Some advice on building a portfolio


A couple of people have asked recently about building portfolios. It got me interested so I did a bit of research. I really like this article by David Travis called How to wow me with your portfolio.

This comment really sparked my interest:

a clueless recruiter or employer asked a user experience researcher for their portfolio. In a panic, the job candidate pulled something together and now it’s just seen as a given that a UX practitioner will have a portfolio that illustrates their work — even if they don’t create visual designs.

Dr Travis is taking issue with the fact that UX designers don’t design screens, they design experiences. How can you visually represent an experience in a way that creates a great first impression? He sees a LOT of portfolios, and he knows what he does and doesn’t want to see.

So here are his tips:

  1. Stop pretending to be a visual designer and [B]fill your portfolio with the research work that you did which underpins the projects that you are involved with[/B].
  2. Show the journey, not just the destination by [B]explaining the business problem that you were trying to solve and telling the story of your involvement[/B].
  3. Assume you have 1 minute to land your dream job and [B]design your portfolio for skim reading[/B].
  4. Focus on the details because [B]you are in a detail-oriented profession, so the medium is the message[/B].

Here are a couple of other interesting articles along the same lines.…-ux-portfolio/…ing-your-story

What are your top portfolio tips?


How do I find the first portfolio projects?
What is the best way to study UX?
Creating a Killer Portfolio
Interaction Design Education
How to transit from market research to UX?
Need help coming up with ideas for case study projects
A UX Shift: Service to Product based Industry
A career change
So, it turns out that I need a portfolio and don't have one yet
Brand new to UX? Here's everything you need in one place!
UX Portfolio
Still trying to find a job!

I have quite a bit more to add to this later, but I stumbled on this very article earlier in the day. I honestly think the topic on UX portfolios, particularly towards newcomers to the field, tend to gloss over some of the more nitty-gritty details. Subject has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Anyway, more later.



Alright, I’m going to break this down in separate sections so it’s a little easier to digest. Each item isn’t necessarily a question, just different thoughts broken down, though there’s questions throughout. Obviously, a lot of this has been on my mind as of late and just want to get some of this off my chest!

If you tl;dr this, I totally understand. I tried, that’s all I can ask.

deep breath, pounds back protein shake

  1. So I’m speaking as a web/UI/visual designer who is looking to get into UX. As I eluded to in the thread with Patrick Neeman, I have a rather light portfolio from a visual designer perspective, so even worse off from a UX sense. I have done several websites in the past that have shut down, mostly blog sites that helped me build my craft, and only have one recent one that, while visually ‘decent’, wasn’t much of an excercise in UX so much as “Hey, I’ll update your website”, “Cool, thanks!”. No user research outside of educated guesses on the type of clientele, no personas, just a few sketches that are long gone, style tiles for layout, and straight HTML into brochureware that is retrofitted with CushyCMS for client edits. And the downside to that one project? It took FOREVER (see #7).

Otherwise, I’ve worked in-house pretty much most of my career, past positions being web/print hybrid and this one only recently being web exclusive over the past year (currently work for a wholesaler, so we’re talking e-commerce). I don’t have much of a variety to speak of, I work on the same site day in and day out, working on different elements here or there (#2). So I need further work, I have to figure out where it comes from. I do have the latest UX Mastery ebook, and have a few things to say about the recommendations there, as well as suggestions elsewhere (#4 and #5).

  1. Of what I’ve done in-house, I am the sole designer who works within an organization whose process is very waterfall. I do visual mockups and then HTML markup with appropriate CSS and some light JavaScript, then pass over to development to implement in our e-commerce platform.

Problem is, it doesn’t take long for someone to change something or to request a change, usually without my knowledge, and the non-designer developers go in and wreak havoc on what I produced. Thus, the user interfaces I’ve designed have been compromised, and prospective employers checking out the site are seeing an end-product that does not represent my skills. I essentially have to rely on my Photoshop mockups from before with the caveat “No, really, it used to look like this but someone changed it”.

This is definitely an issue with organization, ownership, and communication, but the problem is there.

  1. This is basically the one question I was going to ask before it evolved into this mega-post: what should I, as a current visual & web designer, be focusing on or doing? What I mean is a lot of the suggestions on carrying out UX projects typically involve a pro-bono (#4) or hypo/hyperthetical project (#5), but as confident in my skills as a web/UI/visual guy, about the most I could produce for someone is brochureware. I don’t have the resources or skills to build out anything remotely complex. I am learning some backend (#9), but essentially I feel the extent of what my skills can offer is “Here is what your site will look like! Now someday we might get it to work”. I’m basically reinforcing my skillset as a visual and UI designer at this point. Sure, I can go through an entire UX process, but at the end of the day, it’s an unfinished or semi-static site at the most.

Yes, there is the option to hire out development work in an outsourcing capacity, but that brings up…

  1. Pro-bono work. I see this suggested frequently with alarming regularity. Nevermind the obvious ethical issues. Usually it’s suggested to do pro-bono for non-profits, but the availability of a non-profit isn’t a guarantee. Also, there’s the practicality. Not everyone has the disposable income to take on a free project (who hosts it?), and I would think that there is some value in the skills a new UXer has. And then there’s the issue of outsourcing anything to fill in gaps of your own skill set. Taking on a pro-bono project and then trying to find a developer to make your site work seems like a loser’s game. Unless you’re a unicorn. Maybe I’m overthinking this and it doesn’t need to be an extremely complex project.

