Ah, the portfolio…the magic key to the UX universe. In terms of hiring anyway.Nowadays a UX portfolio is required for many good reasons: it highlights your work and shows your process as a UX Designer. Job listings nowadays often say “link to portfolio” required or “no submission without a portfolio will be considered.” This is also to separate the number of serious UX applicants versus those who are sending applications into the black box of internet job listings.
For many beginning designers, the toughest part of creating a UX portfolio is creating an effective one in a timely manner. We tend to be our own worse critics, and it’s not uncommon to feel the need to make a perfect portfolio before applying for a job. I suffered from this and made the mistake of updating my portfolio too slow.
Having no portfolio ready can be a hindrance to your job search, as illustrated below:
Imagine bumping into a UX hiring manager at a local meetup and he/she is interested in seeing your work. At this point, if you have no portfolio you probably have to say “I’m still working on it, let me send it to you soon,” go home and scramble together a portfolio.
This brings you unnecessary stress, and throwing something together last minute may reduce the quality of your portfolio.
Or imagine that a listing for your dream job pops up. You save the link somewhere and tell yourself “I’m going to apply to this ASAP!” A few days roll by. Then days turn into weeks. Before you know it that dream job has expired.
Having experienced all of the above myself, I want to share with you The Minimum Viable Portfolio – a collection of methods to create a decent portfolio in as short a time as possible.
disclaimer: this post is tailored towards those who already have completed work & UX projects to showcase. For those looking to create new projects, read 5 Hidden Sources of UX Portfolio Projects.
Freedom without structure is its own kind of hell.
Lack of structure makes the process of creating portfolios unnecessarily long & difficult.
What should I show?
How many projects should I include?
Do I need a website?
Let me help you answer all these questions and more by focusing on the essential elements of a minimum viable portfolio.
TAILOR YOUR UX PORTFOLIO
This is an obvious but important consideration that’s easy to forget: make sure you tailor your portfolio to the job you’re applying for.
For UI design jobs, the presentation and visual polish of your portfolio are incredibly important.
If it’s a UX / Experience / Interaction Design position, demonstrating your design process to solve a UX problem should the priority.
make it focused
What might a recruiter & hiring manager think if you’re going for a UX Designer position and your portfolio looks like this: 2 UX Design and 5 logo / illustrator projects?
Assuming you’re looking for UX design specific jobs (that’s why you’re reading this blog, right?) de-emphasize works that don’t relate to UX. Totally fine to show some logo designs to demonstrate that you have the Visual Design chops that play into a wider user experience process. But it shouldn’t take precedence over your sketches, wireframes, and storytelling for each project.
HAVE AT LEAST 3 PROJECTS IN YOUR ENTIRE UX PORTFOLIO
Without trying to sound too prescriptive, it helps to have at least 3 solid projects in your entire portfolio. Doesn’t sound like a lot? It doesn’t have to be.
In an ideal world, we’ll all have dozens of high quality, in-depth projects that are well-documented that we were involved in from concept to launch. This will happen over the course of your UX career, but for UX Beginners it’s more helpful to refer to this breadth + depth diagram:
Breadth implies having done a variety of projects. Device-wise, there can be variety in mobile app, a webapp, a hardware-software interface. Industry-wise, you could have projects that served the medical industry, a consumer fitness app, or your own pet mobile project.
Depth concerns the complexity of the project and the specific role that you played. What parts of the process were you part of?
If you haven’t done something from beginning to end, it’s okay. Share as much as you can about what YOU did in the process.
To get to the sweet spot of a robust-enough portfolio, focus on highlighting your best works. An example minimum viable portfolio might except this amount of depth and breadth:
- 3 different projects:
1 responsive webapp, 1 mobile app project, 1 desktop application
- The responsive webapp might be for a non-profit or friend’s site you consulted for, the mobile app project might be a consumer app that’s your own pet project, and the desktop application might be a proposed redesign of an internal tool you currently use at your company
- The responsive app and mobile app you have more control over to demonstrate applying the UXD process from beginning to end, whereas you can highlight the application of research & usability testing in the evaluation/redesign of a tool used at your current company.
show your process
Highlight the user-centered design process you applied to each one of your projects. A common end-to-end process might include (in roughly this sequence):
- strategy & goals
- prototyping & design
- usability testing
- handoff and/or keep iterating on design
Those are elements to include in each project write-up, but an easy framework to apply across all projects is to use the STAR method: Situation, Task and Results. (I roll the “A”, actions, into tasks).
