This isn’t news that will surprise you: the UX job market is hot right now.

New opportunities are popping up in every major (and minor) market.

No matter what your UX stripe, you are most likely getting contacted nearly every week with some new enticing role. And, although the demand for UX talent far exceeds the supply, the competition for top roles at the most interesting companies is pretty fierce.

Hiring managers have high standards, and in order to respond quickly and effectively to the dream roles that cross your path, its critical to maintain a solid portfolio that you can share at a moment’s notice.

As a company that works every day with UX folks who are looking for a new opportunity, at Didus we are continuously surprised by the number of bad portfolios that cross our desks. On a certain level, it makes sense: you work on UX all day, and the last thing you want to do when you get home is even more of it, but if you want to take your career to the next level, it’s a necessity. Just as the cobbler’s kids have no shoes, UX designers don't always design their portfolios for their users.

So, What Makes For A Solid Portfolio?

Your portfolio should ably demonstrate the relationship between your process and your deliverables. To showcase only the final deliverables tells only a fraction of the story. Today’s UX hiring managers want to know how you work through a design process—often more than they even want to see the end result.

Not only that, to truly convey your design process to your viewer/user, you need to include narrative in your portfolio. Take it back to basics: a little show and tell. Show us your work while you telling us about your process. You shouldn't do one thing without the other.

Get All UX on Your Portfolio

We know UX is not a verb, but you need to turn the user-centered design lens on your own portfolio. Before compiling your work, first ask yourself who will actually be looking at this portfolio (who are your users)? What is the goal of the portfolio (what do the users want)? What’s the easiest way to get that result to them (design for use)?

There are typically four key pillars for a well-built portfolio:

1. Breadth and Depth

Give an indication of the breadth and depth of your design experience: Have you worked on web/mobile/desktop/tangible products? Do you specialize in native apps or multi-channel experiences that span internal applications, consumer-facing web portals, and e-comm? If you’ve worked on a variety of platforms you’ll want to select a variety of projects to showcase that will give your user an indication of your knowledge and experience.

2. Curating

Display your ability to curate your work. This demonstrates your understanding of what the essence of a project was. You should include 4-9 visuals that showcase the main steps/milestones of the design process for each project. We don't need to see all thirty wireframes for the added search bar. We just want the highlights.

It’s not the user’s job to sort through your pile of screenshots and glean that you are master of your domain. If you make the user work to look at your portfolio they are going to wonder if its an indication of chaos or carelessness in your work process.

Bottom line: do not annoy the hiring manager. You typically only get a few minutes of a their attention (if you’re lucky) before they decide whether to set up an initial conversation or not. If the first two minutes are spent opening Dropbox or downloading attachments before they can even start to review your work, you risk annoying the hiring manager, which doesn't improve your odds.

3. Narrative

Your portfolio should be an experience in and of itself. What’s your story as a designer? Explain—using words, not just screen shots—what it was you were tasked with and how you got to your solution. As with any narrative, there needs to be a flow: introduction, main body of work, conclusion.

4. Process Work

This is the meat and potatoes of what you do, so showcase it. Do you have photos of white boards with rainbows of post-its across them? Sketches of initial wires? Personas you’ve created? Annotated wireframes? Show them to us! The value you add as a UX designer is how you work through problems, so be sure to show that process in your portfolio.

Shaping the Beast

When it comes to formats for your portfolio, you’ve got a few options. You can create your own website, compile your projects on Behance, or create a PDF. There are pros and cons with any format, but whatever one you do choose, be sure that you always orient it to create the best user experience. Here are some suggestions:

Introduction
  • Lead with a visually engaging graphic or color with the goal of whetting the users appetite. This gets them primed for a visual experience and also introduces them to who you are as a designer.
  • Introduce yourself. Whether it's the landing page of your website or the leading page in a PDF, welcome the user and give a synopsis of who you are. This also primes the user as to what they are going to learn about you. Again, bring it back to the user: What are three things a hiring manager would want to know about you? How long have you been working in UX? What platforms or types of products have you designed for? What are your strengths as a designer? Do you derive great insight from research? Are you an IA genius? Are you able to code the front-end aspects of what you design?
Meat And Potatoes
  • Have at least three projects to showcase. If you are doing a PDF portfolio shoot for between three and five projects. If you have more than five projects that you want to share then you’ll want to go for a website format.
  • There was a process you took to get from the project brief to the final deliverable: it should be summarized in your portfolio. Have at least 4-9 steps of each process represented. Perhaps you lead with the original design you were asked to improve or give an overview of the question you were trying to answer while sharing a picture from whiteboard post-discovery session with the client or team.
  • Hiring managers want to see your process work. Show initial sketches from your design book. Show your first iteration of wireframes or process flows. Was detailed information architecture part of your process? Show that too.
  • It’s very complimentary to have a visual with a narrative box. Provide a picture of an annotated wireframe and explain what you were expecting the user to do.
  • As you guide the user through your process, talk about the challenges, hiccups, and speed bumps that popped up along the way. These random curve balls are often the elements that are harnessed to make a good project great.
  • Close with an image of the final deliverable (if possible). Be sure to note who did the visual design/coding if that wasn’t you.
Wrap it Up
  • Thank the user for taking the time to review your portfolio.
  • Reiterate your personal statement.

Conclusion

In today’s frenzied UX design market, you need a concise, narrative-focused portfolio to open the door to new design opportunities. Having a beautiful, well-presented compilation of your work not only sings to your skills and experiences as a designer, it shows a potential hiring manager that you take your craft seriously, and would therefore take your role on their team seriously.

Image of red pigment drop courtesy Shutterstock.

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Indeed! Thanks for the great articles! I find it very accurate as a UX researcher myself.

