10 Tips for a Killer UX Portfolio

As a hiring manager, I’ve seen hundreds of UX resumes and thousands of work samples. Most of things that people claim to be “portfolios” are not, and if they are, they frequently have trouble presenting them to my team. So as a hiring manager, I’m writing this article as much for myself as for you. I want you to know what I’m looking for. I want you to succeed.

A portfolio needs to show your work artifacts, not just an end state

1. Your portfolio should be a website

When a candidate sends us a link to a Google drive or a Dropbox full of files, that sends a very clear message. It says “I don’t value your time enough to explain these items. I’m just going to plop them in here and let you figure it out.” Instead, what I’m expecting from a portfolio is a website. Good portfolios generally have URLs of the form http://firstnamelastname.com. Have a common name? Use a middle initial. Use your full name. Use your nickname. You’re a creative. Be creative.

Because it’s a website, it’ll show me your aesthetic, a little information architecture, how you write, and how you organize information. I expect more than one page of samples — sure, they can all be accessible from a single page, but the site should be deeper than one page. You should also include your PDF resume and maybe a page about you. There are a bunch of great portfolios out there for you to use as examples, but I’m reluctant to point you to just one. Google “great UX portfolio” and then click on the Images tab in the results.

2. If you use a vendor’s portfolio site, be sure you love their UX

So you find it intimidating to get a website and a WordPress template? I get it. But when you choose someone else’s portfolio site to host your work, you need to love it. All of it. Because I’ve seen enormous fonts, piles of images, things that look clickable but aren’t, and just plain weird interactions and animations. If you’re cool with the site’s interactions, be prepared to explain why when you present your portfolio in person. However, if you think those things are weird, then don’t include them in your portfolio or don’t use that service to host your content. You need to own and justify every interaction on your portfolio site.

3. Don’t show proprietary material

Seriously. I want to see your work. Not your previous employer’s intellectual property. Do not show me the specifics of user research — it’s none of my business that 8 of 10 users thought the page organization was confusing. Do not show me the list of participants in your research. Not their names, not their companies, not their emails. And please. Pretty please. Do not show me anything that is clearly marked as “internal only”, “confidential” or “proprietary”. Because that’s an automatic out. If you’re showing me your former employer’s IP, you’ll likely do the same to me when you’re looking for your next role, and I’m not taking that chance.

4. Do show your artifacts

So you don’t have a portfolio because all your work is proprietary? As UX professionals, we all work on proprietary things, but everyone should be able to anonymize their work. We do it for conference papers by talking about the methods we use, rather than results. We put in fake data, zoom out images so you get the gist, and blur things that might identify a company or customer. And when you worked on that design, it may have been proprietary, but now that the product has been released and can be purchased, it’s likely not top secret any more. Again, I don’t want to see something that is truly proprietary, but I need to see something. And most good designers aren’t going to struggle with this. You can even password protect your website and slideshares, to ensure that only prospective employers see your work.

5. Tell me a story

Describe your process as a narrative. UX professionals are natural storytellers. As a reminder, a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can also use the “CAR” format: describe the challenge, your actions, and the results. Start by telling me what the goal of your work was and show me what the product looked like when you found it (the “beginning”). Then talk about your process, who you worked with, and in what way. Did you conduct design thinking sessions? Co-discovery? Co-design? Did you validate the designs with customers or users? Show me the sketches or wireframes or walls of post-its that you created as part of that process. Lastly, what was the final product? Show me the “end”. Beginning, middle, end. Challenge, actions, results.

When you’re asked to present …

Now that you’ve got a great portfolio, a beautiful resume, and you rocked the phone screens, you’ve been invited to present your portfolio. Here are 5 more tips for the in-person presentation of your work, to ensure that you get that offer.

6. Know how to work your own computer

You’d be surprised how many people can’t work the computer that they brought in with them. You should bring in a computer, not a tablet, to give your portfolio presentation (unless your tablet has the ability to present). You should have the right dongle to connect to an AV system (if your computer needs one). You should know how to put your slides into slideshow mode. You should be able to work your trackpad. And you should have a backup (in software, not paper) in case all else fails, such as a thumb drive, a file on Google Drive, or Dropbox that you can quickly share.

7. Manage your time effectively

For a portfolio review, I ask that people present two or three things that they are really proud of, so they can show and tell for 45 minutes, leaving 15 minutes for our questions. This presentation demonstrates to us how you’ll handle meetings with development teams, product managers, executives, and other stakeholders. If you’re 30 or 40 minutes into the portfolio review and still talking about your first case study, you’re probably not going to finish on time. If you’ve brought three things to present, you should be getting through each one in 15 minutes (or 20 minutes, assuming people are asking questions as you go). Practice giving the talk out loud to your friends, your dog, or your significant other to get a sense of how long it’ll take.

8. Talk about your work, not about the product

Give us some context for the work you’re showing. For example, “This was the second app store in the world” or “This software allows users to create business processes” or “This product allows a developer to scan their code for security vulnerabilities”. Do not spend the majority of your time telling us what the product does. It’s not important. What is important is how you worked with your stakeholders, your process, and what you created. You. Your work. Not the product.

9. Be the expert on your work

You’ve brought in these samples that you are really proud of, to show what we, your next UX team, can expect you to produce when you are hired. We are going to ask you questions about that work, so you need to remember why you chose to put the buttons on the left instead of the right. We want to know why you designed it that way. What were the constraints on the problem? What were your reasons? And then, tell us what you’d do differently if you could. This shows me how you continue to grow and evolve and improve.

10. Consider the feedback being offered

One of the things a successful UX practitioner needs to do is take feedback. Willingly and gracefully. From the UX team, from PM, from development. If we are asking you questions, it probably means that the thing we are asking about is setting off some sort of siren in our heads. Rather than dig in and defend it, ask questions. Ask why we are poking at that thing. Ask what we’d suggest and why. Be interested in our feedback. Because a successful candidate will need to participate fully in our design review process and receive feedback on every one of their designs. And speaking of “we”, be sure to talk to everyone in the room, not just the hiring manager or the person closest to you.

That’s about it. Now you know all the secrets. You know what we’re looking for: a website that has your work artifacts as well as a narrative that describes your process. Now when you come in to present that work, I know you’ll come prepared to discuss it with us. And you’ll be amazing.

Jen McGinn is a Senior Director of User Experience at Veracode (now part of CA Technologies), where she leads a team of 12 user experience and user assistance professionals. She’s been co-leading the group mentoring program at the Boston UXPA conference for the last six years and is an adjunct professor in the MS UCD program at Brandeis University.

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User experience and product design leader. Startup advisor. Mentor. Adjunct professor. Wife. Mom. Home renovator.