Landing your first job as a user experience (UX) designer can be a daunting task. Most aspiring UX specialists will have to deal with the conundrum of needing a portfolio to land a job while also needing a job to have a portfolio. It’s safe to say that this problem has dissuaded many talented people from breaking into the field of UX design.
More importantly, this problem has become even more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the overwhelming job uncertainty on the market. There are now fewer jobs and fewer opportunities for designers to start working on their first projects.
However, it’s safe to say that the situation isn’t that grim and that UX specialists can use these uncertain times to their advantage. Online education has seen continuous improvement in the last decade, enabling people to reform their professional lives without having to invest tens of thousands of dollars to enroll in higher education.
Plus, many online UX training courses allow their students to create a portfolio, which, helps them get noticed and hired much quicker.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what a good portfolio consists of, how you should go about creating one, and how online courses can help you with that.
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
The Importance of a Portfolio
Let’s start off with a clean slate by asking ourselves, “What is a portfolio?” Typically, portfolios are collections of materials that showcase a person’s skills, qualifications, training, and other relevant aspects of their professional background.
Simply put, your portfolio should feature:
- Who you are — your fields of expertise, the things you’re passionate about, etc.
- What you can do — your specialization, qualifications in adjacent fields, etc.
- How you think and work — how you tackle issues and collaborate with your team
The critical part that many people miss about UX portfolios is focusing on their work process. Beginner UX specialists often choose to focus on what they “can” do rather than showcasing “how” they do it. A portfolio should provide recruiters and hiring managers with an in-depth understanding of how you approach projects and how good you are at solving complex problems. This is true about all UX specialists, whether they’re designers, developers, or researchers.
For UX Designers
A designer’s first instinct would be to include examples of product wireframes and prototypes that they’ve developed to help recruiters gauge their experience level and whether they’re a good fit for a particular project.
While there’s nothing wrong with that, we must keep in mind that UX professionals spend more time-solving problems than actually creating designs. Therefore, a UX designer’s portfolio should revolve around how the prototypes allow for solving user problems, how they arrived at these solutions, and what tools were used to do so.
For UX Researchers
While UX researchers sit comfortably under the UX design umbrella, it’s safe to say that they are on the more scientific side of things. On a side note, portfolios are commonplace in visual arts, yet they aren’t really a thing in the scientific community. Nobody really knows how portfolios became a thing among UX researchers, but it seems like they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
A UX researcher’s job is to run qualitative and quantitative studies that help make informed decisions during the design process. This brings us to one of the most important principles that researchers need to take into account when creating their portfolio — focus on the journey, not on the destination.
UX researcher portfolios will often feature the elegantly crafted products of their work, like user personas, wireframes, and prototypes. The better way to go is to expand on your thought process rather than on the result of your research. It’s always a good idea to contextualize the studies you’ve conducted by expanding on the business objectives, what you’ve done to meet them, and how you chose to involve users to enhance the product’s user experience.
For UX Developers
UX developers typically bridge the gap between UX designers and developers — they must be able to communicate the plans and aspirations of the design team to developers in a way that is accessible to them. UX developers are there to smooth out the interaction between the two departments.
At the same time, UX developers need to tame the design team at times by acting as the voice of reason. Often designers come up with ideas that would be incredibly complicated to implement, and this is where UX developers step in to propose an acceptable alternative.
An essential part of a UX developer’s responsibilities is creating prototypes and proofs of concepts, which means that a substantial part of a UX developer's portfolio will revolve around them. However, as we’ve mentioned previously, UX is never about eye-candy graphical elements; it’s all about the messy process that leads to a well-crafted product.
There’s also a fair share of testing involved in this field. UX developers will often create and test various interactions to see if they make sense from an experience standpoint.
A UX developer’s portfolio should express the intricate thought process behind creating and testing interactions and prototypes as well as showcase their ability to act as an ambassador tasked to communicate with designers and developers.
How to Build Your UX Portfolio
Unfortunately, not all UX specialists go through formal multi-year training. While this isn’t a problem as such, it implies that most of the people entering the field will have to figure out how to put a portfolio together. Fortunately, there’s a wide array of options when it comes to working on the first projects that you can present to your potential employers. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
A very common way to break into the field is to apply for an internship. Naturally, businesses will have much lower requirements for these positions while also having fewer responsibilities. This means that you can learn in a truly immersive and risk-free manner.
The downside? They’re commonly unpaid or underpaid. Respectively, if you’re having trouble making ends meet, it’s a good idea to save up some money, assuming that you won’t be earning any money for a few months while enrolled in the internship. While this does sound like a fairly strenuous task, it’s a worthy investment of your effort, given that it’s an opportunity to start a career you care about.
Similarly, suppose you’ve previously worked in a position related to design. In that case, there’s a great probability that you might do without an internship and be hired for a Junior role where you’d be able to learn the basics from more experienced UX specialists.