Often applied to resumes, you can use an elaborated version of STAR in your portfolio to communicate what the situation is (goal of the project), what tasks and actions you accomplished (your UX toolkit of wireframing, usability testing, sitemaps…) and what the end results were (analytics, final designs, customer testimonials).
Regardless of the length of the project, STAR gives you a basic, easy-to-apply structure because it’s just simple storytelling. What’s the beginning, climax (challenge) and end of the story for each project? Even long case studies like my favorite ones at Teehan+Lax loosely follow this structure.
This is what sets a UX portfolio from other types of portfolios. You are sharing your process and story of the project.
choose your medium
What medium should you use for your portfolio? At the very least, aim for a link that can be accessed by anyone. This can be a link to a PDF on Dropbox, your own website, or a portfolio service like Behance or Dribble.
The reason is simple: hiring managers and recruiters want to see your work as soon as possible. Make it easy for them.
For the least amount of effort per the minimum viable portfolio, here’s a strategy:
- Create your portfolio in Powerpoint, Keynote, or whatever presentation software you like that can output to PDF
- Output to PDF, and put your PDF in a cloud storage service like Dropbox or Copy
- Place Dropbox or Copy link to your PDF portfolio in your resume
This is the simplest no-fuss setup that gives you flexibility and control.
privacy / nda
If you make your portfolio publicly available online, it makes sense to show very brief, high-level project descriptions. Since NDAs can be an issue, you can also:
- Show abstract images that convey your process, but doesn’t give away private information (i.e. pictures of you conducting a card-sorting exercise, a basic high-level wireframe without data in it)
- Blurred out images (photoshop is your friend)
Use this two-pronged strategy if you want to be interview-ready:
- Make your Portfolio Link high-level with many projects and client thumbnails
- Prepare 1 or 2 of the most significant, impressive projects you’ve worked on in a separate PDF for in-person interviews. Having a paper-format on hand or bringing in a tablet to showcase that in-depth project is also a bonus.
note: if you’re going to bring a paper portfolio, make sure that your portfolio is not too heavy on color, especially stay away from using dark or black backgrounds. This takes up a lot of ink, can make your paper bleed/heavy, and generally adds unnecessary complications to your portfolio creation process.
Having your own domain name & website does add an extra level of professionalism and control.
BUT if you’re not familiar with web hosting and all that jazz, the added time and learning curve of setting up your website be worth the time and money. If you are really interested, I’ve used Hostmonster for 7 years (yup…when I first signed up for Facebook). What’s nice is that you get a free domain name with purchase of a hosting plan.
You can Google “free portfolio hosting” and these will invariably turn up:
These are all nice-to-have, but not essential to a minimum viable ux portfolio.
If you do go with a website, remember that templates are totally fine. For UX Design, it’s less about the container and more about the content.
This is easy if you’re already familiar with WordPress. Just search “free responsive portfolio wordpress theme” and pick out 1 or 2 of your favorites to test.
If you want to demonstrate your HTML/CSS skills in your portfolio, that’s awesome. Just be aware that it’s easy to get lost coding trying to make things look and function perfectly in code. You can always do that later.
show it to someone asap
User test your own portfolio. Ideally, invite someone to look at your portfolio and simply ask if you can observe as they’re examining your portfolio. Encourage them to think out loud while they’re doing this.
This will help you get unbiased feedback on your portfolio. Showing it to someone not in the design industry may help you gauge your portfolio’s clarity and simplicity. Showing it to a UX designer in the field – ideally a hiring manager – may help guide you towards refining the process & overall presentation of your portfolio.
recap of what we learned:
- Tailor your portfolio to the job you’re seeking
- Show at least 3 solid projects
- Showcase breadth (variety) and depth (responsibility) in each of your projects
- Show your process, use the STAR method for an easy storytelling framework
- Choose your medium – link to PDF is enough. Watch out for NDA / private data.
final thoughts & tips
- Document your work constantly. Take lots of pictures (no selfies). You never know when you want to show that one whiteboarding process you did last summer as part of your ideation process!
- Write a project summary as soon as you finish it, when it’s fresh in your mind. Having to go back to that one project you did 6 months ago and figure out what you did is no fun.
Looking for more guidance? I took my learnings coaching with hundreds of students to create The UX Portfolio Course. The course teaches you how to create a solid UX portfolio in record time. It comes with templates and a repeatable structure that you can use to knock out UX case studies and portfolios.