Career Transition to UX Design: Tips for Portfolios
What I learned as someone building a portfolio and now reviewing them when I interview designers for my company is, what you decide to keep or omit in your portfolio will show hiring managers your ability to surface relevant information, communicate clearly, and your collaborative style as a team member.
I went through 6 different drafts of my portfolio before getting my first job offer. In that time I asked for feedback from 4 designers and 2 hiring mangers and 1 recruiter, who gave me valuable perspectives. It was a lot of asking for help, hard work, and a great learning experience overall.
Your portfolio is a platform for telling your story. The design of your portfolio is also another opportunity to showcase your design skills. My goal for this article is to point you towards key information and additions to your portfolio that will lend credibility to your design experiences.
This is part 2 in a 3 part series:
Part 2: Tips for Portfolios
Please Keep In Mind
What skills make a candidate appealing is subjective. What design experiences are relevant will depend on the size and stage of the company, as well as their product and industry. The existing dynamics and skills of the design team affects the role for the next design hire. And then there is the background of the hiring manager, be they designers, product managers, or technical founders etc. which influences the kind of applicant that will stand out to them.
It may sound like a lot of variables, but what you need to think about is only what works for you. Your goal is not to bend yourself into a shape hiring managers will like. Your goal is to present yourself authentically and to the full extent of your skills and experiences.
Building your portfolio
As with your LinkedIn and Resumes, be clear about the context for each project. Surface the type of position (consulting, full-time), duration of the project, and your contributions (research, visual design, UI design, usability testing, design system etc.), what platforms you worked on, who else was working with you and their roles, and if relevant, what industry and stage the company was in.
Interviewers may ask you to present a project or two from your portfolio. Try to have one project that covers many skill areas, like research, usability testing, as well as visuals like user flows, wireframes, and high-fidelity mockups. If you don’t have a project that shows all of those aspects, try to promote 2 projects that, combined, make up the full picture of your skills.
For each project, clearly summarize the background of the product or feature, the problems you addressed, or the problems you uncovered, what you explored, what you tested, and what lead to your final design decisions, whether it is a technical limitation, user study insights, or a business consideration. Also talk about how you might improve on those designs if you continued refining the project.
Include designs that span platforms, web and mobile, in your portfolio. A minimum of 3 projects are enough, and shoot for no more than 6. Most hiring managers will only take the time to look at 1 or 2 projects anyways. Even though, our product design skills can translate across platforms, if you have an example of your work for a web app, it is more concrete to the hiring manager than a verbal assurance that you can “design for web”.
Do’s and Don’ts
Don’t: Wait to show anyone your portfolio because “it is not finished”.
Do: Show your portfolio to many designers and hiring managers and ask for their feedback. Treat it like a usability test, and see what happens if you give no direction to your viewer. Ask for and seek out examples of great portfolios from other designers for inspiration. Then make your portfolio your own.
Don’t: Wait to apply to jobs until your portfolio is perfected.
Do: Approach your portfolio with the mentality that done is better than perfect. If a job opportunity comes your way, don’t be caught without at least the “minimum usable” portfolio that you can show.
Don’t: Wait for projects to come to you.
Do: Be creative in how you get projects into your portfolio. If you haven’t had a chance to start volunteer projects or paid client work (another article on this later), create self directed projects that cover skill areas that lack representation in your portfolio. Missing web designs? Do a web app redesign for a site you like. Missing examples of usability testing because there wasn’t time? Add a testing round to one or two existing projects. A little light on UI designs? Create a short fun visual design project. Try to cap your projects at 1 or two weeks and complete them while you have the momentum. I got to my first onsite interview with only 3 projects, all self driven, you can do it too!
Don’t: Have any ambiguity as to what you worked on in a project and what your contribution was.
Do: Highlight information about your role in the project and your specific contributions, particularly if it is UI or Visual design, or UX research, usability testing etc. If you collaborated with another designer, clearly state what designs you owned, and what part of the process. Hiring managers want to know your skills as an individual so they can visualize how your skills would mix with their current team’s expertise. Try to reduce the confusion for them, and be transparent about your work.
Don’t: Present exhaustive research write ups in your portfolio, even if you want to position yourself as a researcher.
Do: For each project or feature, depending on the complexity, include only a few examples that encompass a challenge you encountered, assumptions you had, and what you discovered or surprised you. Show your ability to condense and prioritize information.
Hiring managers are looking for patterns in skills and experiences that match what they currently need for their team, which can vary a lot from company to company. Your portfolio should include how you work with technical constraints and business goals, as well as mapping diagrams and iterations from low fidelity to high fidelity.
Be curious about how your portfolio and resume comes across to designers and hiring managers. Ask for feedback early on. The hiring managers want to see your ability to discern important findings vs. white noise. Show that you can surface relevant research insights and highlight key design stages or processes that lead you to innovative designs.
Like I said in Part 1, your skills are a perfect match for a role out there, and yes it really exists!
Let me know if I have missed anything or if you would like further explanation. These are my opinions and experiences as a woman of color designer in tech. Although I like to think most of these tips can apply universally, your experiences may differ.