Aside from being a great opportunity to put together a UX designer portfolio, volunteering is also an excellent chance to do something you also care about. More importantly, this might enable you to find a niche that you’d like to eventually specialize in, as it is customary among many UX specialists. There are many designers that focus exclusively on projects that revolve around sustainability, ecology, social justice, and a wide array of other important fields that don’t get as much financial traction as, say, e-commerce.
Furthermore, working on projects that they personally find meaningful appears to be extremely important for people in the Gen Z and millennial age groups. According to a study published by Deloitte, over 60% of 18–26-year-olds prefer to work for businesses that provide volunteering positions. Plus, millennials as an age group are very passionate about cause action. If you’re part of these two demographics, breaking into user experience through volunteering is likely going to be a great option.
To find volunteering positions, you can check out some of the websites that aggregate jobs like these. Here are a few of them:
- Voluntaires ONU
- Volunteer Match
- Project 501
- Good Company
One of the benefits of volunteer work is that you can choose whether or not you’d like to get involved with a particular project. Similarly, you enjoy much more flexibility regarding deadlines. So the level of commitment to the project is at your discretion, as well as the kinds of skills you’re trying to hone.
How to get the most out of your volunteering:
- Choose your causes: There are so many fields that need volunteer support, it can often feel overwhelming to pick one. Take your time to explore your options and make the best decision you can — this is a prime opportunity to build a network.
- Create your own guidelines: Establish what you’re trying to get out of this experience aside from a portfolio project. Define some essential criteria for a project you’d like to get involved in.
- Set clear expectations: Try to be as straightforward as possible regarding your availability — failing to adequately communicate that might end up in a negative experience for both you and the party you’re looking to volunteer for.
- Credit is key: Don’t forget to ask for LinkedIn credits, testimonials, or any other kinds of references you can. This will eventually allow you to validate your work experience outside companies.
UX Courses and Boot Camps
The beauty of UX courses and boot camps is that they provide you with a more holistic and thorough view of the design process. Compared to internships and volunteering, they offer a more theoretical perspective into how things should be done the right way.
Similarly, this type of education equips aspiring designers with all the essential tools to deliver high-quality experiences to their users. When comparing the two, courses are often more extensive and thorough — they cover much more ground, from basics to more advanced stuff. Boot camps, on the other hand, have a more narrow focus and often revolve around a single topic or problem.
Both of these options are a great way to work on your first project, which you can proudly display in your portfolio.
Taking Freelance Gigs
Finding freelance projects can be a more adventurous route to pursue — you’re taking on more responsibility. Jumping into the deep end can be extremely challenging yet rewarding. If this is something you resonate with, you should definitely look into this option.
If you’ve found an interesting project, especially if it deals with an issue you’re passionate about, consider reaching out to their team and having a matter-of-fact conversation with them. Mention that you’re a beginner UX specialist looking to break into the field but also underline the value that you can bring to the project.
It’s important to mention that honesty is paramount here. The company should have a clear understanding of the risks involved with your lack of experience.
Bear in mind that you’ll most probably be offered a rate that is below market average, and you’ll possibly have to agree to an extra round or two of revisions. This, however, is a small price to pay to work on an actual product as a UX specialist that will also grant you your first portfolio project.
Be humble, transparent, and persistent.
Creating Your Own Version
If for some reason, you think that this isn’t a route worth pursuing — we beg to differ! Not only is this a credible way of validating your skillset, but it’s also an option that offers you plenty of freedom and space for expression. Let’s look into a variety of ways you can create your own projects:
Option #1 — fix something that’s broken
Take a closer look at some of the products you interact with on a daily basis. Think about the parts of the experience that bother or irritate you, and ponder a possible solution to this problem.
However, just because you’re experiencing some issues with a product’s flow, you’re statistically too small of a sample size to classify it as an actual experience or usability issue. Put your researcher’s hat on and run a quick study to confirm that other people see it the same way. Look for people complaining about similar issues on social media sites or app stores, or, alternatively, conduct a series of interviews with your friends that use this product as well.
A word of caution, if you choose to conduct interviews with friends or strangers, be very careful to word your questions as neutrally as possible. “Did you find this experience satisfying?” Is a much better way to phrase a question, rather than “This part of the product's navigation is pretty clunky, isn't it?” Fundamentally, you're looking to solve a problem, not confirm your viewpoint.
Option #2 — explore a problem that hasn’t been addressed
While you’re in the process of researching people’s experiences with products or sections of a product, you may come across a more significant problem that seems unaddressed by a product or service.
Ideally, it’s an issue that you are initiated to a certain extent; maybe you have a background in marketing, and you’ve spotted an area of discontent that people in this field have. However, it doesn't really have to be a niche you’re versed in. As a designer, your goal is to solve problems via design while also ensuring seamless and intuitive experiences. Feel free to venture into whatever project feels right to you.
