10 Steps To A Perfect UX Portfolio

10 Steps To A Perfect UX Portfolio

Summary:

Design portfolios have long been used by graphic designers and photographers to display the results of their work. But what about UXers? We work in a world of field recordings, paper scribblings and Excel spreadsheets and don’t always get to create the final visuals. So what do we do when a prospective employer asks to see a portfolio?

Design portfolios have long been used by graphic designers and photographers to display the results of their work. But what about UX portfolios? Do UXers need them?

We work in a world of field recordings, paper scribblings and Excel spreadsheets. We design for good experiences and thus have critical input into the end results, but we don’t necessarily create the final visuals.

So what do we do when a prospective employer asks to see a portfolio?

Here are ten steps that will help build a UX portfolio that gets you through to an interview.

1. Don’t pretend to be a visual designer (if you’re not)

Designing your UX Portfolio

UX portfolios should be documents expressing the story you want to tell, project research insights and your design problem-solving abilities. Having competent visual communication skills will certainly give you additional credibility, but don’t confuse this with your “design-behind-the-visuals” UX role.

UXers are held under a critical microscope for many ‘soft’ skills or process-related abilities— communication, collaboration, analytical thinking, active listening, persuasion, planning—however, these skills don’t necessarily speak for themselves in the final results. If you focus primarily on visual design it will be difficult to convince people of these other skills, so don’t misrepresent yourself.

2. Find your inner T-shaped renaissance professional

t-professionalIt’s tempting to be competitive by appearing to be good at everything, but it can be refreshing to meet a jobseeker who doesn’t pretend to be a UX ‘unicorn’. Be upfront about your particular skills and use your process and experience to communicate clearly how you work.

The ‘T-shaped professional’ concept implies that there are certain skills you must have some understanding of to call yourself a UXer (the crossbar), and other skills that you can specialise in and have a deeper understanding about (the stem). You should aim to use your generalist skills to learn on the job and develop additional deep skills.

To do this in your portfolio, pay attention to:

  • Showing your level of experience; this is more about the types of projects you’ve worked on and your roles within these projects, and less about the number of years or projects you’ve worked;
  • Illustrating the particular skills you’ll be bringing to a project, especially your abilities to derive insights from research and conduct successful problem solving;
  • Representing the quality of your UX work—the experiences you’ve fostered in users, innovations you’ve made, the mature design restraint you’ve shown in implementing proven interactions rather than the latest fads; and
  • Depicting your work style and personality, i.e. your typical design process and artefacts from this and other techniques you draw on, showing details about exactly what that looks like.

3. Speak to the locals in their own language

Speak the language in your UX portfolioUnderstanding who you’re presenting your folio to, and therefore what they’re looking for, is absolutely critical.

Recruiters, employers, UX leads, project managers, developers and creative directors each have their own priorities and interests that will affect their selection agendas. Even the type of company will make a significant difference. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said:

“Everyone hears only what (s)he understands.”

Lynn Teo‘s excellent presentation ‘Portfolios Matter’ identifies what certain roles look for in a UX interview:

  • UX Lead: your methods, independence, team player, work quality.
  • Project Manager: process, on time, on-budget, communication skills.
  • Front-end developer: prototyping skills, iterative design, agile.
  • Creative director: conceptual thought, problem statement, effectiveness of solution.

Trying to communicate everything to everyone is going to be pretty difficult, so pick the most concise approach for your audience and stick to it. If your prospective employer hasn’t nailed the job requirements, you may also need to help them unpack these. The list above gives you something to work from.

4. Take a modular approach

Take a modular approach to your UX PortfolioInclude and exclude projects based on who you’re showing your folio to, and communicate quality, not quantity.

I have a full master copy of my portfolio in Indesign, and as a printed A3 document in plastic sleeves. This makes it easy to shuffle the pages or leave some out depending on who I’m showing it to. I sometimes show my full folio once I’m asked in for a detailed interview, or when actually working with colleagues on a project.

