow sat down with Elaine Anzaldo (or “elaineinthebay”) to talk about how to best showcase your conversation design work through your portfolio. Whether you’re a novice or an expert conversation designer, Elaine has tips to help you put your best foot forward and get ready for your next CxD role.

Q: What is the best choice of medium for a conversation design portfolio?

Elaine: In terms of what’s the best medium for a conversation design portfolio, it’s all up to preference. I’ve never seen any candidate taken out of the running just because they have a written document or a slideshow as their portfolio versus a website.

We’re not product designers, so it’s not required to have a perfectly curated website. It’s really all about the case studies. If you have a strong case study, that’s what really sets you apart. And that’s what the hiring managers are looking for. They’re not really looking to see if you’re a super great visual designer. That’s more of a bonus. Even if you show you understand all of these different web technologies, it’s just a bonus.

More important than the medium, is the content, and the content depends on what kind of conversation designer you want to be. I know people kind of think it’s all the same, but if you want to go towards more of the bigger voice assistant roles, you need voice-related projects. If you want to do something more in the chatbot or larger conversational AI space, it doesn’t need to be restricted to voice. You can do a little bit more like purely written, chat-based designs.

You also have to consider, “Am I trying to join a large team?” or “Am I trying to join a smaller team?” because all of these things factor into who is evaluating your portfolio and how you should write up your experience. For smaller teams (think startups), you really have to show that you’re independent. It’s all about showcasing you’re self-motivated, you know how to handle multiple working parts, and you have great time management. Whereas, if you’re on a larger team, it’s more about demonstrating your collaboration skills — that you know how to talk to people other than designers. It really affects how you write up your case study.

Q: In your opinion, what are the must-haves in a conversation design portfolio? What are the nice-to-haves but not necessary?

Elaine: I always say this: write for the job you want. Just say that you want to be a conversation designer or that you are one already to make it really clear from the start. That’s the basic requirement that every portfolio should have.

The second thing would be to list the software you’re familiar with — if you’re really good at Voiceflow, for example, then you should definitely have that logo somewhere on your portfolio. Some people might also describe their process as more spreadsheet-oriented or more software-oriented. Describe the tools you used for your case studies.

The third part would be, of course, your case studies.

A really nice-to-have (this isn’t a requirement) is to tell a little bit more about your story. People really like to know where you’re coming from. Basically every conversation designer I know pivoted to conversation design from some other career. So write about the experience you already have because that is going to set you apart and show off your strengths.

Q: What is the best approach to presenting a CxD project or a case study in your opinion?

Elaine: Explain the “why” behind your design. I don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel. If you know a little bit about UX design or product design, it’s really just following the same case study format:

  1. In a quick summary: share the project length, team composition, methods you used (e.g. competitive analysis, bot persona, wireframing, etc), and tools used.
  2. State the problem! Also provide some context to the problem like who will be impacted by your design and why this is important to solve for in the first place.
  3. Describe what solutions you considered and highlight which one you propose to address the original problem. A demo video or interactive prototype does this well.

Remember who is looking at your portfolio. For the most part, recruiters or talent acquisition at a company are the first ones who’ll take a look at your portfolio. Make it easy to understand at a glance, even for people who don’t know a thing about conversation design. I recommend showing your final outcome up front (if you have a video, show this first), then go through the rest of your process in chronological order.

It’s important to have some kind of video presentation or prototype that people can play around with so they can really see the experience you built out. It’s really hard to imagine what a chatbot will feel like just by looking at the canvas view of your flowchart.

If you’re stumped, I do have a resource called Convofolios, which is a Notion document of other conversation design portfolios! You can dig through that and find inspiration from others.

Q: How do you curate your portfolio? Specifically, how do you go about choosing which projects to showcase over others?

Elaine: That’s a great question because I experienced this a couple of months ago. By that point, I had two years of experience and I was like, okay what should I showcase? It was more straight-forward when I was more junior. Those projects never went live so I could only talk about them from the “what if” perspective. For a more senior designer, you need to talk about the complete ins and outs and impact of your work, because now you actually have work experience.

When you’re more senior, you really need to get into all of the granular details like: the metrics or KPIs you tracked, the pivots you made after user testing, the changes you made to your bot prompts over time. It shouldn’t just be a snapshot. It should be an entire journey. For that reason, I created a second portfolio resource that’s more toward that level, which was a slide deck. So mid-to-senior conversation designers should really invest time in making a portfolio presentation, because it will come up anyway during the interview process.

