8 min read
“Why is creating my UX portfolio is so hard?”
“Will I ever finish this thing?”
“Am I even good at UX if I can’t create my portfolio?”
If any of these thoughts have crossed your mind, then you’re not alone. I want you to know that you’re in the right place.
Since June 2017 I’ve been researching problems related to UX careers, the job search, portfolios, and hiring. I’ve reviewed hundreds of UX portfolios and have conducted one-on-one research interviews with UX folks at all stages of their careers.
One big research insight is this: You are your own worst client. And because of this, you’re:
- Too critical … you fail to make progress because you get trapped comparing your portfolio to others (that likely aren’t at the same stage or doing the same role)
- Stuck in the weeds … you are trying to cram too much into each case study. It’s overwhelming as you try to tell the story of each project (so how do you think the reader of your UX portfolio will feel?)
- Creating your portfolio in a silo … and not getting feedback, or likely asking the wrong people for feedback.
- Focusing on the wrong details at the wrong time … you obsess over how your portfolio looks and this distracts you from the most important part, the content.
If you’re nodding your head, “yes”, then keep reading to learn how to critique your UX portfolio, just like you would critique work for any other UX project you work on. You know when you’re working on a project and a client or stakeholder or someone latches on to something in the design,goes down a rabbit hole … and won’t stop talking about it?
Once I was in a design review for an article detail page I was working on for a very well known company. I was presenting an early stage wireframes, so it was black and white but had real copy, images, and icons so that it felt realistic but didn’t distract the with colors, fonts, etc.
In the middle of the design review, the client said:
“Do we have to have so many shades of gray in the design?”
I’m not kidding. Despite our best efforts to educate the client and stakeholders about the UX design process, the meeting was thrown off because they kept commenting on the shades of gray. Unbelievable!
As I was sitting there, I wanted to scream, “wrong details, it doesn’t matter!!!!”
You are your own worst client
You’re just like that client or stakeholder. You’re stuck in the weeds of your portfolio because you’re too close to it. You’re obsessing about details that don’t matter, or details that don’t matter right now.
This totally makes sense! When it’s yours, you’re a little more emotionally attached to it. You desperately need someone else to come along and pull you out of the weeds. It’s not you, it’s human nature. There’s a saying “doctors make the worst patients”. You’re not a bad designer, it’s just that you are your own worst client!
This is why you cannot create your UX portfolio in a silo. If you do, it will take 10 times longer and you’ll be overwhelmed, frustrated, and questioning whether or not you’re even good enough to apply to roles!
Now I know you’re thinking “oh I don’t want to show anyone my UX portfolio because it’s not ready.”
Ok, that’s one excuse and I get it. But at some point, you have to toughen up and seek the feedback of others so that you can get perspective and insights from people who have not been thinking about these projects for months or years!
If you’re a bit shy to ask other people for feedback about your UX portfolio, then at a minimum you must set aside time to critique your own UX portfolio.
The following questions will help you think less about the design of your portfolio and more about the content and usability of it. Do not start applying for roles and submitting your UX portfolio until you spend some time honestly asking yourself these questions and making quick high-impact changes based on what you learn from your critique.
Conduct a UX portfolio review using these 10 questions
Before you begin, it’s important to have some context. The very exercise of creating your UX portfolio, if done well, can be a strategic exercises to get clarity on your career.
You should not create your UX portfolio until you’ve spent some time reflecting on your skills, strengths, and future career roles. Why? Because your portfolio is an opportunity to provide evidence to future employers that you have the experience they’re looking for.
But you can’t provide that evidence until you have clarity on the story you want to tell about you. Then, and only then, can you know which projects to include and which parts of those projects to focus on.
A smart UX professional doesn’t just jump into designing their portfolio. Instead, they develop a portfolio strategy first and then use that as a compass as they select projects, write case studies, and layout / design the portfolio.
Whether you’re just getting started in UX out or you’ve been in the industry for a while, these questions will help you avoid common UX portfolio mistakes and create a stronger, clearer, and more effective representation of your skills and experience.
Do I clearly communicate my role in UX and skills?
In UX, for better or worse, we do not have standardized job titles and qualifications. As a result, 5 people could call themselves a UX Designer, and have drastically varying skill-sets.
One person could do user research while another person might have zero experience doing user research. Another person may be proficient at visual design (but not pixel perfect interface design) while another person might also be a master of visual design, design systems, etc.
This is why it is absolutely crucial that you need to tell people not just what you do, but also your specific skills. I recommend you have a Compass Statement, a personal elevator pitch of who you are and what you do.