5. Decide how you’ll handle NDA work

How do you handle NDA work in your UX portfolio?It may seem a silly thing to say in an article about portfolios, but you’ll need to show some examples your work. How you do this will depend on the following:

  1. Work protected by a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA) should stay confidential, both because you’re legally obliged and because you otherwise risk your reputation. If you divulge the secrets of a previous employer the person wanting to hire you will assume you’ll betray their trust too.
  2. But put yourself in the shoes of your potential employer. Would you really hire someone without any evidence of their skills, process and experience? That’s an unjustifiable risk even for referred or recommended candidates.

So what should you actually show?

Troy Parke has good advice in his article The UX Portfolio: Top 10 Questions for UX, UI & Visual Designers:

Interviewers genuinely want to see your work, but understand confidentiality. Allude to your experience on NDA work with a list of project clients instead of showing the actual work. This way you get the value of having worked on a brand without betraying their confidence.

And if you’re still stuck, then consider anonymising the work by rebranding and obfuscating any identifying content.

RELATED:  5 UX Traps and How To Avoid Them

6. Include hypothetical projects in your UX portfolio

Use hypothetical projects in your UX portfolioOne of the biggest hurdles for new UXers is finding enough good material for their portfolio. Often there will be large gaps where you might have an understanding but no work to prove it. In these cases I recommend plugging any critical gaps with made-up work. Sounds dodgy? Not really.

You’re being hired for your potential, not because you’ve done great work in the past. Show your potential any way you can. You can demonstrate it by donating your time to a local not-for-profit or friend’s business, or you can simply make up case studies of what you might have done if a particular company had hired you. This allows you to gain some experience and build your portfolio, and most importantly it gives you artefacts to use when discussing your skills and process.

7. … but stay real

Stay real on your UX portfolioPlease don’t pass hypothetical work off as real work, and do replace those artefacts with actual project work as soon as you can. In the future, when you have more experience, you’ll do well to remember that you’re still only being hired for your potential – so don’t rest on your laurels just because you have some good work under your belt!

Honesty and a personal approach will go a long, long way to helping your prospective employer get to know you. Reveal your work style and your process, and above all, don’t lie. This also includes being specific about your role in collaborative projects. Remember: the best way to differentiate yourself from the crowd is to let your unique self shine out.

8. Show your thought process

Share your thought process on your UX portfolioThe difference between a UX portfolio and other visual portfolios is the importance of showing the journey that led to the final results, not the destination itself.

A good way to do this is to tell the story behind the project, your process of connecting research findings with new designs, and how you surmounted the various design challenges you came across. Like your maths teacher used to say: show your thinking. For example, link your insights from contextual enquiries to patterns you’ve found during affinity diagramming, and through to design concepts that arose from your consideration of personas or mental models. The connections don’t have to be innovative, or even always correct – showing your ability to learn from mistakes is a useful bonus.

9. Use the 60 second test

Use the 60 second test on your UX portfolioThe initial stages of selection are pretty ruthless. A recruiter or employer may need to wade through dozens (or hundreds!) of portfolios and resumes. No wonder then that they often make decisions in under a minute. That’s 60 seconds you have to convince them that you’re worth a deeper look.

Make sure that you make it to the ‘yes’ pile by giving them a concise insight to your skills and style by remembering these tips:

  • The medium is the message. Use your UX skills to make sure your most essential information is communicated clearly.
  • Don’t rely on text descriptions to make your points. Use annotated diagrams, screenshots and images – images used in conjunction with limited text will be more efficient than only text or only images.
  • Structure your document clearly, with sections, sub-headings and captions.
  • Cut out everything that isn’t your best work, and try to avoid more than one example of each technique or approach
  • Include a summary or content listing at the front or back, and if your portfolio is large, consider a mini-summary or content listing at the beginning of each section.
  • Consider user-testing your portfolio with friends or family to make sure your points are coming across how you intend.

10. Don’t let your UX portfolio get lonely

Provide downloadable version of your UX portfolio on social mediaRemember that your portfolio won’t reach its potential if it is left in isolation. For it to really work you should introduce it in person whenever possible, although many people find it useful to provide a downloadable version (perhaps PDF) on their folio website for hirers or recruiters that want to view it offline. Keeping a resume with your portfolio will also provide a concise record of your skills and experience. And make sure your LinkedIn profile stays up to date! Together these things are as much a personal chart of your professional development as a tool for getting new work.

