5 tips for a better UX portfolio

Time to read: 8 minutes

Have you ever had to put a UX portfolio together? I have. And I’ve had to go through bunches of them when interviewing people, trying to decide who might be a good future colleague. It’s very difficult.

I recently participated in a portfolio feedback session with MA students in User eXperience (UX) in which another colleague and I gave feedback (“critique”) to help them improve. Everyone had some variant of a portfolio… And… everyone needed the same advice? Weird!

By the end of the session, I realised that I was repeating myself a lot. And this is why this article exists. If all the students I came across needed to hear the same things, then many other UX students will likely need to hear them too.

1) Summarise the project

Everyone will have a title for their project. It might be the client name, or the codename of the project itself. But that falls into the realm of “W530x” as a name for a laptop. The audience won’t be able to decode it into a useful insight, or even remember it. Imagine shopping for a laptop. “The black one with the red dot in corner that cost £800” might become the humanised explanation for “W530x”. So why not humanise your project names yourself?

Try summarising the project you worked on in one or two sentences. A bit like a subtitle, or sub-paragraph.
Examples:
“Analysed passport application types and requirements, and designed a mechanic to avoid incomplete or mis-categorised applications in the future”.
“Designed and tested an onboarding status visibility tool in global commercial banking that helps staff check on client status in the onboarding processes and find who to contact for follow-up”
Yes, it can be clunky, and awful, and practically cryptic, but tells you more than “HMPO applications redesign” or “end-to-end visibility dashboard”, no? In fact, you could even skip the project title and use the client or type of project (concept development, installation art, proof of concept prototype, …).

why bother : It helps the reader understand what you’ve been up to faster and avoid feeling too confused for too long. A good user experience ;)

2) Show what YOU worked on

Sometimes we don’t do the project end-to-end. In those cases, it is most useful to show which phases we were involved in. Was it just Discovery? Just Ideation? Did we only hop on to the team to help with User Testing? Was it the whole process? Try using visual signposting (icon? Tag? …) to show which phases were “active” for you.

Always – ALWAYS – clarify the role you played and specifically what you personally did and did not do. I once interviewed someone for a UX Lead position, and they used “we” throughout the interview. They were leading a team. At the end of it, I had no clear idea or evidence of that person’s individual skills, and could not recommend hiring them, as they could well have been a pure manager and facilitator, and we need thinkers, doers, and facilitators. Not managers. So tell me about YOU.

Pro tip: In an interview, avoid using “we” for work you did on a project as part of a team. Describe who you collaborated with, and find places to say “I”, so the interviewer can clearly hear what YOU did. You may need to practice this by telling the story project to a friend with them ringing a buzzer every time you say “we”.

why bother : I don’t care what the team accomplished, I care about YOUR perspective, YOUR questions, YOUR judgment calls, YOUR ways of collaborating, YOUR contributions; because YOU will be on my team, nobody else. So tell me about YOU.

3) Skills, Tools, Methods, Superpowers

On every project, you will use different methods, skills, or tools. Like Personas, co-creation workshop facilitation IRL (or on Miro & zoom), prototyping (in figma? sketch? on paper?), or perhaps setting up user tests on maze or doing them with a PDF prototype on Skype.
When tools and methods are listed separately for each project instead of being lost in the middle of the various descriptions, it is easier to scan the projects and understand how they were worked.

This could be displayed as a list in a corner, tags on the card of the project, and various other ways waiting to be invented. Just help it live in a single spot per project (and maybe overall too), because that collection becomes what we think of as your toolbox.
If I absolutely need someone to research & build personas and I can’t see if you have, I’ll move on to another portfolio. Same for specific tools (inVision, figma, maze, usertesting, maze, illustrator, inDesign, Balsamiq…) Everything can be learned, but make it easy for me to find the methods and tools you are familiar with right now.

why bother : It shows good Information Architecture and Information Design skills., and it makes it easier for me to understand how long it might take before you will be 100% useful in the context we will operate in.

4) Explain WHY this project happened

This should be your first paragraph. Ideally, it won’t go “I was told to redesign…”, but will be more like “The bank had a problem seeing the onboarding status of new clients, because of very complex processes supported by too many legacy systems, and widely-distributed teams, that made it impossible to have a single view for a customer, accessible by everyone who needed it.”

Because if there was no problem, then it was a gratuitous redesign. And while I can empathise with being asked to do a redesign just like that (it happens a lot…), I am looking for evidence that a UX person can _think_ and ask questions and get to the root cause of a problem. Because that’s the crux of the job. Figuring out what the problem really is. So show me that you can at least describe it, even if you had to ask your manager to explain to you WHY this work needs to happen.

why bother : I need to know you are curious and communicative enough to ask WHY, get answers, and summarise them for me.

