What goes into making a UX portfolio that really makes a hiring manager stop in their tracks and think “THIS is what I’ve been looking for!”? While there isn’t a one size fits all or a secret sauce - we are pretty darn sure that the key is acing 3 set aspects. Building the strongest, wow-worthy user experience portfolio isn’t really as mysterious as what most designers are led to believe - read on to find out just how you can level up that UX portfolio and land the job of your dreams.
In this article we’ll cover where to begin when creating your portfolio, what to include, what not to include and what separates out the beginner from the mid-level and senior user experience designers. We’ll run through the most sought after answers circling designer portfolios and lay out some secret tips and tricks we’ve used when building our own UX portfolios here at AJ&Smart.
So let’s dive right in.
What is the purpose of your UX portfolio?
Education used to be at the crux of landing most good design jobs, but nowadays adopting this mentality is incredibly old fashioned. With UX bootcamps, design apprenticeships and internships - some of the best ux designers were not formally educated in their field.
Judging a great candidate based on where they got their degree is like making a decision on only 30 percent of the information that a hiring manager has about an applicant. The space to showcase work and what one is capable of is increasingly important.
Think of a portfolio as a meet and greet before the hiring manager actually meets a candidate. It’s arguably more important than a CV and works as a first impression that stands out and says “Let’s show you what I’m really made of.”
Is a UX design portfolio really necessary?
A good portfolio shows that a candidate has taken the time to represent themselves and showcase their skills and capabilities in a good light. A UX portfolio can express aesthetics, process and personality if constructed correctly.
A great portfolio should define who you are, what you can do and what part of UX you specialise in all while walking the hiring manager through how your mind works, how you problem solve and what you pay attention to.
Contrary to popular belief a CV is a bad place to showcase these aspects of who you are as a UX designer. In general recruiters spend less than 10 seconds looking at a CV so don’t rely on this to showcase your strengths. A CV will communicate your name, current position, previous position and education - but that’s about it. Think of a CV as where to list the basics - in other words it can reel off as fairly boring. Your portfolio on the other hand, should be anything but boring.
What should you put in your UX portfolio?
First things first, your portfolio should fit in culturally with the company you are applying to. It’s a good idea to add your character and show your style but this does come with boundaries. If you are applying to a more reserved firm - steer away from anything that could be seen as jarring or offensive. If you are applying to a company that is more versatile - pushing boundaries and showing risk could be applauded. Through all these decisions it’s important to have in mind that this is your space to really wow and dazzle the hiring manager, and shine out from the crowd.
Your portfolio content will also vary, depending on your seniority, the country you are applying within and of course your own natural preferences. The single most important thing to remember is that no matter what you do - no matter how you want to grab attention you have to show how your mind works
And that sets up our first key to acing that killer portfolio: Showing your process.
Label the problem you were trying to solve for. Express how you wrapped your head around the subject matter - what questions you had and what the core of the problem was. Make this clear so the hiring manager has a clear understanding of the foundation of your design.
Who you worked with
UX projects these days are rarely a one man show. Explain the team size, who was in charge of what and what you took the lead on.
What tools you used
Hiring managers want to know what tools you are comfortable with both technical and mental. Label the softwares you used but also state the exercises you used to get your mind working in the right way. Which leads nicely into our next step...
How did you solve the problem? What questions did you ask. This is where you showcase how you understood the problem you were solving for. Show why the problem has occurred and your understanding of it, how the user feels and what you hope to achieve with your design.
The process you used to overcome the problem
Now this is very important and so often missed! Show lo-hi wireframes, prototypes, sketches, personas, user journeys, research, moodboards and style guides. This is where to really showcase your design preferences. Aim for expressing the different ideas you had. Hiring managers don’t want to just see a bunch of pretty screens and final products so DON’T skip this step. They want to see the ideas you had and how you went about narrowing them down. Walk them through the whole story.
The final outcome
Show the product that was decided on - before you handed it over e.g to a UI designer or developer and what happened as a complete end product. And don’t forget - prioritize the projects that match closely with what you are aiming to achieve at the company you are applying to. Don’t promote your strengths in aspects that you didn’t particularly enjoy or hope to avoid at this new company. While it is important to show capability, a hiring manager will be much more interested in you expressing your passion and strengths in areas you hope to advance within their organisation. Be sure to avoid adding in projects that don’t align with your future career goals.
How many UX case-studies should you showcase?
Quality over quantity is the rule of thumb to follow for this one. Hiring managers won't have a lot of time to dedicate to each candidate's portfolio so showcase only your best projects. Keep in mind that the projects you choose should align with the job description for the company to which you are applying.
What’s most important is to showcase a wide variety of work and skills — so, if you had substantial, varied contributions to a small set of big projects, emphasise the many different activities that you were involved in.
What are hiring managers looking for?
In a recent study, 204 UX hiring professionals were surveyed in order to investigate what they look for in a UX designer’s portfolio. Here is what they answered:
- “Show me how you started with an opportunity and produced real value for a user and the organisation.”
- “I’m curious to know what isn’t in the design and why, just as much as I’d like to know why elements made it in.”
- “Don’t just show me the finished product. I want to see the messy process and all the work and research. Tell me the problem you were trying to solve, your role, any constraints, project timeline, changes from iteration to iteration and how the research informed the design.”
The second key to acing that portfolio: Think of a hiring manager, recruiter or UX professional as the “user” that you are solving for.
