How to come up with sample projects for your UX portfolio (+ free template!)

4 min read
Sarah Doody
  •  Aug 22, 2019
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No matter what stage you’re at in your UX career, at some point you’ve had one of these thoughts:

“How do I get more UX experience if no one will hire me?”

“Is it true that recruiters look down on UX bootcamp projects?” 

“Should I do UX work for free to get experience?”

“I’m frustrated with daily UI challenges, they’re so surface level. What else can I do?” 

If you feel like trying to get your first, or next, UX role is a lot harder than you thought, then please know this one thing: you’re not alone.

Throughout the past two years of researching, prototyping, and optimizing my UX Portfolio Formula program, I’ve interviewed hundreds of UX professionals at all stages. At the beginning, my inbox was flooded with emails asking the same thing:

How do I get more experience in UX?

Back then I would file those emails away for later and think to myself, “If you can’t solve the problem of figuring out how to get more experience, then I don’t think you’re cut out for a career in UX.”  A key skill of a successful UX professionals, after all, is to be a prolific problem-solver. 

(Use InVision Freehand to brainstorm your way to powerful solutions.)

And the solution of finding ways to get more UX experience was pretty obvious to me.

Problem: “I need more projects for my portfolio”

Goal: “Find more problems to solve so I can get more experience”

And the solution? Well, you’ll have to keep reading.

My journey to UX projects

In the early 2000s I was working as a web designer at a large software company in Portland, Oregon. I did a bit of graphic and web design. One day I read the book, Information Architecture for the Worldwide Web, and realized I didn’t want to be making marketing event websites forever! UX was the perfect field for me because it was such a balance of left and right brain thinking. 

I had my eye on roles at Nike and Wieden+Kennedy—they had just started working on the Nike Plus running products, and it was my dream to work on them too! They even filmed the very first Nike Plus commercial literally right outside my apartment Portland, Oregon’s Pearl District. 

But, one problem: I didn’t have much UX experience. Therefore, my portfolio was not going to be competitive. Also, I hadn’t attended any UX bootcamps—in fact, those didn’t exist back then. I’m self-taught, so I didn’t have projects from any education program to rely on. What I knew for sure was that my little static marketing/brochure websites and banner ads (yes, I used to design banner ads) for the software company would not help me get the job I wanted. 

So, what did I do? How did I get more UX experience so that I could develop my UX skills and eventually have a stronger UX portfolio?

First, let me tell you what I did not do.

  1. Work for free. I already had paying freelance clients for graphic design projects, so I instead of working for free, I figured out how to get paying UX clients, keep reading to find out how I did it. In fact, I don’t think that ever occured to me!
  2. Embark on “visual design” makeover sprees. I didn’t just open up Photoshop and start re-designing things with disregard to any potential business problems or goals.
  3. Message strangers on Twitter and LinkedIn and ask “how do I get more experience in UX if no one will hire me?”

What I did to get more UX experience

With the goal of finding more UX problems to solve, I set out to find problems. But I knew I didn’t just want to give facelifts to popular websites. I wanted to tackle problems that also integrated business problems, because I knew that would make my portfolio stronger.

One of the three things I did to step up my UX portfolio.

So I headed out and did three things:

  1. I did freelance work, and I got paid. I told everyone I knew that I was available for freelance web design work. As a part of those projects, I simply baked in UX, whether they asked for it or not. At the time, that was mostly just user-flows and wireframes—I hadn’t learned to do research at the time. This resulted in doing work for a few startups in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles, all through word of mouth and my personal network.
  2. I became a prolific problem-spotter. I started to obsessively document the problems I encountered in the everyday world. This helped train my “problem-spotter” muscle, but also generated a ton of problems for projects I could have set out to solve. I ended up writing about some of the problems I spotted, for example:
  3. I entered design competitions. I know this can be considered free work, but here’s what I did. Online magazine Boxes and Arrows had a redesign competition (spoiler, I got second place). I decided to enter that competition because I thought:
    • It was a chance to get more UX practice with a well-defined brief.
    • It could get me more visibility in the industry.
    • It allowed me to work on a content site, something I hadn’t done yet.

Now can you see how this problem of “I don’t have much experience in UX” isn’t as hard as you think? It breaks down into two parts: 

  1. How do you find more UX projects? By now, hopefully, you have a few clear ideas of what you easily do in your everyday life.
  2. What do you do once you identify UX problems to solve? It’s one thing to identify problems to solve, it’s another to thoughtfully approach and work through that problem in way that represents the skills you want to highlight based on where you’re at in your UX career.

