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How to create a UX portfolio without UX experience

4 min read
Sarah Doody  •  Dec 20, 2018
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This is the third post in Sarah Doody’s portfolio series. Read the first one, The product of you, and the second one, What format should your UX portfolio be in?, when you’re done here.

So you want to get a job in UX?

Most job descriptions require X years of experience—but what if you don’t have any experience? What if this will be the first UX role that you’ll be hired for?

At least once a week someone asks me,“It’s not fair, how do i get experience if no one will hire me so I can get experience?”

The struggle is real, especially with UX bootcamps and education programs nonstop turning out graduates who are all trying to get hired.

There’s a lot of competition out there, and even if you did UX projects in your UX education program, your portfolio may get passed over, here’s why:

“Because they do a lot of group projects, I can recognize a lot of the same projects over and over again,” says Jon Fox, UX and Product Design Lead at OpenX, regarding the those who have graduated from General Assembly’s immersive UX program.

Related: The UX of hiring for UX positions

“Because they do a lot of group projects, I can recognize a lot of the same projects over and over again,” regarding the those who have graduated from General Assembly’s immersive UX program.

Jon Fox, UX and Product Design Lead at OpenX
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And this, dear reader, is why you absolutely have to consider the UX of your UX portfolio. Imagine you’re a recruiter or hiring manager.

Give recruiters something to think about.

Because, seriously, seeing the same class project over and over— how boring is that?

So, what can you do to get that crucial UX experience?

Honestly, you have to treat this like a UX problem. If you can’t solve this problem, then I think you’ll have trouble staying in a UX role if you are hired. The best UX designers I know are both problem solvers and problem spotters.

Who’s a problem spotter?

A problem spotter is someone who can observe a situation, environment, or product and quickly identify obvious (and not-so-obvious) flaws in the experience.

A problem spotter does not jump straight to solution after spotting a problem; instead, the problem spotter savors the process of trying to understand the “why” behind the problem.

They study the situation.

They wonder, observe, and inquire.

Then, and only then, do they create a solution.  

Once you get into the habit of being a problem spotter, you won’t be able to see the world the same again. Problems will jump out at you all the time.

How can I become a problem spotter?

It takes work.

Challenge yourself to go a whole week and document all the problems you see.

See a problem? Write it down.

Keep a note on your phone, take photos, screenshots, shoot quick video, however you do—and you’ll be amazed at just how many problems there are. This will give you a huge bank of ideas that you can pursue to get more UX experience.

Does it count if I wasn’t paid?

Though I don’t advocate working for free, I do see value in doing self-initiated projects to practice and demonstrate your skills.

Related: 4 freelancers share their advice on taking the right risks

Yes, many job descriptions say “1 – 2 years experience”—however, the (many) recruiters and hiring managers that I’ve talked to say that for junior positions, they don’t discount self-initiated projects.

If you don’t just approach the project as a facelift, and instead show some structured thought and intended problem to solve, that work will be taken into account.

Related: Advice from women in design on building a great portfolio

The point is to show your work and process—and to demonstrate your ability to not only do the work but to communicate what you did.  

3 ways to get more UX experience on your own

1. Fix an existing product

Look closely at the products you use every day. Consider the problems in their experience—but don’t just rely on what you think.

Take the time to do a bit of surrogate research to see if others have express concerns around that product as well.

Related: Unpacking design problems

Go do a quick Twitter search, look at the app reviews, check out the company’s Facebook page or reviews, Google to see if anyone’s written about it before.

One note of caution: do not let yourself put the solution before the problem. Don’t jump right to the solution; this problem might actually be a symptom of a larger underlying problem. Take the time to follow the steps you’d take if this were a real client of yours. Don’t just jump right to a design tool and start giving it a makeover.

2. Explore a problem space

While you’re out problem-spotting, you’ll hopefully start to notice some existing, and unaddressed, problems.

Maybe you’re planning a trip with a group of friends and you notice just how hard it is to create a rough budget, itinerary, and logistics. You realize you may not be alone in this, and after asking your friends, you find out they’ve been struggling with this too.

This would be an opportunity to conduct some research to explore this problem—and see if people outside of your friend group are struggling with this too.

Provide food and the friends will follow.

Again, make sure you don’t jump to a solution. Go conduct some actual research—try doing a user research survey, and then consider doing some one-on-one interviews. Don’t forget to see if there are any other products that try to solve this problem, and consider doing a competitive analysis or heuristic evaluation on a few of them.

3. Create a prototype for a new idea

After you explore a problem space and you’ve confirmed both the problem the opportunity, then start solving!

Make sure you actually follow through on the design process, though: a great way to do this is to pretend like it’s not a project for you, it’s a project for a client. This will help you make sure you don’t skip steps in the process and get lost in the design details.

You do not want to simply have a bunch of screens—because the people looking at this project in your portfolio want to see your process. It’s a big yellow flag if you do not show your process, because people will wonder if you’ll skip the process once they hire you!

To give you tangible ideas, here are links to some well done self-initiated projects that I found on Medium. I selected these projects because the person’s process really stood out, and there’s a lot of thoughtful effort that went into them.

These aren’t just “make it pretty” exercises; each one has clear context, problem, and purpose.

Learning to be a problem spotter is a skill that will help you not only get more UX experience early in your career but also help you in your career for the long term. If you can train yourself to see beyond the symptoms and avoid the temptation to jump straight to the solution, you’ll be able to get to the root problems and solve the bigger problems for the products and businesses that you work with in the future.

Want to learn more about creating a great portfolio?