Imagine you are experienced doing:
- User research (eg. conducting interviews and usability tests)
- Experience design (eg. journeys, user-flows, wireframes, maybe even clickable prototypes)
Don’t just say, “I’m Susan, a UX Designer”.
This doesn’t work because it wouldn’t be clear that Susan does user research. But also, they might assume that because Susan has the word “designer” in her title, she’s are also a visual designer (eg. pixel perfect goodness) which she is not are not!
Instead, it would be far better if Susan had a clearer title and she had a Compass Statement, an elevator pitch of her skills, what makes her unique, and her strengths.
- Clearer Title“I’m Susan, a User Researcher & Experience Designer”
- Clarifying Compass Statement
“I’m passionate about helping equip product teams with the knowledge they need to make better product decisions. With 5 years of experience in user research and experience design, I’m skilled at not only conducting user research but translating that research into customer journeys and product experiences, including high fidelity interactive prototypes.”
See the difference between these and simply saying, “I’m Susan, a UX Designer”?
Make sure you explicitly tell people what you do, so that they don’t make assumptions about what you do and do not do. This can be used across all your career materials: portfolio, resume, LinkedIn, cover letters, and even in emails you send throughout the job search process.
Have I identified what type of role I want and do I know what I need to get out of that role?
Tell people what you want to be doing in the future. Maybe this is in your resume or cover letter in more detail. But, think about your future because you will need to tailor your UX portfolio to the type of role you want next.
It’s also important that you think beyond your next job, but the job you want to get after this one! Why? Because you need to make sure that the job you take next sets you up with opportunities to get the experience and skills you’ll need in the future.
For example, if you want to do more user research in the future, and you don’t have user research experience yet, then you need to make sure the next role you take will give you the chance to do more user research. This will greatly impact the types of roles and companies you apply to.
Even if you like the allure of working at a startup, you must consider whether or not a startup, and the stage it’s at, will set you up with the chance to do more user research.
Instead, you might consider roles at companies who have dedicated research teams, or at least a staff user researcher
Have I considered what type of company I would thrive in?
What you’ll do in your UX role is dependent on the type and size of the company you work at. Want to work at a startup? Make sure you talk to other UX folks who’ve worked at startups of all stages, so you know what you’re getting into.
Each type of company offers a different type of experience. There are 3 main types of paths for you to consider:
- UX Agency: The benefit of working at a UX agency is that you’ll likely get to work on a wide range of projects. Sometimes, agencies do specialize in a niche though, so find that out before, or as, you interview.One thing to consider is that sometimes you don’t get to see the project to completion. So if you want to see your work come to life, launch, and iterate on that, you might want to consider working internally instead.
- Young Startup: If you love learning, relish in figuring stuff out on your own, and thrive in a fast-paced environment, then a startup may be for you. When it comes to UX, sometimes startups don’t always follow the product design process “by the book”. In other words, maybe they’ll skip research upfront as a tradeoff to get an MVP out the door so that they can have a proof of concept. If this would frustrate you, then make sure you use the interview process as a means to understand their approach to product development.Also consider that sometimes you’ll be expected to be more of a generalist, especially if the team is very, very small. So if you do not want to take your wireframes and apply some light design to create a clickable prototype, then maybe think twice about a startup.
- Established Company: All of the above concerning startups certainly applies to established companies! However, established companies by nature often have more resources to create more dedicated teams and roles. This means that sometimes, you may be able to have a more specialized role if you want that for your career.
Would I like to specialize in a specific area of UX?
To specialize or be a UX generalist? It’s a hot topic right now. The truth is, you do not need to specialize. There are plenty of opportunities for UX people who are generalists.
When you are getting started in UX, I recommend that you spend the first few years as a generalist. Get as much experience as possible in as much as you can. Strive to be literate in the entire product development process, bonus if you are technically literate as well.
After a while though, you may realize, “I really want to focus on visual interface design.” If so, that’s great. Does it mean you’ll never have to create a wireframe again or sit in on user research sessions? Not necessarily!
However, if you decide to specialize, then go all in. This will be a lens through which you need to make many career decisions.
When it comes to your portfolio, if you want to specialize, then make sure the projects you include emphasize that specialty. Even though in the past, maybe you did do user research projects or experience design, you don’t want all of that work to overshadow your visual experience.
Find the balance between your past work and the type of work you want to do in the future and make sure the projects you choose for your portfolio reflect that.
Do the projects in my portfolio reflect the skills I say I have?
The projects you include should demonstrate that you can do what you say you can do. They should be evidence of the skills that you stated you have. If a project doesn’t match those skills, then cut it.