Approach this task like you would in a formal setting. Go through each step of the UX design process —empathize with your users, understand the problem they're dealing with, generate ideas that can solve their problems, prototype possible solutions, and test them.
Your project may not end up being a successful product with tens of thousands of downloads, but that’s not even the point. The point is to convince a recruiter and a company’s design team that you have what it takes to work on real-world products.
Essential — prototypes
Whether you’ve uncovered an issue with a product’s experience or you’ve spotted an unaddressed problem in a particular niche, you should ideally end up with a prototype.
It’s important to underline that just a bunch of “pretty” screens won’t be enough; you want to walk people through your thought process. As we mentioned previously, as a designer, you’re a problem-solver; your work is far more than just making eye-pleasing designs.
Every project that you feature in your UX designer portfolio should be accompanied by context, the problem that you’re attempting to solve, and the purpose of your work.
The Essential Parts of Building a Portfolio for Your UX Career
To understand what the best practices are for your UX design portfolio, we need to think about what hiring managers generally look for. Let’s look into two findings from a study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group that will help us better understand how to structure our first UX design portfolio.
According to the survey, the most sought-after soft skills in UX designers are:
- Curiosity or a desire for learning
- Emotional intelligence
- Strong communication skills
- Listening skills
- Growth mindset (comfortable with failure and learning from it)
- Being a team player
The same study quotes a series of excerpts that hiring managers say during interviews with UX specialists, such as:
- Show me how you started with an opportunity and produced real value for a user and the organization.
- I’m curious to know what isn’t in the design and why just as much as I’d like to know why elements made it in.
- Don’t just show me the finished product. I want to see the messy process and all the work and research that was put into land on that shiny polished design. Tell me the problem you were trying to solve, your role, any constraints, project timeline, changes from iteration to iteration, and how the research informed the design.
So what do these excerpts tell us? First off, we need to approach our portfolios like a product and think of recruiters as our users. UX principles tell us that products should meet users’ needs, provide context, and be accessible, among other things. Tailor your portfolio to deliver the most important information about you as well as highlight some of your qualities that recruiters might be looking for — make it easy for the user to navigate your product.
So now that we’ve got the big picture aspect out of the way let's focus on your project. Here are a few essential rules we recommend you follow when creating your first portfolio project:
1. Contextualize the problem you’re trying to solve — explain why this issue is important and how solving it will benefit the end-user.
2. Be specific about the project scope — this will help the recruiters and the team understand how well you’ve addressed the problem at hand. Project scopes include a wide array of essential information like its goals, deliverables, features, functions, and more.
3. Expand on your rationale — this is the crucial part; your process is one of the key players in your portfolio. The problem and the scope of the product fuel your rationale and inform your approach towards a project. Explain the reasoning behind the decisions you’ve made.
4. Your prototypes are there to support your rationale — think of the visual components of your portfolio as a way to accentuate your thought process. This is where your empathy, skill, and insight are translated into the look and feel of a product.
5. Emphasize value — highlight how an average user will benefit from your design and how your prototype solves an important problem that stands between them and their goals.
The Advantage Training Courses Have in Building a UX Portfolio
One of the most important advantages of UX training courses is a solid and tested structure. Compared to an internship or volunteering project, a course provides students with a coherent and cohesive approach, which naturally leads to a better understanding of the subject matter.
UX-oriented courses will often be designed with a capstone project in mind — something that will allow students to enter the workforce immediately after graduating. Aside from being the first highlight of your UX career, projects like these are also integrative experiences. They give students the chance to get a feel for what it’s like to work on a real-life project.
Similarly, portfolio projects are built around the course’s curriculum — this allows students to immediately apply the theory in practice, which will enable them to reinforce their learning and better remember the essential information.
Another important advantage of UX training is the all-encompassing character of the education. As a volunteer or intern, you often won’t be tasked with conducting user interviews or creating research reports or other deliverables. On the other hand, courses will have a more holistic and thorough approach that will prepare you for landing your first job with confidence.
There is Also the Benefit of Certifications
As a beginner UX practitioner, you’ll benefit greatly from earning a certificate. Most likely, it will grant you a higher probability of landing your first job, since a certificate acts as proof that you’ve learned a particular skillset.
By investing time and effort into a certification, you’ll be able to:
- Build a strong knowledge foundation, especially if you’re a beginner UX specialist looking to enter the field.
- Improve, refresh, or broaden your skillset. Even if you’re an experienced UX specialist, there’s always space for learning new skills or brushing up on the basics
- Increase your chances of being noticed by recruiters. Having a portfolio shows companies that you can execute a variety of tasks, while a certification confirms that you have a strong theoretical understanding of the field as a whole.
Keep Building Your Portfolio
That's a wrap! We know that creating your first portfolio may seem like a challenging task, but we’re confident that you have everything it takes to start a meaningful career in UX.
Training courses are an excellent way to get an in-depth understanding of user experience as well as build your portfolio from scratch. Interested in training courses? Check out our UX training courses!
Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.