Here are the steps to follow as you work through a problem you spot in your life or surroundings. Get ready because this won’t your average surface-level problem to solve.

What to do after spotting an interesting problem

To help this make sense, let’s continue using my example of the problem I spotted. In 2013, my experience using the BART (San Francisco’s public transit system) ticket machines was very hard and complicated. 

Step 1. Decide what you need to get out of the project

Before you start, clarify what skills and experience you want to showcase through this project.

If you’re a user researcher for example, and you want to showcase more research skills, then do that. Don’t feel like you must take the project through to an interactive prototype. However, if you want to do experience design in the future, then maybe you would take the idea to a prototype phase. This step is crucial because it will help you focus the scope of what you do and develop a clear project plan.

Step 2. Make a project plan

You need to treat this UX project like a real project. By creating a project plan, you will have clear dates and deadlines for yourself—keeping the project on track. 

Step 3. Attempt to gather some additional information about the problem

Even if you are not a researcher, you should still try to find more details about this problem or topic. In a real-world project with clients and stakeholders you’d have information on the business as well as business goals.

This is what a project plan should look like. You can download your own free template here.

How do you find this information? Well, start with Google. I might Google phrases like “The usability of train ticket machines,” or stumble upon this article in the Guardian about a study from the Office of Rail and Road in Britain.

Or, if this were an eCommerce related product, you could go read about the usability of eCommerce and extensive studies on the Baymard Institute website, whose focus is improving the online experience of eCommerce.

Step 4: Establish some key hypothesis, assumptions, and goals

Yes, we know that these won’t be real. But by stating some parameters for the project, it helps recruiters and hiring managers have more confidence that you would do that on the job. Make the project reflect what you would do if was a real-life client.

“How might we decrease the time it takes for riders to purchase a ticket?”

“How might we decrease the number of phone calls to ticket support?”

(Download the free downloadable project plan template here.)

Step 5: Work your way toward the solution

The way you reach a solution will likely be different than how anyone else would. Why? Because as stated earlier, what you do for each project should help highlight your unique skills and experience. Do not feel like you have to go through all of these steps start-to-finish (eg. idea to working prototype) for every problem you solve.

I see too many designers do this, and it can actually end up hurting you. If you are a user researcher and are not good at experience design, what message does it send if you include your “attempt” at high-fidelity prototype?

As a user researcher, it’s okay if you are not good at experience design. Accept that and show your best research work. It’s a risk to show that interactive prototype if it is not very good—not to mention it’s a waste of your precious time.

Step 6: Document your work

After you do this project, you’ll then need to write it up as a case study for your portfolio. To make that even easier you can use two helpful resources (and this also applies to every project you do in the future).

  1. Use this Career Project Diary template to document your process as you go (and read this article).
  2. Use this UX Case Study Template to write a more detailed version of what you did (and read this article)
  3. A word of caution: projects aren’t a replacement for skills

    If you were doing a home renovation and needed a designer to help you turn your “fixer-upper” into something liveable, which designer would you want?

    • Designer A: This designer has an online portfolio of “fixer-uppers” that they’ve worked on over the past 3 years.
    • Design B: This designer has never designed a real-life “fixer-upper”. They do have a portfolio, but the projects in the portfolio are all renderings of the before and after of a hypothetical “fixer-upper”. 

    If it were me, I would want Designer A because they’ve worked on real-life houses. So it proves to me that they don’t just have the vision and the skills to use the software to make renderings, they have also been through the design process. They know how to collaborate with general contractors and tradespeople like plumbers and electricians to solve the inevitable problems that might come up during the redesign process.

    Designer B may have a great-looking portfolio, but I would be nervous that they might not understand all the details. For example, do they understand basic engineering to know whether or not taking out that big wall in the living room would be possible. Or, did they just remove the wall in their design software and not even consider the structural impact of that? 

    The point is that I see too many UX people thinking they can get hired with a portfolio of three “mock” projects, with zero other experience and little UX education.

    I won’t say this is impossible, but I would say it is rare for someone like this to actually get hired—and they’d likely be a “natural” at UX. 

    Please, for your own sake, have realistic expectations for your UX career.

    Practice projects that you do on your own are a great way to get more experience, practice, and showcase skills for your portfolio. But in the absence of real-world experience, you must work even harder to show your process and document your projects if you want to provide enough evidence that you stand out to recruiters and hiring managers.

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