How to craft a great UX design portfolio
Lizette Spangenberg, Practice Lead: UX & UI Design at DVT
Designers design things. Right? It's in the name: design-er. And even better, we're UX designers. Experience designers. We craft experiences. So why on earth would you not design and craft the experience of your CV and portfolio? They're the first things potential employers or clients see of you. And if that's an uninspiring or confusing experience, why would they trust you to craft experiences for them or their clients?
Why do I need a portfolio?
Portfolios can serve different purposes. Firstly, to get you a job, and secondly, It could be used to sell your skills to prospective clients if you're working as a consultant or contractor.
The good news: you don't need a formal degree to be a UX designer (If you need resources to learn UX things, I wrote an article about that). You just need an awesome portfolio, and to show that you know what you're doing. So I'm going to take you through mine as a bit of a case study. Don't get me wrong, I'm by no means saying mine's perfect, but it *has* gotten me hired a few times.
I'm writing this not only from the perspective as an experienced UX designer myself but also as someone who's been on the other side of the hiring process screening hundreds of portfolios.
So where do we start?
The cover page, you say? Hold on there for a second. Remember that we're not just designing your portfolio, we're designing the *experience* of your portfolio. And the first thing people will most likely experience of your portfolio is the e-mail you send and the link you give to your portfolio. Yes, I know that in this day and age there are a myriad of different ways people can connect with you, but bear with me, I can't cover every possible scenario. Maybe you were headhunted and they asked you to apply, or maybe you're just applying on your own.
Either way, you need to introduce yourself, give a quick blurb about yourself, and explain why you're applying for that specific role at that specific company. Personalise your message to the company, and even include something about work of theirs you've seen. You'd be surprised how many people apply to jobs without even being 100% sure what the company does. It makes you instantly seem a bit desperate and lazy.
Small sidenote: don't start your e-mail with "Hi, my name is Liz and I'd like to apply for XYZ job…". It'll likely be automatically flagged as spam (because so many spam/phishing emails begin with "Hi, my name is X and I'd like to give you money") and your e-mail will probably never be seen. I've actually tested that theory, and it went straight to junk.
Now that you've introduced yourself, on to the portfolio!
There are various ways to display portfolios. You can create online showcases on Behance or Dribbble, create your own Web site on Wix or Wordpress, or use an old-school pdf. This list is by no means exhaustive; there are many other platforms you can use. Use whatever works best for you.
My portfolio is a pdf with embedded links. While it may not be the most technologically advanced medium, I like having full control over the fonts, layout, and spacing, as well as how it's displayed on a screen. Plus I haven't had the patience to figure out how to customise Wordpress templates.
In the case of a pdf portfolio, remember that what you name the file is important. Often recruiters/hiring managers/whoever might throw several portfolios in one folder and then send the link to the person reviewing the portfolios. If your portfolio is named Portfolio_Finalfinal&$#final.pdf (don't lie, we've all named files that at some point), one, I can't search for your portfolio by your name, and two, you immediately look unprofessional. Spangenberg_Liz_Portfolio_Feb_2020.pdf tends to be my format. Surname first for practical sorting reasons, and date for my own reference.
Let's have a look at that cover page.
Name, which portfolio this is, and contact details. This is my general, condensed portfolio which features four projects. It's not everything I've ever done (obviously), but it's enough to give people an idea of what I'm capable of.
I always let people know that I'm happy to send an extended portfolio with more projects, or portfolios in more specialised areas if needed. For instance, I have an app design portfolio as well, and I could easily put together portfolios for different mediums (Android/iOS/hybrid/web) or specific industries (fintech/medical/etc) if necessary.
Because my portfolio is in pdf format, I want to make it easy for people viewing it to see it in its best format (which is full screen). So I added shortcuts for the most commonly used pdf viewers on page 2. It's a small detail, but I've gotten comments on the fact that I considered the experience of the portfolio, and not just the content thereof.
What should you put in your portfolio?
The number one thing I'm looking for in a portfolio is HOW YOU THINK.
- What was the brief or the problem you were trying to solve?
- How did you approach it?
- What methodologies did you use?
- How did you solve it?
- If possible, what were the outcomes of the project; ie, did it increase sales by 5 000% or save 200 baby penguins?
Because of this focus on process and thinking, I find it essential to showcase HOW I work and dedicate an entire page to it.
Experience design is about how you think, and how you approach problems. There is no "one size fits all" step by step process to solve the type of problems we need to tackle for clients. It's therefore essential for me to show the different kinds of methodologies I'm comfortable employing to tackle problems and briefs. It lets clients know that I'm versatile, can think on my feet, and that I've used different strategies that have worked for previous clients.
I put a LOT of time and effort into this page. While the project pages may be flashier, most projects are generally team projects. I was the team lead on most of those projects, but I can't take all the credit for how they turned out. I've been lucky to work with some awesome devs and designers to create these solutions. My process and approach to projects are my own though, and what sets me apart. I find it vital to showcase that because I'll bring that to anything I'm working on.
Now for the fun part: getting into the actual projects.
I've set up a template layout for my project pages to make it easier for me to focus on the content as opposed to redesigning every page. The consistency of layout also makes it easier for people to skim the content.
The first project in my portfolio is (in my opinion) the strongest: you want to start with a bang. I did a case study on this project which I presented at the UX South Africa Conference in 2018, so it's also the project that I analyse in the most detail.
I show a few different screens from the app, a snapshot of the testing we did, and the fact that this chatbot functions across three different platforms, each of which required a different UX consideration. The full case study for this project is published on Medium, linked with an interactive button in the pdf (available here if you're interested).
On the next page, I conduct an in-depth analysis of different elements of one screen of the app to explain the process we went through to design the project. Every single element was carefully considered, and I discuss the rationale for it.
This is the only project that I discuss in this much detail. While I can do this level of analysis for each project, it's rather unlikely that a potential employer will read four different in-depth analyses. I still have rationales for each project after this, but I keep it more high-level.
Next is one of the more recent projects I had worked on at the time of making the portfolio (July 2019): a concept design for a client of a Web-based dashboard. It incorporates different modules which makes it a very flexible design. Rationale and responsibilities on the left of the page, and a few pages to show the outcome of the project.
This Web-based marketplace concept was very interesting to work on as there were two main user types of the site, and both had to be equally represented on the landing page.
Lastly: a project that I wrote the CSS and parts of the HTML for, which makes it unique, and an important part of my skill set that I want to showcase.
And finally: it never hurts to thank people for taking the time to look through your portfolio.
And that's it, folks! I hope this case study helps a bit, and you have some more direction. Look out for the next article in this series that will focus on frequently asked questions about UX portfolios. Feel free to get in touch on Twitter if you have more questions.