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4 steps for choosing the right projects for your UX portfolio

4 min read
Sarah Doody  •  Jun 12, 2019
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This post is not going to give you a checklist of the projects you need to include in your UX portfolio.

Why? Because that wouldn’t make sense. The projects in your UX portfolio need to be evidence of the skills you have and the type of roles you’re applying for. There is no “one-size-fits-all” list of UX projects you should do or include in your UX portfolio.

Instead, this article will give you a framework for deciding which projects make sense for you and your career goals.

Why should you trust me? For the past two years, I’ve been teaching UX professionals how to create a UX portfolio that gets results inside my program, UX Portfolio Formula. My students have been hired at American Express, Home Depot, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, Deloitte, Warner Brothers Entertainment, Fjord, and many more. We just crossed the 1,000 students mark!

If you have enough projects under your belt to pick and choose, this will help you narrow down the very best to include.

1. Figure out your  UX professional identity

Your UX portfolio’s purpose is to provide evidence of your skills—and to let the person looking know you’re capable of doing the things you say you can. And, equally important, that you can do what that person is looking for.

The phrase “I’m a UX designer” means so many different things that it doesn’t really mean anything at all. When you want to describe yourself, it’s not enough to throw on a title; instead, focus on developing a personal mission statement of sorts describing what you do in terms of skills.

So, if you’re a UX designer and researcher, your mission statement should provide clarifying details like your experience with various forms of research and whether or not you also do visual design (a common assumption with the term “UX designer”).

If you’re an interface designer, your mission statement should help people understand what you mean by “interface.”, Do you also design wireframes, or do you take someone else’s wireframes (experience design) and translate that to the actual interface? Do you also manage detailed design systems? What about illustrations and graphics?

After you do this exercise, you’ll have a preliminary list of the skills you need to showcase in your UX portfolio. But we’re not done yet.

2. Study job descriptions to understand skill requirements

This is where user research skills play a role.

To figure out the skills you should highlight in your portfolio (or brush up on), you have some work to do:

  1. Study job descriptions from companies and roles you’re interested in.
  2. Take note of the specific skills they mention, and add them to the skills you noted in Step 1.

As an example, here is a real job description found on LinkedIn:

If you make the mistake of only reading the job title and skimming the description, you will miss a lot of clues that reveal exactly what the company is looking for and things you may want to clarify before or during an interview.

Now you can start to see what skills potential employers are looking for, and what skills you might need to develop.

I recommend literally cutting and pasting bullet points from job descriptions into a document so that you can use this as a reference. Students inside my UX Portfolio Formula program have also used these as the basis for their cover letters, so each one is formulated for the exact job requirements.

  • Tip: This is a great activity to do if you’re brand new to UX because it will help you hone in on what skills you should develop. Take into account, though, that some job descriptions are completely unrealistic.

How to identify an unrealistic job ad: Job descriptions riddled with every UX deliverable and talk of “unicorns” and “code ninjas” are obvious red flags. A few more are laid out in this postterrible UX job descriptions by design expert Jamal Nichols. If you’re in doubt, ask a friend or join a trusted UX community to get feedback from others.

If you’re unsure whether some of your skills are strong enough, let current or past colleagues be the judge.  There are skills that come to us so naturally that we don’t appreciate them as strengths—and conversely, we can have blind spots where we aren’t as experienced as we thought.

Asking for candid feedback will help you understand your professional “worth” from the perspective of someone who’s judging.

3. Inventory the projects you’ve worked on

This next step is mandatory for all of my portfolio students: list all of the projects you’ve worked on, along with some high-level details about each one.

Some examples of helpful details:

  • What industry was this project for?
  • What area did this focus on (eg. research, interaction, information architecture, etc)?
  • What type of product was this (eg. SaaS, B2B, enterprise, etc)?
  • Rough timeline (eg. a few months, design sprint, more than a year)?
  • Key outcomes or learnings?
  • How excited/proud are you of the project?
  • Was it done in the “real world,” a bootcamp, or a personal side project?
  • Do you think you should include it in your portfolio?

Going through this project inventory exercise is a critical step in organizing all of the projects you have to work with for your portfolio. Once you have them all documented, you’ll be able to quickly jog your memory before meetings and interviews to cite projects that might not have made it into your portfolio’s “final cut.”

Side note: If you’re brand new to UX and don’t have a bank of projects to choose from, this exercise will give you a framework to help you document as you go. The bonus? You’ll have a record of all the projects you’ve done, which will be very useful in the future—and save you from having to work backwards.

4. Select projects for your portfolio that they match your skills

Now that you have a list of skills you’ll need for the roles you’re interested in, and a list of all the projects you’ve worked on and are proud of, you can start to identify future projects that will best show off your skills.

A few important tips to guide you through this process:

  • Aim for quality, not quantity. Recruiters and hiring managers would rather see three well-thought-out and presented projects than ten projects that skim the surface.
  • Variety will keep people interested. Try to switch up the industries and processes you feature. If you only have four projects and they are all mobile design sprints, it will feel repetitive. If every project followed the same process and has the same deliverables, they’ll all blur together for the user.:  
  • Prioritize real world and personal projects. The risk of featuring projects that you worked on with a group of designers (like education program and boot camp projects), is that it’s hard to identify your contribution. To highlight your skills, you’re better off showcasing projects you owned from A-Z.
  • Divide large projects into multiple projects. Did you work on a multi-month redesign for a big project? Instead of fighting to explain all of your work in one slide, divide it into separate mini-projects. This will let you highlight key steps without worrying about them getting lost in a sea of details.

Let’s see these tips in action

The UX portfolio of Ruth Cardona does an excellent job of communicating who she is as a UX professional and the projects she selected are clear evidence of her skills. Let’s take a deeper look.

On the homepage, there is a strong and clear statement about what she does. It’s clear that she took time to think about her professional identity, as per the first step outlined above. Her professional description goes beyond saying, “I’m a Product Designer”—she takes it a step further to make it clear that she focuses on experience design and business analysis. So, clearly, Ruth is not a visual designer who you’d hire to make a complex design system.

Next, consider the projects that Ruth included in her portfolio. If someone only visited her homepage, and never clicked into a project, they would have a strong sense of Ruth’s experience. Her projects are strong evidence of her experience design, research, and business analysis experience. If Ruth also had branding, animation, and design systems projects, it would send a confusing message to the user of her UX portfolio.

Further, on the homepage, she went beyond simply providing a screenshot of each project—she provides context before ever getting to the project detail page.

Select projects with strategy

Don’t fall into the trap of selecting work that you think is visually appealing. You know that UX is so much more than that!

Using this framework will help ensure that:

  1. You are clear on who you are as a designer
  2. You have a clear personal about me/mission statement
  3. You know the skills that each role is looking for
  4. You choose projects that reflect your skills and the skills that employers are looking for

If you want to stand out, it’s crucial that you carefully select the projects to include in your portfolio. Hiring managers and recruiters have very limited time and they need to see evidence of your skills and have confidence that you will be an asset to their team.

Want to read more about creating a kick-butt portfolio?

Want more actionable tips for your UX portfolio, job search, and interview prep? Sarah Doody’s UX career resources have helped people get hired at companies including Home Depot, Google, American Express, Amazon, Salesforce, GM Financial, Prudential, Deloitte, Warner Brothers, and more. Find all of Sarah’s UX career resources here.