In your introduction or Compass Statement, if you say you have experience doing user research interviews and usability testing, but don’t demonstrate that with the projects in your portfolio, then guess what … it’ll be hard for recruiters and hiring managers to have confidence that you can actually do that.
As you select projects for your UX portfolio, bounce back to your Compass Statement and consider if each project honestly serves as solid evidence of the skills you say you have.
Learn more over on InVision about the 4 steps to choose the best projects for your UX portfolio.
Do I actually tell the story of my projects and go beyond showing deliverables and screenshots?
You’ve heard it a million times, “tell the story of your projects”. This means that you cannot just show deliverables.
You must tell the story because recruiters and hiring managers want to see, and know you can articulate, what you did and why you did it. Design isn’t about deliverables. Design is about solving real problems, and your job is to tell people the story of how you arrived at the final deliverable.
Tell the story of the journey from problem to solution. Focus strongly on process, approach, and results.
If you need help writing your UX case studies, here are two resources:
For each deliverable, make sure you also explain it.
For example, if you are showing wireframes, label them! Don’t expect people to know what screen they’re looking at. Bonus points if you give a bit of an explanation about the screen or let people know what specifically about that screen is innovative or helping to solve a user’s problem. It’s about context.
Am I proud of the projects in my UX portfolio?
If you end up with an interview, you’ll likely have to talk about some of the projects in your portfolio. If you aren’t excited to talk about some of the projects, then cut them. Your lack of enthusiasm will show and could leave a bad impression.
It might seem silly, but body language and your verbal communication skills are crucial, especially as you get further down the interview process. If just thinking about one of the projects in your portfolio launches you into a spiral of doom, then it will probably impact how you talk about it in the interview.
Instead, select projects that you’re proud of and that you can have productive and positive conversations about. Of course, not every project will have amazing outcomes such as “the new checkout decreased abandoned carts by 75%!!!”.
In fact, some projects don’t have happy endings. But that’s the reality. Your ability to talk about projects that didn’t go so well, in a mature and thoughtful manner is what will help you stand out. Consider lessons learned and what you would do in hindsight. This will help you come across as a more mature and emotionally intelligent professional.
Do the projects in my portfolio represent the type of work I want to do in the future?
If you’re trying to get away from a specific type of work, then don’t load your portfolio with projects that reflect that work. If you don’t want to be a wireframe monkey and want to do more research or strategy, then work hard to show more evidence that you’ve done research or how you were involved in the strategy phase of the projects.
If you’re transitioning into UX from a different, but related, career such as graphic design, industrial design, photography, or even video work, you must avoid the temptation to show all of that previous experience.
On one hand, your experience does have merit because you’ll have a lot of soft skills and an understanding of the design process. However, if someone looks at your portfolio and sees video animation work, logos, print brochures, and a few iPhone apps, what message does that send?
To the user of your UX portfolio, it can be confusing and feel like maybe you’re spreading yourself too thin.
Did I tailor my projects for each role I’m applying to?
Imagine you own a UX agency and a potential client asks to see examples of your work. To increase the chances that they become a client, you would show them examples of work that match up to their industry or the type of project they want to hire you for.
In other words, you would tailor the agency’s portfolio to the client’s needs.
The same applies to your UX portfolio. If you want to stand out, you should tailor your UX portfolio to each role you apply to.
Doing this is quite easy if your portfolio is a PDF because you’ll be able to simply delete projects that don’t make sense and add in others that do.
Beyond curating the projects you could also do things such as simply changing the order of the projects in your UX portfolio. For example, if you’re applying to a health care company and you have a health project in your portfolio, put that project first.
Did I have someone proofread and review my UX portfolio?
Yes, it seems obvious. But I feel obligated to include this question. So many of the UX portfolios I see have basic spelling and grammar errors. Normally this happens because people rush their portfolio and don’t leave time for reviews and feedback.
Treat your UX portfolio like a real UX project, with dates, deadlines, and reviews. You wouldn’t launch a new product without having the QA team test it to ensure everything works correctly.
In the same way, don’t “launch” your UX portfolio without at least having someone review it for spelling, grammar, and other issues.
In conclusion, treat your UX portfolio with the same care and attention that you give to real products.
Creating your UX portfolio will be a lot easier if you follow a similar product development process. That means:
- Having a strategy for your portfolio
- Creating a project plan with true dates and deadlines
- Considering the user of your UX portfolio
- Focusing on the content first, then the design
- Seeking feedback and not operating in a silo
- Continually iterating, because your portfolio is never really “done”
However, if you treat it like a side project, continue to work on it when inspiration strikes, and let the “design” of it take precedence over the content, then it’ll likely take you much, much longer until you have a UX portfolio you’re proud of and that you can confidently use for applications and interviews