5 Expert Tips on Building an Amazing Design Portfolio

It’s 6 p.m., and your stomach is growling. You look around and spot a new Thai place you’ve never tried—but before committing, you check out its Yelp page. And good thing you did. The pictures of the food aren’t too appetizing, and plus, the reviews are lukewarm to cold.

You quickly decide to instead eat a nearby seafood restaurant boasting an impressive five star ranking and hundreds of happy commenters.

This scenario probably sounds pretty familiar. Yet it’s not unique to Yelp—in fact, it takes place in the UX world all the time. Rather than using pictures and reviews to pick dinner places, clients and employers are reviewing projects and testimonials to choose designers.

Want to create (metaphorical) lines out the door for your business? Create the portfolio equivalent of a five-star Yelp page.

At a recent General Assembly panel, 

Christine Pizzo, a manager and senior UX/UI experience designer at Intrepid Pursuits, Maureen Barlow, a senior UX designer at Harvard Business Review, Brian Durkin, a UX design director at LeapFrog Systems, and Mark Hazlewood, a product designer at HubSpot, revealed what you need to know to build a killer UX design portfolio.

1) Think Quality, Not Quantity

According to the designers, cramming your virtual book with projects is usually a bad idea. First, there’s no way the typical employer will review every clip: Pizzo said she normally spends two or three minutes per portfolio.

Let’s say you’ve got 10 to 16 samples. Either the person looking at your portfolio will only take cursory glances at the first six, or they’ll spend a little more time checking out the first three.

Either way, you’re not getting their full attention on every piece. So why through the effort of including so many?

Pizzo and the others said that four to six projects is the sweet spot.

With six case studies, Teslim Alabi’s portfolio just makes it under the bar:

Teslim Alabi UX Designer Portfolio

2) Select Your Pieces Carefully

The next challenge is, of course, choosing which projects to include.

Your first criteria should be the caliber of the work: Which projects are the strongest? You should display your best piece first and your second-best piece last, which will guarantee that you start and finish strong.

(Plus, thanks to the primacy and recency effects, people will automatically remember these projects more.)

Next, think about which projects will show your range. Maybe the two projects you’ve already selected showcase your iOS design skills; for your next two, you might want to focus on desktop or Android UIs.

Or perhaps you typically use an Agile approach 50% of the time, and the ISD methodology for the other 50%. It would be smart to pick half Agile projects, half ISD ones—that way, you can show employers you’re equally adept with these models.

Just remember: no one wants to see the same thing four times. If all of your projects look really similar, your audience will quickly lose interest.

Your strategy should also change if you’re presenting a stand-alone portfolio to a specific client or employer. In these scenarios, choose the pieces that speak most strongly to the role. For instance, if you’re applying to an ecommerce startup, you’d want to highlight the projects you completed for online retailers. Or if you’re a freelancer looking into a gig that’ll require extensive usability testing, include the projects that demanded a higher than average amount of user research. 

3) Provide Plenty of Context

Some professionals only show their final products. However, the panelists said that when they review portfolios, they’re equally—if not more—interested in the process. After all, without the “before,” the “after” is pretty meaningless.

That’s why they highly recommend putting in some illustrations of what the product looked like before you touched it. If it was just a concept in the client’s head, find the project brief or write one yourself.

You should also include your sketches, wireframes, mockups, and notes. This documentation reveals how you think, which is crucial to anyone who’s thinking of hiring you.

Each entry should tell a story. Present the objective, the constraints, the materials, what you knew, what you didn’t know, how you found that information, the challenges you encountered along the way, and what “success” ultimately ended up looking like.

If you’re lucky enough to have quantified results, those should definitely be in your portfolio. For instance, imagine your companion app for an ecommerce store led to a 104% increase in mobile sales, or your responsive redesign increased average time on page by 10 seconds. These real world impacts are hugely impressive—and they tell prospective clients and employers you’re the real deal.

4) Get Raw

Inexperienced UX designers often strive to make their portfolios look beautiful, the speakers said. Doing so is a mistake.

“It doesn’t have to be pretty,” explained Pizzo. “That’s what distinguishes a UX designer from a visual one.”

Being authentic and honest is actually far more important. If you racked up failures along the way, don’t gloss over them.

5) Phone a Friend

The designers recommended showing your portfolio to mentors and friends to get their take. Because you’re so wrapped up in your own work, it’s hard to tell where your portfolio falls short. Your connections, however, will have enough distance to objectively judge it.

Ask, “What do you think of these projects? Are there enough background details? Does my passion come through? What do you think of the writing? Does this portfolio makes you want to hire me?”

You don’t want to fall into the opposite trap of having too many opinions, so consult with six or seven people at the max.

If you’re relatively new to UX design, you might not know anyone whom you can ask for feedback. That’s completely okay; instead, upload specific elements of your portfolio to Dribbble or Behance to get other designers’ opinions.

You can also try requesting comments via Stack Exchange, Quora, Reddit, Designer News, a design Slack group, or any other online community. (But tread with caution: Not every user is an expert, so if you receive a suggestion that seems off, don’t follow it.)

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