Whether you’re a recent graduate or a seasoned veteran of user experience design or research, having a portfolio is one of the biggest factors in landing an in-person interview or a new client meeting. Only ticket holders win the lottery, and a portfolio is your golden ticket to play. “Less than 5 percent of designers I know are hired without some kind of portfolio,” said one recruiter I recently interviewed. Your portfolio doesn’t have to be brilliantly amazing, but it must showcase your best work and passion for UX. It should be simple so that your content can shine.
This article provides a handful of guidelines for successfully managing your UX portfolio. Not all the ingredients may be suitable for you, but most of them are a must-have in order to get noticed by companies. The roles of those who contributed their insights and experiences for this article range from UX recruiters to directors of UX at major tech companies.
Why You Need a Portfolio
A resume is just one part of your portfolio. Merely talking about your work is great for phone screens from recruiters, but will only get you so far. Possessing a portfolio demonstrates credibility as a user experience designer or researcher. People can learn about your career at their own time and place. Then, if they like what they see, they may invite you to meet face-to-face to get into more detail about your work.
A portfolio demonstrates that you are committed to your craft and have invested time and energy into showcasing your best work. Make sure you create an online portfolio. Candidates can make a big mistake by only having a PDF version of their portfolio.
Job seeking is a competitive game. For UX candidates, it’s one part skill, one part talent, and one part luck. Ask yourself: What attributes or experiences can I highlight that will make me stand out from the crowd?
Imagine a hiring manager or recruiter reviewing a stack of 100 resumes. Throwing away the resumes without a link to an online portfolio is a quick and easy way to thin the herd. Next, a hiring manager might peruse candidates’ online portfolios to see which ones speak to the needs of the job being filled.
And remember, it’s not just about having a portfolio. Having a mediocre portfolio won’t get you in the door; having a good portfolio will.
Structuring Your Portfolio
Keep It Simple
Having an online portfolio is a prime opportunity to promote your creative thinking abilities, a must-have skill for UX professionals. That said, hiring managers don’t care how creative your portfolio design is as much as they care how creative your UX work is. Furthermore, they say when a portfolio is too creative, it distracts from the work they are evaluating. Let your content—not the container—be the shining star.
Keeping your portfolio’s navigation simple makes it easier for recruiters and hiring managers to quickly see your best work and get you placed sooner. My online portfolio consist of three columns with client names in the first column. Once selected, a description of my accomplishments is displayed in the third column. You can choose screens you would like to view by clicking the numbers in the second column. The experience is very certain.
Showcase Your Process
For UX portfolios, before and after shots are great, but it’s more important to show images for the new and improved version of a design. Employers want to see where you have taken a design and are less concerned with where it was before your involvement.
Integrate Consistent Messaging
Think of your portfolio as your brand; consistency is key. Use the same messaging for all of your portfolio properties. These include your resume, online portfolio, printed portfolio, blog, YouTube channel, Twitter account description, and LinkedIn details.
In this world of social networks in which we live, having an online portfolio is but one tool to help you land a job or client. “Be active on social” advises one UX director. Having a LinkedIn profile and an active UX-centric Twitter account attached to your portfolio tells employers that you are involved in the UX community, which is important, given that our industry is constantly evolving.
User experience professionals are visual thinkers. We whiteboard, sketch things out, wireframe, and ultimately create and validate designs one way or another. Using images in your portfolio is a must. I like to give as much real estate to images as possible. A lightbox gallery might be one way to show your work in a large format while still having some descriptive text to accompany the smaller versions.
Describe Your Accomplishments
Write a brief description of your accomplishments and contributions for the client or project. Be sure to emphasize the improvements you influenced. For example, let’s say your research showed that users were abandoning the checkout process due to some distracting elements, and your recommendation of removing those elements resulted in improved sales. As a UX researcher, you should write “Discovered cause of checkout abandonment, increasing sales by $200k/month.” If you are a UX designer, go with “Improved usability of shopping cart experience, increasing sales by $200k/month.”
Creating Your Portfolio
To URL or Not to URL?
When you own your web domain, you are telling your prospective employers that you are credible, committed, and can creatively name your portfolio. Which site sounds more credible? www.portfolios.com/iloveuxdesign or www.iloveuxdesign.com? Personally, I gravitate towards the latter. The same can be said for email. Which sounds more like a professional UX person—firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com?
Claim Your Properties
Before purchasing your URL, do a search on Twitter usernames for your URL name. In my case, the username I searched was “ILoveUXDesign.” Once you have secured your Twitter handle, create a page in Facebook Pages with the same name. You may want to extend your reach and search YouTube and other venues of broadcast. If you can claim it on all or most fronts, then proceed with purchasing the URL.
Build Your Portfolio
If you know HTML, go ahead and create your portfolio site. For the rest of us, there are plenty of templates and website builders out there. You can connect your domain to a WordPress account, making web publishing a breeze. If owning your domain is not in the cards, Pathbrite, Behance, Dribbble (yes, there are three ‘b’s), and About.me can be great resources as well. Your site does not need to be elaborate, but it does need to demonstrate your best work.
The Art of Presenting Your Work
Be Ready to Talk about Your Portfolio in any Situation
Introduce your work as if viewers have never seen your online portfolio. Also, whether you are on the phone or in person, explain your work using concise, results-focused nuggets of information. You never know when you might meet your next employer or client at a networking event. Having bite-sized accomplishments on your portfolio means you are more likely to reiterate them in a convincing manner when the opportunity arises.
You Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do
Remember that having great work to show is just one part of the interview process. Beyond that, employers are more interested in learning how you communicate your ideas, how you collaborate in a team setting, and what your process is. I am always intrigued by the process designers use to come up with their solutions. Being able to articulate this process to potential employers and clients will demonstrate that you are thoughtful and process-oriented in your creativity.
The Backup Plan for Your Backup Plan
Remember Murphy’s Law. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong during an interview. Thinking that you will simply drop your samples into DropBox and show them on your iPad in a meeting is a gamble. Internet connectivity can be unreliable, and troubleshooting network connection issues during an interview will make you look unprepared. If you plan to use a tablet when showcasing your work, use images or PDFs that are already downloaded to your device as a backup to your online portfolio and other web-dependent methods.
The Delicate Dance of NDAs
Non-disclosure agreements are a way companies keep a competitive edge in the marketplace. An NDA basically asks that you won’t go chatting up top-secret work at networking events and posting screenshots of projects before they are introduced to the public at large. Most companies that hire you will have you sign one, sometimes before you even speak with a company representative by phone.
For items that fall under an NDA, it’s typically okay to show samples during in-person interviews. They should not be shared, though.
So there you have it—the tips and tricks you need to ensure that your portfolio is complete and ready for prime time. You know why you absolutely need to have an online portfolio, how to structure and build it, what to show, and also how to present your work. Good luck!