What makes a great UX design portfolio?

Illustration by Sabrina Newsome

Over the course of my career, I’ve looked at hundreds of portfolios and interviewed many dozens of candidates. I am often asked what makes a great UX design portfolio and wanted to share my thoughts. Opinions here are my own, and everything suggested is aimed at hopefully helping designers — especially those just starting their careers.

When considering whether to hire someone, I take into account the three classic questions:

  1. Can they do the job? Do they have the relevant skills, appropriate experience, etc.?
  2. Will they want to do the job? Will the job interest them? Are they overqualified, which brings a risk of boredom?
  3. Would I want to bump into them in the office kitchen? This is as simple as whether they are pleasant to be around. Team dynamics are critical; how does the candidate speak about peers (and especially subordinates if applicable) and demonstrate collaboration?

A portfolio is the first step in this process and, coupled with a CV / resume, determines if an interview is taking place. It then becomes a critical tool throughout the interview to demonstrate work and process. Sharing and presenting your portfolio can be very intimidating, but as tough as it may seem, interviewers want you to be successful so they can fill the role. Here are the steps I have found to help make that happen.

Managers want to focus on your work, don’t create a complex or novel structure that will take time to figure out. Despite the many hours you put in, it’s unlikely managers will spend more than a few minutes looking through your portfolio, so keep it very easy to navigate and edit ruthlessly. I would encourage a highly skimmable gallery page of projects with links to individual deep dive case studies. Arrange them in order of most important to least, and if you have a showcase project, make sure it has the greatest place in the visual hierarchy.

There are mixed reviews on starting with a profile picture and short bio to add character. I personally prefer to start with the work and go to the bio section afterwards, if the work warrants it. That being said, you want your portfolio landing page to clearly articulate your strengths — for example, if you specialise in Motion, that should be very apparent from the homepage.

Once into a case study, succinctly show the project from start to finish and clearly articulate your role. Provide evidence of understanding the problem and user needs, ideation, concepts and navigation maps through to final polished results. Too often, I see portfolios that just show the end results, giving me no sense of how the candidate works.

If possible, prototypes are a highly impactful way to show work, both in portfolios and in interviews. These do not need to be high fidelity; in fact, it’s great to see evidence of paper prototypes up to high fidelity ones. If you include videos, make sure they are extremely well edited and concise.

Case studies should be the longest section of your portfolio, but they should still be highly skimmable. Think headers such as “Problem statement”, “Research”, “Ideation”, etc. Managers know that in reality the UX process can get messy (I often describe the process as trying to unknot one of those thin gold necklace chains), but try to tell your project as a story in succinct, bite size chunks. I would suggest that a case study take no more than 2 or 3 minutes to read.

In student work I often see colour palettes and logo designs. If you are focusing on the UX route, this is less important; it is much more valuable to show your understanding of your user’s needs — which leads us neatly to the next and most critical section.

For a UX role, a palpable passion for understanding and designing for user needs is the most critical part of the portfolio (and interview). I’ve conducted interviews with designers who said UX research on their project didn’t happen because they didn’t have a dedicated researcher, and it more or less ends my consideration of them as a suitable candidate. By contrast, one intern I hired tested her designs by stopping people on the street to run basic usability tests on one project, and on another proactively shadowed factory workers to design a touchscreen UI that could be used with their heavy gloves on. Her determination to fail fast and understand user needs regardless of her job title had me completely sold that she would do right by our users.

Personas in portfolios are common, and while these can be useful I would advise caution. Unless thoroughly well researched they can become a debilitating crutch — I’ve seen the persona of a Caucasian, tech savvy twenty-something male living in a city more times than I care to count. Maybe this is your perfect target user, but you might be severely limiting yourself. Consider a range of ages, ethnicities, genders, geographies and accessibility needs. And avoid cliché stock photo imagery like the plague.

Accessibility comes in many forms. Consider permanent disabilities (for example, blindness) as well as temporary ones (such as not being able to see screens in bright sunlight) and a range of design solutions to meet those needs. I once had a candidate who designed a bike app that relied entirely on a touch UI with small buttons, meaning the biker had to be at a full stop with excellent eyesight and perfectly optimised weather to use it. Consider how the design would have adapted if the designer had considered usage when raining (so the phone is tucked away in a pocket). What about if used in a country where literacy is lower or GPS is less reliable, or how about for a biker just learning to cycle and nervous about city traffic? Yes, you can have a target market, but show evidence of, and passion for, understanding and designing for all kinds of people.

As mentioned above, a palpable passion for solving user problems is the most critical aspect of a portfolio, but as designers we get joy from beautiful designs as well, and your portfolio needs to look the part. Your portfolio should be thoughtfully designed and structured (which, after all, is evidence of user centred design for the user: the UX manager) and also have a polished feel.

I would discourage the use of gimmicks — stick to a clean, minimal and fully responsive UI. This will also make it easier to keep it up to date as you are not trying to be trendy. Pick solid images, ensure they are at good resolution (though not so large that they take time to load) and look for visual consistency between them. Pick a couple of fonts, maximum, and ensure they are highly legible.

In terms of additional content, I’d encourage including relevant blogs, speaking events, illustrations, photography, etc., which shows a bit more of your personality and presence in the UX community — this can be in your “about” section and is secondary to your body of work. You can include a list of programs that you use (on the portfolio and/or on your CV), but I am never fussed about those. If I see evidence of a robust process and output, then I don’t mind which software you used.

It’s a chicken and egg situation. You need the work for the portfolio to get the first job, but you need the first job to get the work for the portfolio. You can and should include any school projects, but real world projects trump student work, which can have a cookie cutter feel to them. Nothing beats real work examples, which have greater complexity, more difficult dynamics and greater stakes.

My advice: find a way to intern somewhere while studying. I know this can be a financial luxury not everyone has. In my own career I was very fortunate, but I also worked my tail off, especially in the early days. In my summer break during my MA in London, I worked at the Natural History Museum helping visitors find the relevant exhibition (this usually involved saying “The dinosaur exhibition is round the corner to the right” several dozen times a day), but on my days off I interned in their digital department doing whatever grunt work was left over and helpful for the team. Their department got free labour, and I got some portfolio work and a taste for whether this work appealed to me as a career.

Finding an intern program right now is especially difficult. Work your network for any relevant leads. Perhaps reach out to charities or other local businesses and offer your services. You can also look online for volunteer opportunities. I wish there was an easier answer here, but show grit, work hard and keep going. Luck plays a part, but the harder I worked, the luckier I got, so keep trying.

This one is tricky, and there is not an easy answer. My first suggestion is to look for any aspect of the product that is live to your users that you can include in your portfolio. Perhaps as a minimum, show a few live images with a description of your role. Focus on non-confidential aspects of your process such as your leadership and areas of expertise.

Other methods I have seen include password protecting projects and still limiting the content available. Use discretion and common sense — for example, posting an abstract sketch vs a detailed interface prototype, or redacting key aspects of the UI. You can also inform the recruiter / application that work is confidential and abstract it for interviews.

If you have enough experience with the company, you should be able to speak to your overall process and role without revealing confidential information. I have found these situations were manageable and did not impede the interview process.

Hopefully the above has provided relevant guidance and helpful tips. For those just starting out, UX is a highly enjoyable and lucrative career that’s well worth the effort to build up a portfolio and apply for that first job.

UX Designer living & working in London. Currently team lead at Google, previously with Amazon, the Guardian and the BBC.