5 Hidden Sources of UX Portfolio Projects

The path to become a UX designer is often frustrating, especially if you’re faced with the chicken & egg problem.

To get a job, you need UX experience. But to get UX experience, you need a job…right?

In Minimum Viable UX Portfolio and How to Get a UX Job with No Professional Experience, I recommended having at least 3 solid projects to showcase in a UX portfolio.

Today you’ll learn how to generate your own UX experience by taking on your own design projects…many of which are seemingly hidden in plain sight.

Many of these are underused sources of UX projects, which also adds breadth to your personal UX portfolio.

Before diving in, establish some UX career goals

Before we dive into where to develop your UX projects, let’s start with your goals. Just like any other UX project, there are user goals and business goals.

Think of yourself as a one-person business, with the goal of creating a solid portfolio to land a UX job.

Your users – or the companies that want to hire UX talent – have the goal of finding someone who fits their wants and needs, which they can evaluate through your portfolio.

So let’s dive a little deeper into your career goals:

It helps to know that different companies look for different UX skillsets. If you’re looking to join a startup, then portfolio projects that highlight your own mobile app idea and consulting for your friend’s startup might carry more weight than, say, user research for an internal tool at a large company.

Understandably, many UX students are just looking for any decent UX job. With that said, keep those goals in your head as you evaluate these sources of UX projects.

Types of UX Design Projects

1. UX design for Non-profits


It’s easier than ever to design for good. Doing UX design for non-profits is a way to contribute to a cause you care about while impressing employers that care about social causes.

The UX opportunity: the majority of non-profits tend to have low marketing budgets, don’t have the most user friendly websites, and are always in need of more donations.

Oh yeah and most non-profits don’t have a mobile/responsive site, and are even less likely to have a mobile app. All great design opportunities.

An easy way to get started is to think of a cause you have affinity for. It might be something you’ve always wanted to help out with but didn’t have time, or perhaps it’s an organization that you’ve volunteered with before.

You can do a simple Google search for name of cause + “non-profit”your city. For example, “animal non-profit los angeles” brings up tons of relevant results.

Peruse your results, then decide on which non-profit could use your help the most. Are their websites really terrible to navigate around? Is the donation process harder than it needs to be? Look for the opportunities.

Then find the contact information and see who might be in charge of their marketing, outreach, social media or website efforts. Reach out to them with a message like:

“Hi, I’m a student (we’re all students) studying design. I’ve always had an affinity for [Insert Non-Profit Cause] and think that I can offer my design skills for free to create a  better user experience for your site, such as increasing donations. Please email me back if there’s an opportunity to work together.”

This is one way to cold-contact someone. You can also visit the office of a non-profit or attend one non-profit events. Other than knowing someone who already works at a non-profit (that always helps), bridging the connection in person can mean a faster way to get that UX project started.

2. UX design for Mom & Pop Shops


The same process for non-profits applies to mom & pop shops. These small businesses probably have a low marketing budget and a less-than-stellar web presence. Think of businesses you frequently pass by or patronize. What kind of opportunities for design will business owners find value in? Here are some ideas:

How easy or difficult is it to find the business? Are they even listed on Google Maps?

Menu Design
Poor menu design afflicts many restaurants and bars. Some research, information architecture and design could really make perusing menus a  more beautiful experience, not to mention decrease the amount of time it takes to order. Speaking of which…

Increase Money, Decrease Time / Pain
There are many ways to help a business, including the example above. Since restaurants earn more money the more they “turn” tables – or get new customers seated at a table – then it makes sense that decreasing the average order time by designing a simple, easy-to-read menu increases that turn metric.Redesigning forms is also a viable way to help businesses increase conversion rates. Better designed forms means more customers can sign up = more money for the business.

Brand identity
Assets such as logos, business cards, websites & flyers can all help a business stand out from their competition and get noticed more. This is a great way to demonstrate your visual design skills if you are gunning for more UI-focused jobs that ask for skills such as typography, layout & color.

3. Become the UX designer at Hackathons


Hackathons, Design & Startup competitions can all be leveraged to create UX portfolio items, but there are even more benefits to these community events:

Create a portfolio piece in record time. 
Many competitions take place over the course of a weekend. A potential new portfolio item in just a few days? That’s pretty good ROI on your time

You’ll get to meet many talented people, often those who may be in a position to refer you to a job if you make a good impression.

Accelerated Learning
Due to the nature of competitions, you will have to scrap what’s inessential and try to deliver a product under pressure. This means the opportunity to apply a robust UX-design process in a short amount of time. You’re effectively condensing what might take weeks or months in an actual job into days, which can really accelerate your learning in the field.

Also, many competitions like Startup Weekend provide the opportunity to work in teams. Working alongside strangers can expose you to new methodologies and different ways to design, which is beneficial to learning.

Oh yeah, winning one of these competitions can lead to prizes and great exposure. Get that cash money $_$!

So how exactly do you go about finding these events? Your first resource should be Meetup. Sign up for all the biggest UX, Design & Startup related Meetups in your area to get notified when a competition comes up.

Your second resource should be Eventbrite. Do a search for “Hackathon” in the cities near you to get a list of upcoming events.