Viewing them as the “user” will help you narrow down what you want to showcase and make better decisions. This will help push you out of your own mind and narrow down to the most crucial information for them to understand you. Adopting the mindset of a hiring manager will help you make your portfolio helpful for them. Very rarely will a hiring manager take the time to read your portfolio verbatim. You might have a lot to say but if you adopt the mindset of who you are solvable you’ll see that creating a scannable portfolio that doesn’t include any unnecessary detail will be much more beneficial.
A good exercise for this is to decide on the three most important things that you want an outsider to take away from your portfolio. Write them down and revisit these questions to see if you have hit your goal upon completion.
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Can you build a portfolio with NO experience in UX?
Long story short - this can be hard, but it’s not impossible. There are multiple ways you can immerse yourself in UX to build a portfolio if you don’t have any previous experience.
Taking a course
This is a great way to gain insight and build some core skills that will be incredibly beneficial for putting together your first UX portfolio. Check out our guide to free UX/UI design courses as a great place to start.
Volunteering for a non-profit will help you be in the mix of UX and give you access to real users. Volunteering on projects shows great initiative and desire to learn.
Where should you host your UX portfolio?
Web-based portfolios are the most common medium for designers. A web-based portfolio is a website or online service that displays your work. If you go this route, steer clear of jazzy templates. Your work should be the star here and the priority is that the site is easy to navigate and usable.
This is another popular medium for portfolios. It’s clean, easy to use and a pro tip that works wonders is to keep a master PDF or slide deck with all of your case studies. This way when applying for jobs you can minimize time by hiding projects depending on the job you are applying for.
Physical portfolios are less common but you can bring physical artefacts that you use during your design process — such as sketches or paper prototypes — if you feel it would enhance the interview. We do suggest also creating a web-based or PDF portfolio as well as relying on physical artefacts though so hiring managers can see your work prior to interview.
Questions to ask yourself to make this decision
Deciding which format to go for can be a hard choice so we like to use these three questions to help us narrow down the decision.
- Did the hiring manager specify a format?
- What costs are associated with this format?
- How much knowledge do I have of the software that I’ll be using?
If it’s still tricky getting to your answer check out these pros and cons from the Nielsen Norman Group for an extra push in the right direction for your needs.
How should you test your UX portfolio?
Once your portfolio is created, send it to others to provide feedback. The people you send it onto should be a mix of individuals who understand UX (professionals in the field, design students and design communities) and those who are less versed in the topic - friends, family, personal blogs.
Another set of eyes will catch spelling or grammar mistakes and those who are less knowledgeable about the field might ask questions that can help you fill any holes before the interview. Others more versed in UX might help with usability of your format and confusion about content.
As you interview with hiring managers, make note of what resonates with them and what is unclear. Then iterate on your portfolio.
The third key is to remember that your portfolio will always be a work in progress and will never be complete. Having an efficient method for keeping track of projects will make updates simple and your portfolio all the more strong.
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How to work around NDA’s when building a portfolio
Now you are on the journey of building a UX portfolio, you have probably become aware of just how common NDA’s are.
These contracts prohibit you from displaying information about the project you worked on to protect the identity of the company. While this restriction might feel like a real pain there are ways around showing your work without disobeying the rules placed.
Show process images
Rather than showing the final product, show process images. As mentioned earlier, explaining the process is key so use this to your advantage. Explain the questions you posed, how you conducted research, the sketches you created and highlight your strong communication by overcoming the disadvantage of not having a final product to show by being creative with your words and detail.
Redact or blur out information
If you have wireframes or prototypes that you’d like to show, blur out crucial and detailed information. (This is especially important for applications displaying financial or medical information.)
Make it generic
Recreate your designs. While this may sound time-consuming, it ensures that you are not using brand colors or styles that would identify the client but you can still tell the story just as effectively - being sure not to miss out any crucial information.
Pressed for time
Got a submission deadline approaching fast? Focus on showing fewer projects where you had to incorporate a variety of UX and design skills. Work to show off versatility in fewer case studies - this will always be better than cramming in lots of weaker projects. Again - it’s all about quality over quantity here.
“My good ideas weren’t implemented”
We all know this feeling - you pitched some great ideas but none of them were the ones that took the biscuit for the final product. This is a very relatable and understandable issue so don’t fret. In design many great ideas are left behind. As you’re writing your case study include the thought process behind the design. Hiring managers want to gain a full picture and be sure that you know how to navigate challenges and cooperation. Show them that you are a team player that dedicates to the ideas being decided on by the team even if they were not your own.
Landing that first job can be hard. Again we’ve all been there. If all of your projects are student based projects we’d highly recommend searching for an internship to get a bit of real-UX-world experience. One project out of school can really do your portfolio wonders.
A key aspect of designing strong products and services is to be creative within constraints. Student projects usually deal with set out constraints from a professor - while many of these will be based on real life examples, they’ll still tend to fall short of a compelling real-life problem. If you are selecting case-studies just from student projects, opt for projects that have more real-life, relevant problems (e.g profitable ideas). If this is not possible, make sure to list any unrealistic elements in your student projects so hiring managers can be sure that you understand the difference between imagined and real-life constraints.
And remember - Presentation is everything
Portfolios will always be a part of a UX designer’s process. Creating a portfolio that showcases your strengths, personality, creativity and appeals to your user will help you land that dream UX job. So remember the three key tips to create that killer UX portfolio:
- Show your process
- Think of the hiring manager as the user you are solving for
- Your portfolio will always be a work in process - iterate, iterate, iterate
And for making it to the end of this read here are some bonus tips!
- Show real work (don't worry about that handwriting)
- Show how you can cooperate
- Reflect on who you are as a designer and where you want to be