One of the critical skills of UX designer/researcher is to communicate. Even if one has extremely talented analysis or design skills, which are also required for UX researcher/designer, it is useless if he/she cannot present the findings/designs. 

In a short time, the hiring manager would skim through one's portfolio, representing one's whole career. So having a killer portfolio is essential. And I can't agree with you more on a killer portfolio is not about putting in beautiful design pictures. UX designers/researchers need to let their users (in this case, the hiring manager), grasp their stories and talents clearly and fast.

I like the word combination of "situation-action-impact" for portfolios. In each word UX professional can explain why they started the project (situation), how they did the project (action), and what is the project's impact (impact). 

And you have given us more details on how to put meat and potatoes in. Thank you again for the great article :)

Any ideas for documenting projects as you go? I think I'm going to just slug things into wordpress on a day-to-day basis, then they will be compiled for when I want to put them in a presentation...plus I can make diary entries about things like "had meeting about XYZ" .... but would be nice if one of the UX tools out there had that diary option or was built for recording the process (And could spit out a document!)

Hey AJ,

I think this is one of those cases where the search for the perfect tool gets in the way of just doing it in whatever way is easiest and readily available. For example, if you use Evernote for other stuff, use Evernote, or if you're savvy with a specific CMS like WordPress, use that. But really, just putting things into a directory structure on your computer would be more than sufficient. You can supplement assets with commentary by adding text files to any given directory, or keeping all the text in your diary and referring to files by their path. Some people use Behance or Coroflot, but those treat assets as discrete items and finished products, not as examples of how you used the UX toolkit to solve problems in a broader context. It's not that hard to pull together a portfolio using anything from Illustrator to PowerPoint to WordPress. The hard part is ensuring you have the assets and some memory of their meaning.

I wish more hiring managers think or 'rethink' the experience they provide to their applicants. Starts with emailing applicants to let them know what's going on - or - just to thank your for the CV and portfolio (moment of truth 1). Then it can continue with actually looking at the portfolio and reading (yeah, reading the words people put down into their portfolio), so later in the interview you can actually have a deeper conversation and don't need to go over the paperwork again (also shows some appreciation and dedication = moment of truth 2). Last one; think of the interview itself. I mean, really think about it how you as a designer would reimagine the 1-on-1 itself. How would a Paul Rand or Steve Jobs or David Carson interview a Jonny Eve? Why do you - UX hiring manager - interview your candidates like if they were about to start working in a fucking bank or law office? ... Moment of truth 3. One more: Feedback. Yeah - why not provide people feedback and let them exactly know what you think they need to work on. I am telling you why: Because it would make it obvious that you have no glue at all. Thanks for the time.

A lot of this makes sense for Interaction designers who work in the field. Not sure why a UX professional would talk about their visual design or coding in a portfolio. But the big thing (and this is a continual challenge for UX professionals) is the lack of reference to testing your portfolio. Otherwise the portfolio is just another interaction design piece that guesses if the user (talent agent/employer) "likes" what is in front of them. It appears we still have some educating to do about exactly UX professionals do.

"Not sure why a UX professional would talk about their visual design or coding in a portfolio."

If it doesn't have one of those components then it's not UX, it's IA :)

No, it's interaction design (probably wireframes or a protoype) without the actual functionality (code) and the colours, imagery, typography, etc (visual design)

Hi, I agree with you. I have a marketing background, but I spend a lot of my time researching and writing reports about UX and CRO. I'd like to specialise in UX and this article worried me a bit. I have some HTML and design skills, but these are not my core abilities. Would that be a problem if I wanted to specialise further in UX?

Sounds like a terminology fumble more than anything else. UxD does invariable involve visual design, else it wouldn't be design. However if what you're interested in is the core strategy, hierarchy, flow, layout etc, then that's IA, which is a part of UX.

You'll get a slightly different answer from everyone you ask, but the above represents (IMO) the generally accepted approach to the terminology.

The advice I always give, especially to young ux designers just starting out or coming out of a design program with a slimmer portfolio, is to blog. I think it's really important to not just show artifacts of your work, but also your personality and thought process in general by blogging about projects, trends in the industry, or other interesting tidbits you pick up along the way. If anything else, you can always reference your blog to refresh yourself on some useful content you saw a year or so ago. It also helps you remember and process certain concepts or techniques.

This is fantastic advice, I'd love to know why 65 people 'downvoted' you, I'm perplexed to be honest.

Thanks for this. I'm teaching a class on this topic on Skillshare (for those who are interested), and will add this article to the reading list.

http://skl.sh/1alp3S4

-eva

A really good article!
This highlights all the key factors to make a great portfolio.
Don't forget to ensure you portfolio whether it is PDF or a website, is strikingly beautiful and unique.
It needs to reflect your sense of style... your USP!!!! Bold imagery with a small amount of annotation works great because the users eye is always drawn to imagery first.

Thanks again for a great read.

Excellent advice, and a great read — thanks for sharing your tips!

"Do you have photos of white boards with rainbows of post-its across them? Sketches of initial wires? Personas you’ve created? Annotated wireframes?"

YES! And they are ALL under an NDA! Any practical tips for "showing" work you can't show?

NDAs are common, and hiring managers anticipate that. One way around it is to grey out content in wireframes, or to take a picture of the white board at a strong angle so the writing on the notes is not readable. You could also re-sketch some of the wires with very basic content to give the viewer an idea of what it looked like. We've seen personas with just the photo, name, age and the rest fuzzed out. The important thing to convey is what sort of deliverables you can produce and how you work through the design process. Hope this helps!

Oh yes, let me just search for an image of a white board for my portfolio...

I have done a bunch of research and work in this area — check out betteruxportfolios.com where i go forensic on some of the issues. People generally appreciate most of what I am saying.