How to build a UX portfolio

UX Portfolios: the new bane of any UX designer’s life. A showcase of not just the work you’ve done, but the journey you took to get there. All mapped out, with every decision highlighted, justified and measured.

Recruiters and hiring managers look through 1000s of portfolios year on year, so you need to ensure yours stands out for exactly the right reasons.

This guide to UX portfolios will advise you on how to prepare. From choosing the right format through to crafting your project case studies.

birds eye view of an imac and keyboard

Choosing a portfolio format

The first thing you need to do is decide on the format of your portfolio. The format and subsequent publicity of your portfolio affects your content. You can use your online portfolio like an exhibition of you as a person, as a creative and as a UX designer.

Whether it’s your photography or a recording of you presenting, your website should really make you stand out by showing how passionate you are about your role. So, include all the extra out-of-work responsibilities you’ve done.

It’s worth remembering that PDF files demand much less maintenance or technical skill than a website. You also have more flexibility within a PDF because they’re not published online. This also allows you to include projects which are under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

However, you can’t include a lot of detail in a PDF, as they’re much more concise. You would not expect to see photography alongside case studies within a PDF document.

There are pros and cons to each format. Unfortunately for us, there is not an agreed format between all UX companies. Often you’ll find a required field asking for a link or a PDF file. So, you’ll find yourself needing one or the other.

It’s a good idea to go with the format you’re most comfortable with if you’re just starting out. Getting a portfolio done quickly gives you something to iterate. This will encourage you to get out there and apply for jobs quicker. You’ll also have something you can get feedback on and making any later changes won’t feel as overwhelming.

Preparing your portfolio

After you’ve chosen a format for your portfolio, you’ll have a good idea of the type of content that is expected. But be careful to not get bogged down in the nitty gritty project details! Simply start by introducing yourself, show what you’re about and what you’re looking for in your next opportunity.

The story of your project comes from your process of tackling a problem. From how you planned your research to conducting research to implementing changes and outcomes. How you tackle problems will directly affect the content you have to put in your portfolio.

For website portfolios you’ll want to focus on the extra razzle-dazzle bits after your case studies – these include sections like the meet-ups you’ve spoken at or the personal projects you’ve done.

But be sure not to give away everything. Always leave something out of your portfolio so you have something to discuss at your interview that they’re not expecting.

Write notes. Keep notes. Show notes.

Portfolio preparation doesn’t just come from a well thought-out strategy. You’ll need notes. Lots of notes. Make it a habit to note down the big decisions you make throughout your projects. It’s these choices, thought-processes and justifications that make up your case study.

A case study shouldn’t focus solely on the outcomes. Insights you discover along the way are as important as the final design. This is especially true for UX researchers. Snippets like anonymous user quotes can be extremely helpful in demonstrating the value in how you achieved outcomes.

Make a note of the project work in general, but always be clear on the part you played within the project. It’s great to say that you worked as part of a team, but you need to be the star of your own case study! Don’t shy away from showing final designs which came from a visual designer, but be clear that this came from your wireframes or your research.

man taking notes in a dinosaur pad

Dealing with non-disclosure agreements

Welcome to the great NDA problem of portfolios!

We have the experience and the case studies, but they’re case studies we’re not allowed to discuss with anyone. Yay! So, how do we solve this? Well, firstly, you are not alone. Almost everyone is under some sort of agreement of what they can and cannot say about the work they do.

There are a few ways of dealing with private clients. Some people prefer to anonymise the work they have done. Strip down the story to the bare minimum. What you did, why you did it but never mention the client name.

Others prefer to mention everything while blurring out the name of the client. This way people can almost identify the client, but it’s never confirmed. Those hiring have a good idea of the complicated businesses and problems you’ve solved, but can see you have respected your NDA.

The other way to go about NDA projects is by including everything. This is where the PDF format comes in handy. You include the project, the client, their logos, their problems and solutions. This will demonstrate your work and the clients you’ve dealt with, especially if they’re notoriously difficult to manage.

However, you do need to be careful. Never distribute this information, whether on your website or inside a PDF you submit online. This needs to be a physical copy that you take with you into the interview and you bring home afterwards.

Do user research on your portfolio

One of the major problems you’ll always face with your portfolio is that you are your worst client. You know the niggles that exist on your website. You know where you want to improve the content. You also know how limited your time is and why some things haven’t been done.

But you are not your user. Your portfolio is another project and needs to be treated as such.

Essentially, you are selling your skills through your content. But don’t fall into the trap that just because you’ve seen users do x, y and z, you know exactly what they’re expecting. You need to test your portfolio like any other website, product or service. You know the value of UX and researching with users. Your portfolio is no exception.

So, get out there and test! You could even begin by putting wireframes in front of someone at a cafe. Do they know who you are? How much do they understand from your content? How do they feel about using your portfolio? This will at least highlight quick usability issues that you can fix before spending time with hiring managers who can offer in-depth detail.

User research is not just great for testing aspects like the usability of your portfolio, but this will also highlight skill gaps. Use the feedback to know what skills, domains or tools are expected of portfolios these days. You then know what to get stuck into on your next project to include in a case study.

Invest in your portfolio

We’re all busy. Ask anyone and they will gladly share with you their woes of always being busy. Another obstacle we face with portfolios is dedicating the time to creating one. It’s a project like all our others – it needs branding, planning, design and research. Portfolios take time. A lot of time. Jared Spool even tweeted that the best designers are too busy to have portfolios.

While this may be true, portfolios are a required field in many application forms. Meaning, you cannot even submit an online application without having uploaded a portfolio.

Besides, having a portfolio is now so common that you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t have one and others do. If you need a portfolio now, find the time! Your portfolio won’t actually take that long if you have thorough notes.

Wrapping up

Always keep on top of your portfolio even if you’re not looking for jobs in the near future. This will make your life easier when opportunities arise and you need something quickly. Doing so makes the process a lot easier to tackle when you do decide to change jobs or welcome speaking opportunities.

Portfolios don’t have to be that scary or drawn out. These tips and tricks are sure to give you an idea of where to begin and how to get stuck in. A good portfolio comes from your preparation, strategy and research. There are pros and cons to the format of your portfolio, so choose wisely based on your needs and skillset. Create your case studies from project notes and remember to highlight your role, responsibilities and contributions.

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Main image by Jeff Sheldon, dino notepad by Sticker Mule and bird’s eye iPhone by Aleks Dorohovich

Elizabeth Chesters

I’m a UX researcher in London. When I’m not pestering users, you’ll find me coding. Specialising in localisation, I’ve set out to discover how technology can have the biggest impact around the world.

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