5) Curate. Don’t vomit your entire work history on me

I once received a portfolio that was 67 pages. I kid you not! That person did not get a callback. Unfair? If you can’t be selective in what you show me, then you overwhelm me, and put the heavy workload on me… why would I read a novel in order to decide whether to hire someone, when all I want to know is whether they are of a calibre worth talking to!
Curate an exhibit for me, don’t throw a novel at me.

I like designers who are thoughtful. It is a required trait for being a GOOD strategic / UX designer, because the entire point of working on the User eXperience is to make it serve the user. So be thoughtful. Be considerate. Be selective in what you include in your portfolio for each job. Curate your work for me.

To pull off a curated portfolio, you might need to write 2 (or more) different versions of each project you did. One will be the full story, longer and detailed (2-4 pages / slides), and one will be very short with only the highlights (1 page / section of a page). The long one would go into the portfolio you send to jobs that need you to work in that phase, in that industry, or with those tools & methods, and the short one in the portfolios for other roles.
Some projects won’t need to be included at all in the portfolio for some applications. Perhaps just in a gallery of some kind. Eventually, time will pass, and you will have so much experience that you shouldn’t include all your projects. So start the curation / taxonomy thinking early, it will give you time to iterate.

If you want to list every single project, do so in a table with the project summary and tools & methods more than anything else. Or leave it for your CV. But please, I beg you, don’t dump 67 pages of portfolio on me. I can’t afford to read them all.

why bother :Thoughtfulness and the ability to curate and communicate efficiently and effectively are required traits for a good UX designer. Your portfolio is the best place to demonstrate you have them.

Not quite a pep talk

I know that coming straight out of uni is terrifying, and that all jobs tell you that you need to have had a first job before they can hire you. It’s a freaking catch-22!!
I was stuck in that awful loop for more than 6 months. It is awful. It was more than 16 years ago, and I can still remember how it felt.
But you will break it. Because I did. Because we have all ended up employed in the end. Someone gave me a break, and someone will give you a break. It’s how it works. At some point you find the right fit, or a good enough fit, and start your career. Emphasis on “start”. In the meantime, it’s probably the most demoralising thing you will have to do in your life, short of looking for a house to buy in London. So keep at it. And ask for feedback. If the people you speak to take the tine to give you any feedback, treasure it. It is rare.
And “tits up!”, as the line goes in the Marvellous Mrs. Maisel. You haven’t yet had to face the “screaming into the void” experience that recruiters put you through because they’re too busy to ever reply to anything, unless they got you an interview. Especially when your salary is under £30k, as it is likely to be for your first job. Or the nameless rejection emails from Big Corp or Linked In jobs thingy that never explain why your CV was rejected when you know you can do that job with your eyes wide shut.
It’s not a fun game. But some days, some jobs, some people or industries will delight you, and you will realise that you have found an obsession, a happy thing, a true career. That there is nothing else you would rather do than shape technologies, processes, and environments to better serve people. That you truly are a UX Designer, to the bone.
And you’ll look back at that first interview where the man behind the desk forgot about your qualifications because you had tits, and instead of the UX job you were interviewing for offered you a daycare one… and you’ll feel a tiny bit sorry for him, because – luckily – the world has changed.
(I was too young to recognise what was happening. I simply repeated what I was qualified for and interested in, and when he reiterated the daycare offer, I thanked him and left. I’ve forgotten his name and his face, but I will never forget the experience.)

You’ll get that first break, I promise. Shoot for the stars, and be happy if you land on the moon. For now. As long as you land somewhere and take that first step in the right direction, you’ll be golden. Oh. And you can ask me to go through your portfolio with you. We could look at structure, or story, or content. Or all three. Ping me a note anywhere on social (I’m always @eurydice13) or on the blog’s contact form, and we can take it from there :)

Some references

Building a UX portfolio is not a new topic. Even NN group wrote about it. I find their articles well-structured, thorough, and a golden reference… but they feel a bit “slow” in terms of responding to ideas. Thoroughness takes time. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ux-design-portfolios/

I also found this very good article from a recruiter I know (a good one) that contains examples to illustrate each point. https://careerfoundry.com/en/blog/ux-design/ux-design-portfolio-tips/. Worth a read, and a bookmark (even though those are so very 90s… perhaps an addition to your instapaper, notion, Evernote, or wherever you clip the interesting things you find online).

So my advice won’t be novel to anyone. In fact, it is rudimentary. But if it bore repetition with ten MA in UX near-graduates from UAL, then it should be of use to others.

The Design Process

There are three, four, or five phases in the design & innovation process, depending on whom you listen to.

I am personally a fan and follower of the five, even though I live in the UK and at work we use “the double diamond” as a reference. Funny story… I learned from someone who was on the Design Council when this was being developed that the Design Double Diamond was nicknamed “the bra”! 😂
I think it would have been offered a daycare job by that guy too…