February 23, 2016
Pssst.I’m going to let you in a a little secret. Just a few weeks ago, I had NO IDEA how to start my UX portfolio. Zip, zero, zilch. The only thing I knew was that I was expected to have one, and that I needed to start, pronto. So I talked to fellow masters’ students, hiring managers, industry professionals and professors to see what their best advice was, and I’ve pulled it all together here for us both. It turns out, the portfolio does not have to be extremely complicated or labor intensive. If you keep your eyes on the prize (that dream job), and remember the basics of what it really is, you will be fine. There are many different approaches and suggestions, so you’ll have to find your own way to success. But here’s what I learned - hopefully it will help you too!
Oh yeah, and just one more minor detail about that portfolio… you don’t need one. You need more than one. Hear me out.
What is a UX Portfolio?
The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English defines a portfolio as “a set of pieces of creative work collected by someone to display their skills, especially to a potential employer.” So that pretty much sums it up...seriously!
CHOOSE THE RIGHT PIECES
Let’s take a closer look at this definition for a second. It references a “set” or “collection,” of pieces, meant to show off your skills in a particular context - potential employment. Note that this definition does not say “every piece ever worked on.” The finer, more elegant portfolio does not resemble an encyclopedia or database, and leaves many projects out for good reason. A collection implies that a group of similar things have been curated, gathered, picked through, sorted, and put together in a meaningful way over time. Each piece should have a purpose.
When choosing pieces for your collection, choose the ones that tell the story of your professional life best, whether you are a designer or a researcher (portfolios are for both sides of the UX coin, just so we’re clear). The person looking at your portfolio does not know the project as well as you do - so explain how, what, and why you did what you did and made the decisions you made. Don’t forget that your skills in critical thinking, decision-making and communication are equally as important as your technical skills. For example, show your resilience and critical thinking skills by displaying a project where you made it work - even under strict design and branding constraints.
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
The Golden Rule of portfolio-creation just so happens to be the same Golden Rule we abide by in user-centered design to create the optimal experience: know your audience. The same way that you would edit your resume to highlight the most relevant skills for the job, you’ll need to tailor your portfolio. You should curate a portfolio filled with pieces that are tailored to the position, company and team that you are applying to be a part of.
But how will you know if a piece is meaningful to someone reading your portfolio? Think about what your potential future employer is looking for and what their challenges are, then cater to them. Do not make them work to find what they are looking for - if it’s buried under less relevant work, they may leave before they find it. Make it easy! Present the relevant information up front for a potential employer - just as you would for a current boss, manager, or client.
Let’s consider three scenarios in which your portfolio is viewed:
- You guide a hiring manager through your portfolio at an interview.
- A hiring manager or team reviews your portfolio on their own, without you there.
- A stranger views your portfolio online on a public-facing website.
Now take a second to empathize with these audiences in their various situations. What are their desires, needs and goals when looking at your portfolio? Most likely, the viewer has a problem and is looking for someone who can solve it. Show them that you can be that person.
But you simply can’t please everyone with one UX portfolio. It’s just not possible. The conclusion I’ve come to is that you need two portfolios at any given moment:
- A public-facing portfolio website for reference, contact information and presence.
- A tailored portfolio that you prepare for a specific job application.
The portfolio website: It’s out on the internet for all to see. Now that you have established the context, and thought about usefulness to your audience, you will need to make it. You can think about your portfolio as you would any other website, and work on it in that fashion (begin with a sitemap and wireframe, think about branding, etc).
The tailored portfolio: Whether you submit this portfolio with your application right off the bat, or you’re presenting your portfolio during a big interview, you really want this one to be customized to speak to a much more specific audience within a particular industry or company. You want to show a particular audience that you are the perfect fit for their needs.
How to start your UX Portfolio
The best method for you will depend on many unique factors, like your comfort level with website development, the breadth of your existing UX work and career, your own motivations for making a portfolio, the amount of extra time you have on your hands and what the interview process is like where you’re applying. To help you envision the best way to move forward, I’ve pulled together the best tips for each scenario. Hopefully it will send you off in the right direction.
THE PORTFOLIO WEBSITE
Someone “googles” you, navigates to your site from your linkedIn profile, Facebook, email signature, resume, from a reference, etc.
“People will google you. make sure what they find is what you want them to find.” - UX Professional, Carbonite
Anyone on the Internet. Including, but not limited to:
- Hiring managers
- A potential boss, team lead, co-worker, or client
- Colleagues past, present & future
- Your current boss & current clients
- Friends, classmates, neighbors, mom, grandma …
Do not overwhelm your user with too much content. Quality trumps quantity. The work you choose to display here depends on …
- Your role and career ambitions. If it’s still what you want to do going forward, include it. If you never want to design a logo again, don’t put logo designs in your portfolio.
- Its age. Where you were as a designer and thinker five years ago should not be (and most likely is not) where you are today.
- The story it tells. If a piece doesn’t tell a compelling story about some aspect of your skill set, or if it repeats a story you’ve included already, think twice about telling it.