Of the more than 170 portfolios I’ve looked through over the past few weeks, I’d suggest that less than 1 in every 10 was even close to achieving all of the above points. By following these steps, you’ll be taken seriously, rising quickly to the top of the ‘yes’ pile, and be well on your way to being asked in for an interview. Good luck!

Further reading:

Written by
Luke Chambers
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9 comments
  • Thanks Michael! Very glad to hear it the info is useful. I’m still collecting portfolio sites so let me know when its up and running. Good luck!

  • Thanks Gary. Getting the help of a visual designer friend would certainly be a great help, and hopefully many UXers would have such contacts already.

    If not, you could try:

    • asking someone at one of your local meetups and offering an exchange of skills
    • asking colleagues for feedback on your own original layout (see point 9 above)
    • checking what other UXers have done in their portfolios (but remember you’re wanting to express your own style, not copy theirs)
    • using a suitable portfolio template

    There’s a lot to be said for minimalism – keeping things clean and simple will let the content speak for itself and help stop you getting tied up in visual knots. Practicing some focussed design when creating your portfolio will also help you apply these skills in future UX projects. It’s a very handy skill to have as a UXer.

  • Luke – A nice post and I feel very honored to be mentioned here on UX Mastery!

    If anything on UX How is helpful, it is only because I have learned the hard way or from Patrick Neeman, Lynn Teo and the many fine articles and resources here on UX Mastery.

    I just spent 4 hours sorting through applications for a role and there were two things that helped me most in deciding whether to engage in a phone screen interview:

    1) An online portfolio and
    2) A complete LinkedIn profile.

    Why an online portfolio?

    I have hundreds of applicants for the role and we use a management system, but do you really want me to lose, misplace or forget your attached PDF portfolio? A link to an online portfolio does wonders without the worry – and has the added benefit of being trackable. (Wouldn’t you like to know for sure that someone looked at your portfolio?)

    To Gary and everyone else concerned with visual design – I recommend using your preferred portfolio service or simple framework to start: Behance, Coroflot, Cargo Collective, Bootstrap, etc. In the end, products change and at some point you will need to show your work as a series of images, videos or artifacts in most cases. Why not just start the archive process now?

    Another benefit of using a service: I will not be judging the UX of the website, WordPress theme or hand-coded HTML – I will be focusing on the content.

    If you choose, however, to publish your own site, I will assume you are making deliberate choices in how I experience your content. If the worst part of your portfolio is your website, how many projects do you think a hiring manager will look at?

    Why a complete and up-to-date LinkedIn profile?

    I whole-heartedly agree with keeping your LinkedIn updated for one reason any designer should love: Consistency. I can quickly and consistently view your employment history (and even featured work) and compare to the job description and other candidates.

    Resumes come in every flavor of length, format and quality. After a couple of dozen, it feels like a usability test for a product landing page, over and over again.

    I can’t help but echo what Steve Krug taught us: “Don’t Make Me Think”

    Best of luck to everyone out there in your next UX role and beyond.

    – Troy Parke

    • That’s an excellent couple of points, Troy. And thank you for sharing a perspective from the other side of the interview table!

  • Luke-
    I am in the process of updating my portfolio, and one thing that is clear is that I am not good about documenting my process. For the various projects I have completed, or at least worked heavily on, there is not much visual evidence of it. i.e whiteboard sessions, card sorting, simple sketches and collaboration with coworkers. How do I go about “showing” my process if I lack the evidence. Is a write up acceptable? Or what about stock images? I hate to leave out that imagery, but don’t want to risk the chance of looking fake or like I didn’t actually do the work. I don’t know if I am alone in this, but have you ever been so wrapped up in the process, that you forget to pause and document it? I love the article and would appreciate some advice.

  • Thanks Luke, really nice information. After reading this I have shortened my portfolio. Still need to add more details in some of the projects I have done.

    Thumbs UP :)

    Garry

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