In terms of how to select work for your portfolio — I just want to put it out there real quick that you don’t have to select your best, most impressive work to get hired. That doesn’t guarantee a job offer. I say this also because I know a lot of experienced designers are worried they can’t talk about certain projects due to confidentiality and NDA’s. It’s okay. What really matters is showing that you are highly cognizant of the impact your work can have on users and the business alike. Choose projects where you had the most responsibilities, if possible, and clearly state how you measured the quality of your work.

Also, tell who you are as a designer. By this point, people aren’t only investing in your past experience, they’re investing in you. You’ve already proved that you can do the job, but now people want to see what gaps you’re going to fill if they hire you, and they can judge this by looking at your working style and your design principles.

There’s also a lot of value in talking through the mistakes you made or problems that came up post-launch and how you were able to recover. That’s really the best way to demonstrate that you’re able to take feedback and lean on data. Conversation designers, by nature, work with a lot of assumptions. We could do all the research in the world, but we’re still never going to predict how something will play out in the real world. That’s why your case study shouldn’t be a highlight reel. Be upfront with what went wrong and which iterations you released to get to a point where, based on customer satisfaction or other combinations of quantitative and qualitative feedback, you know you created a better user experience.

So yeah, let’s call them iterations, not mistakes. If you’re listening to feedback and using that to drive your work, you’re learning, not failing.

Q: How should one conduct a CxD portfolio review?

Elaine: I did it the hard way which is to learn from every interview. I don’t recommend this approach because interviewers generally don’t have a lot of specific feedback to give or they don’t have the time to tell you exactly where you fell short. I had to guess on where I needed to improve. I remember taking an interviewer through the canvas view of my chatbot flow once and seeing her eyes glaze over almost immediately. Turns out, I wasn’t putting my best foot forward because I didn’t explain my design in a way that made sense to someone who has never seen a conversational flow diagram before. She never told me that, but I understood it after a lot of trial and error.

Also a big no-no: presenting ideas vs. finished products. In the first version of my portfolio, I had 2 projects with little blurbs like, “here’s what I’m thinking about for this project, but I haven’t actually built it yet.” That’s not ideal, especially in conversation design. It actually made my portfolio look sloppy. And I know that because when I sent out that version of my portfolio to several job applications, I never heard back, even when I had a referral for one of them. Again, hiring managers want to see the “why” of your design and what happens after your design reaches real users. It’s not about how unique your idea is.

So, how do you get feedback on your portfolio? Just ask! Have other people, preferably people more senior in the industry, review your portfolio as early as possible. They may be able to tell you where to save your energy or which details you should flesh out more. In general, you should have two really strong case studies, both should be conversation design specific or at least one of them can be CxD and other can be more UX-oriented. Worry more about quality over quantity.

In the world of portfolios, there’s no such thing as “done.” You could probably work on your portfolio forever before sending it out. It’s okay. Don’t worry if you don’t have more case studies or if you really want to try out Wizard of Oz usability testing on one of your projects but don’t have the time to schedule those sessions with actual users.

Make peace with whatever stage of the process you’re in and focus on building your narrative.

Q: Any final tips for success?

Elaine: My general piece of advice is: whatever you’re doing is probably already a great place to start! Don’t worry too much about the nitty-gritty details, just focus on the big picture of your experience and make sure you self-advocate as much as possible during the job interview. Hype yourself up and try to give yourself a little bit of leniency here and there. Don’t try to over-perfect your work or your portfolio — as long as you tell the design story, that’s good enough.

Lastly, if you do have extra time, I would really try to highlight what kind of designer you want to be. For conversation design, emphasize the work you want to do: chat-based, voice assistant skills, voice and IVR, or multimodal. Show anyone looking at your portfolio: what your strengths are as a designer and which parts of design make you happy. Think of it this way: what’s your dream project? People will not always come out and ask you that during an interview, but if you have these little details about yourself, it’ll help.

This interview was originally published on Sep 6, 2022 on voiceflow.com

Elaine Anzaldo is a certified Conversation Designer and has worked in various roles within the voice tech industry for the past 3+ years at companies such as NLX, Apple, and SRI International. As a designer for both large voice assistants and the customer self-service industry, Elaine has created conversational artifacts for voice, chat, and multimodal interfaces. In her spare time, she is also an evangelist for Conversational AI technologies, writing articles to help aspiring Conversation Designers get into the field and volunteering with the Voice This! Podcast team.

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Elaine Anzaldo

Elaine Anzaldo

Conversation designer | CxD mentor