Usability: Experts disagreed on if your portfolio website is a valid demonstrator of your UX value or not. Bottom line: if it’s riddled with usability problems, it’s no bueno.
- If you plan to build a very robust portfolio site, be sure to use an obvious navigation or consider using filters or progressive disclosure of information to keep the site user-friendly and allow for customized views.
“Great UX to show off UX. Site is searchable, contacting you is a snap.” - UX Professional, Carbonite
Technology Platform: Don’t be a hero. If you can’t code, use something out-of-the-box for your site. There are several easy to use options available, with trade-offs between coding skills, customizability, price, upkeep, etc.
- Content Management Systems like WordPress (an old favorite with killer portfolio plugins) or Squarespace
- Portfolio-specific sites (my top picks): Coroflot, Cargo, Wix, dunked, Behance
- Broken links / broken functionality
- Outdated information
- NDA violations
- Overstating your role and /or name dropping. What you did and how you made a difference holds more weight than a company logo.
“Don’t lose the story - the story is most important.” - UX Professional, Athenahealth
2: TAILORED PORTFOLIO
Context: You are in the room presenting work to one or more people in an interview OR you submitted this portfolio with your resume and cover letter instead of your website link.
Audience: Find out who will be in the room when you present your work, and make a value proposition to each person. Drive home the fact that you aren’t just a great UX designer / researcher, you’re an asset to the business at large.
From first touchpoint to final-round interviews, you could be speaking to:
- Human resources folks
- UX hiring manager / UX team lead
- Designers & developers
- Executive team: CEO, CTO, CMO
Content: Choose rich cases that you can talk about, are passionate about, and can tie to the needs of the company or team you are talking to.
- Demonstrate ownership. You don’t have to be the lead researcher / designer to demonstrate ownership.
- Show results. Bonus points if you can tie your work to business success (eg engagement, abandonment, or usability metrics)
- Have back-up. Anticipate audience questions and have extra slides or links ready.
- Know the domain. If you have been or are looking to be in a specific niche, your projects around that discipline can and should be the priority.
"Pick projects where you made an impact, and pimp that impact!" - UX professional, Amazon
Technology Platform: Technology should be invisible, not getting in the way of your story, especially when presenting in person.
“Website, dropbox, pdf, powerpoint ...whatever. Just keep it simple” - UX Professional, Athenahealth
- Choose a platform you’re comfortable with. Don’t try to be fancy and don’t waste time trying to be fancy. Highlight the work, spend time on the story of your projects.
- Use your portfolio website as tool, embedding specific links in other documents with additional context.
- Typical platforms: PowerPoint or keynote slides, PDF, Prezi, Dropbox
- Presenting disjointed stories
- Showing breadth rather than depth. If you are not specialized, or appear to be lacking deep skills and knowledge (ie, you’re a jack-of-all-UX-trades), you are not positioning yourself for a particular role.
- Failure to rehearse presentation or do a walkthrough
EXPERT PORTFOLIO TIPS
Ultimately, managers want to know: how is what you’ve done in the past going to help them in the future?
- Plan it out. Create an outline, or map of your story, before putting any time into development or design.
- Write the words first. Draft a narrative, be consistent with the skills you want to get across in the interview, as they relate to the company and the people looking at it. Use this exercise as interview prep, or to inform your portfolio design (a stand-in for you actually being there).
- Anticipate the questions. Answer interview questions like “describe a time when you….” using examples you are most proud of. Then translate that into whatever form suits you for visuals.
- Self- critique. Ask yourself, “Why did I do this design / research / project? How did I do it? What challenges were overcome? Where is it now?” Make sure you’ve answered those questions in each portfolio piece.
- Stand out. The portfolio should be about you, as you relate to the needs and desires of others. What is your personal differentiator? Personal branding? Personality?
- Show you can speak “business.” Talk about your work in terms of business goals. Cheat sheet: “bottom line,” “ROI,” “customer retention,” “increased X,” “decreased Y”….
PORTFOLIO TIPS FOR STUDENTS
It’s hard to think about your portfolio when you don’t have very much work experience. Think about what you do have, and use it to its fullest.
- Include sketching, storyboards, photos from brainstorms, and superior class projects.
- Portfolio stories can be more than UX design or research work. Show your thinking and problem-solving skills that transfer from previous industries or part-time jobs.
- For example, you modified the seating process at a restaurant and decreased patron wait time; you developed a more efficient inventory tracking system that reduced storage costs, etc.
- Chances are, if you are creating a portfolio for the first time, you have plenty of years to grow and mature, and your portfolio will do the same. For students in college or graduate school: Don’t wait until you’re applying for jobs to throw this together.
As a current master's student in a UX-related program, I’m counting on my best work being ahead of me. Right now, I’m planning to develop a portfolio website with only a few pages, to establish a web presence and show off areas of skill and interest. I plan to put most of my portfolio-building effort into the tailored portfolios I’ll submit to a particular job posting, for now. I'll change and grow my portfolio as I develop as a professional and produce more meaningful, impactful pieces for the collection. I'm trying not to let perfection be a barrier to getting started! Still looking for more information?