You can take a more direct approach by Googling terms:

design contest + city” like “design contest los angeles” or “hackaton + city” like “hackathon los angeles.”

If there are big universities near you, also try search terms like “UCLA hackathon.

Some notable design & UX focused competitions you can immediately look into now:

Hmm looks like “Jam” is another useful search term :)

Pro tip: remember to document the entire event, e.g. taking tons of pictures of your design process & with your team. Teamwork is important, and design competitions help you get experience with people from unpredictable backgrounds, and yes you guys will want to tear each other’s hair out in 48 hours but it will be worth it.

4. UX design for startups


Everyone has an entrepreneurial friend who has a business or in the process of starting one. Apply the same process from local mom & pop shops and non-profits to helping your friend.

A smart way to approach your friend is to be clear about what services you can offer, and perhaps start off with a trial period like 1-month to start with. Setting up clear expectations in the beginning protects you and your relationships in case the project isn’t a good fit.

5. UX design for yourself: Redesign Something


Redesigning a website or app is particularly useful for those who want to demonstrate their UI & visual design skills. There are plenty of major websites such as Craigslist, Wikipedia and almost all government websites (kudos if you redesign California DMV).

My redesign of Hacker News led to inquiries from startups to do UX design for them. And it was decent mini portfolio piece in of itself.

One way to tailor site redesign for your UX portfolio is to look at it as a stress test. You’re going to take a website somebody else built, then test its structure & design. This means that instead of arbitrarily creating a pretty redesign, you can involve other elements of the UX process. For example…

Conduct a Usability Test of an existing site with real people. Create a task and ask people how they might try to complete a certain action. For example, tell people to visit the DMV website and ask: “Can you show me how you would renew your driver’s license?”

Take note of how long this takes them and what points of confusion exist. Roll these insights into your redesign. Cardsorting,  sitemaps and user flows are all additional deliverables that can help you evaluate + redesign the structure of a website (not to mention provide a more complete portfolio piece).

You can apply this to almost any other existing product, including the sites & services of your current company! Even if you aren’t a UX Designer by title where you work, you can certainly do all of the above to create a portfolio piece.

_ _ _

Generating your own UX experience is not easy feat, but it’s not impossible either. With some initiative and creativity, you can leverage self-initiated UX projects to build a job-winning UX portfolio.


14 responses to “5 Hidden Sources of UX Portfolio Projects”

  1. As an aspiring UX designer, I found this post (and your website in general) incredibly helpful in understanding how to find potential projects for my portfolio. Thank you for the practical advice – it certainly helped to dispel some of the questions I had about how to begin!

  2. This is a really helpful and informative article. Thanks a lot, have been looking for this information from quite sometime.

  3. I recently graduated from a Master’s program in Social Science Research. I’m applying to a User Researcher program in the health field. But I have zero experience in the field. However, I did spend the last year completing a mental health policy assessment study for my MA, and before then I was involved in archaeology projects. I know it would be risky, but I was thinking about structuring my past involvement in projects in a way that highlights the skills and experiences relevant to the user research field. Do you think it’s a bad idea? Also, I suck at visual portfolios…I’m better at getting my point across in text. Would it just be okay to submit a textual-based portfolio on PDF? I apologize if these questions are silly–I’m just starting out in the field and I want to know as much as I can before I submit an application.

    1. For specific UX Research roles, a text-based portfolio might be okay. But I’d still recommend sending something in a presentation format (slides) to illustrate your findings and process. You don’t have to be a visual designer to visualize the process for your users. Including pictures like you holding a workshop or brainstorming with a group are examples of visuals that can help tie it all together.

      Structuring your past involvement in projects that highlight skills relevant to user research – yes definitely do this! Leveraging your existing experience is the lowest hanging fruit. Make analogies for and explain how your previous field ties into User Research.

  4. You wrote this a few years ago, but it’s still a great resource! thank you!

  5. Ruchi Gaur Avatar
    Ruchi Gaur

    This is a good read for a good direction. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks very much for all the great tips!

  7. Thank You so much. All your posts are really helpful in gaining better understanding. Best is that everything is accompanied by practical examples and case studies.

  8. If designing or re-designing a local mom and pop shop’s website, wouldnt they expect you to have it up and running as well? In other words, coding it, which may not be a skill beginning UX designers have. So question is what are we really providing to these small business other than just wireframes and maybe prototypes. Thanks.

    1. I’d really love to know this answer. How do we find a developer to actually build out the site? Anyone could design and prototype the website, but the client is not going to have a functioning website without a developer to build the site.

  9. I’d been having problems of finding projects I could start with since this is really important in starting a portfolio. Now, I have some ideas on what to do next. Thanks for these tips! :-)

  10. Thank you so much for your insight, it really is helpful. I have a specific question: I am a landscape architect, and have a design portfolio (print). Is it a good idea to use some of the content of that portfolio and turn it into a UX portfolio? Where I’m the “business” looking to sell my landscape work to land commissions for landscape architecture projects?

  11. This is a great posts. One project you forgot to mention is ‘fake project’ where you create a fake client and create their app from your research! Good job!!

  12. A lot of this seems focused on visual design. as a product manager, i have done some user research in my role to determine which problems to solve. Is that good content for a portfolio?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.