UX Portfolio-Building Tips that Don't Get Oldby@yutongxue
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2,831 reads

UX Portfolio-Building Tips that Don't Get Old

by Yutong Xue March 20th, 2023
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In the past 7 years, I’ve seen hundreds of portfolios as an interviewer at Google and Meta; as a mentor and teacher for students and junior designers; and as a designer looking for jobs myself. Good portfolios are still the ones that are intentional, concise, visually appealing, emotionally engaging and authentic.
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In the past 7 years, I’ve seen hundreds of portfolios as an interviewer at Google and Meta; as a mentor and teacher for students and junior designers; and as a designer looking for jobs myself.

I was surprised to see how little has changed in what makes a good portfolio since I got into UX 7 years ago. Good portfolios are still the ones that are intentional, concise, visually appealing, emotionally engaging, and authentic.

In this article, I will share 5 tips for creating effective UX portfolios.

1. Be intentional

Anticipate what the interviewers are looking for. Give them what they need to choose you

Intentionality is pivotal when creating and presenting a UX portfolio.

These are a few things you should be clear on to stay intentional:

  • Know the skills the employers are looking for. This is crucial. The job market is tough, especially in the current economic climate. Employers look for specific skills. If you really want job X, you need to know what they want and convince them that you have those skills.

  • Pick case studies that showcase the skills needed. Pick and adjust your case studies to highlight the key skills. Don’t include too many case studies. Pick two or three that are most representative and relevant. I tend to recommend that candidates include one project that shows their end-to-end process and covers the majority of their skills, then add one or two other projects to demonstrate specific skills. For example, if you know the interviewers care about visual design, then use the second project to showcase strong visuals.

  • Make sure every element within a case study contributes to the overall narrative meaningfully. Don’t think there is an established structure for case studies. You may want to go through a checklist of sections to include. But case studies themselves aren’t precious or meaningful unless you are able to showcase the relevant skills. Adjust what you include and focus on based on the skills you need to demonstrate.

  • Know how you want to be remembered. Do you want to be remembered as a designer with strong craft; a designer with a thorough end-to-end process; or a designer with a solid user research background? You should be self-aware enough to know your intended outcome. Also, if you really want the job, you should aim to be remembered as the designer who matches the skills needed for the position perfectly, so it all goes back to understanding what the employers are looking for.

2. Be concise

“More” won’t get you noticed. Choose quality over quantity.

In continuation of the previous tip, here are a few things you SHOULDN’T waste precious time and attention on:

  • Don’t try to cover every single feature you designed in the project. You may have worked on MANY features in that project. But don’t present them as a laundry list. Showcase a few of the most representative ones. If you insist on presenting similar things, it’s very likely the interviewer won’t be impressed, but instead, will just get bored and lose attention.

  • Don’t spend too much time talking about things you didn’t personally work on. Sometimes, you may need to mention the research or designs some other team members have done to cover context but don’t spend too much time on it. And make sure you say explicitly that you didn’t work them yourself. Dive into areas you personally worked on. Always remember the interviewers are not interested in the actual project content, they are interested in you. Always center your portfolio around what you did, what skills you used, and what you learned.

  • Don’t walk through your general design process in a silo. Sometimes, when candidates start their portfolio presentation, they will introduce their general design process first. As an interviewer, I get almost nothing out of it. Anyone can find a generic design process online and walk through it. Ground your process within a case study. Use your case studies to show that your process is thorough. Don’t “tell” me—“show” me.

3. Be visual

An image is worth more than a thousand words

This one should be straightforward, and I hope you’ve already caught on to it. What distinguishes designers from other functions is that we are visual thinkers.

In portfolios, maximize the power of visuals:

  • Polish your mocks. Take your time to clean up and polish your design mocks. It matters less whether or not the mocks you show are the exact ones you created at the time of the project. If you didn’t have much time to polish the visuals because of time constraints or technical feasibility back then, mention that in your portfolio and create additional ones that will showcase your visual skills more accurately.

  • Polish your portfolio presentation. Make sure the portfolio itself is visually appealing. Give people the best first impression when they open your portfolio.

  • Simplify concepts with diagrams and graphs. Use diagrams and graphs to illustrate relationships between elements, data points, and research learnings. Your goal is that even if the interviewers don’t read beyond the headlines, they are able to get a high-level sense of the project and the overall narrative just by scanning the visuals.

  • Include process photos. Similarly to the point above, include process photos (e.g., you running workshops, conducting research, or sketches) to help people get a sense of your process quickly.

  • Use photos to evoke emotions. Lastly, add any other relevant photos that you think will help the viewers get the mood and context quickly. For example, if you are designing for sleep-related topics, show a bedroom in your cover photo. Don’t add too many decorative images. A few high-quality relevant ones go a long way.

4. Evoke emotion

People will forget what you said, but they will not forget how you made them feel

As a follow-up to the previous tip, I want to reinforce the importance of focusing on evoking emotions over covering every detail.

Interviewers don’t care much about the projects themselves—they care about if you are able to tell the story of the projects in an engaging way that highlights your key skill sets.

Here are a few ways you can keep your audience engaged and have them “feel” something after seeing your portfolio:

  • Again, use visuals. We’ve covered this in the previous section.

  • Use stories. Tell human-centric stories: what are the user problems; what are the emotions of the users when they face these problems; how does your solution improve their experience; what emotions does your solution give the users? Avoid using jargon, and focus on telling the human story.

  • Present with passion. When presenting your portfolio, be energetic and show care for the topic. Your energy will be the thing your interviewers will remember. If you want your interviewers to stay interested in your presentation, you have to first demonstrate passion and care for the topics you are talking about.

5. Stay true to who you are

Focus on showing the type of work you are actually excited to do more of

Lastly, I want to emphasize another part of being intentional. You have to know what you want, what skills you have and want to use further vs. skills you have but don’t want to develop.

When preparing your portfolio, stay true to what you really want. Don’t showcase skills that you don’t want to keep using or growing. You will be miserable even if you get the job.

To sum up, when preparing portfolios, you should:

  • Know who you are and what skills you are most proud of and want to use and grow further;

  • Know what employers are looking for and if what they are looking for matches what you can add;

  • If there’s a match, then tailor your portfolio to make it effortless for your employers to know that!