  2. Hypo/hyperthetical work. I’ve seen it mentioned in quite a few places, and I understand the suggestion. Take an existing site or some interface and take a stab at how you would handle it. Makes sense, as the content is there, and as a user you could find ways to make it work better for yourself. Except this isn’t really UX. You weren’t there behind the scenes to come up with the reasoning of the current design. You don’t know the users, what they’re like, what makes them tick, what doesn’t make them tick, where they’re clicking, where they’re stumbling, what their current resources & technology allow; you’re going off of semi-educated guesses. Essentially, you’re back to just doing UI at this point.

Also, I’ve heard from several thought-leaders in the industry that it tends to be a slap in the face of those who have done the existing work. It comes off as a sign of disrespect. I certainly wouldn’t want to do that.

A more sensible alternative to this is doing a made-up project, but this starts entering “school project” territory, which is usually cited as a last resort to portfolio work (“replace it as soon as possible”). Made-up content, pie-in-the-sky thinking, possibly unrealistic backend implementations, none of the ugly realities of real world work. Unless of course you’re that mythical unicorn and can actually build out your own idea in a functional format. Or if you can find someone who will do it for you (a gigantic “if”).

  1. So while I’m mulling all of these points, the other one that comes up quite often is the call for designers to “Learn To Code” (curiously, am not seeing calls for developers to “Learn to Visual Design”, at least not at the same volume). The reasoning makes sense, and I’ve eluded to it a few times already, in that as a visual designer who knows markup, I can only go so far until I have to look to someone else to make something functional.

But, I get the same 24 hours as everyone else, and when I’m not working at my regular job, I have a limited amount of time to split between learning to code and learning to UX as it is, to say nothing of anything else; hiring managers (rightly) want people with personalities and other interests outside of their work, which is tough when “other interests” is given a backseat to all that time learning to code.

This isn’t meant to be a cop-out from doing after-hours learning. I understand that you need to keep brushing up your skills and can’t always count on on-the-job training to maintain relevance. But surely focusing on learning to code seems like it is taking time away from doing other things like reading up on human/computer interaction, cognitive psychology, etc.

  1. So while I’m spending that very-valuable amount of time either learning to code or learning the UX craft, if I somehow magically am working on a site on the side, at the rate I’m going, I’ll have enough work to satisfy a recruiter by 2025. This could just be an issue of education and stressing deadlines, but even doing that, I had to shift deadlines on my last freelance project because getting content from the client was like pulling teeth. Clients are usually a bit zippier on the delivery when they’re the ones who sought you out for a project (then again, maybe not). And I feel like the incentive to submit deliverables is even less when it’s a pro-bono project. I’m speaking from a dearth of experience that isn’t caged in an in-house environment.

  2. Anyway, not everything is all bad! I have been making significant strides to instill a culture of UX at my current job. It’s amazing how little research and usability testing we do (“none”), but that’s all changing. We’re going through an implementation of mobile or responsive, pending some tech/CMS issues. So I’ll be sketching my butt off, will be going to on site usability tests, developing functional wireframe/prototypes, establishing a pattern library, filling out use cases, building out the templates and the stylesheets, and making a case for design autonomy so my work isn’t getting undone (while having the pattern library so developers are informed as to what to do). I’m still trying to figure out how I should present the idea of user research to management; it seems like that could be insulting (“so about the customers we’ve been serving for over 90 years, care to get me some information on them?”).

But even after mentioning this, it was suggested in Patrick’s thread that this one project still won’t be enough for a portfolio. GAH! Of all the work I’ve put in to get this far, I feel like I’m getting left behind by those who are getting more opportunities

If you read all that, you have my apologies or thanks. Possibly both. Maybe what I need is just some time off to relax. As you’ve seen, I kind of have my head all over the place with this.

I did stumble on a mention at IxDA of this course which may very well address most of my concerns, and I plan on getting into that this weekend, but if anybody has any advice, words of wisdom, etc., I would be very grateful.

Anyway, thanks/sorry for reading!



Epic post, and I don’t say that lightly. Thanks for taking the time. I was going to tweet it out in the hope that it would gain some traction and attract some good responses, but as you talk about the organisation that you work for, I held fire. Let me know if you’d like me to go ahead with that.

Before I continue, note that I’m not a UX designer, I’m a community manager, so regard my response in that light. I definitely don’t have a lot of valuable advice for you, but a couple of things stood out to me when I read your post.

Not everyone has the disposable income to take on a free project (who hosts it?), and I would think that there is some value in the skills a new UXer has.
I admit to being one of the many that suggested that. I don’t think you should dismiss it. I imagine there are a number of not-for-profits that have an existing site or app which could do with a UX overhaul. And sure, there is plenty of value in the skills that a new UXer has! Perhaps you could do a contra, or consider payment the fact that you would have something to put in your portfolio. But sure, it’s not for everyone. I am coming from the POV of someone that worked several volunteer gigs in order to gain the experience that I required to do the job that I currently do.

A more sensible alternative to this is doing a made-up project, but this starts entering “school project” territory
The project in Jodie Moule’s Killer UX Design was a made-up one which she ended up doing for real and[URL=“”] it is now a real success.

But now I’m going to hand over to the experts. :slight_smile:

1 Like


I’ve asked a few folks who I know and who are more senior than myself to jump in, but here’s my 2c.

It sounds like your question is more about time management than portfolios. There’s no shortcut to doing the work that you can then put in your portfolio and talk about with authority, so let’s tackle the root of the question, which I’ve interpreted as “How can I make time to spend on a project that will make my portfolio shine?”

Whether it’s a personal project, a hypothetical client, or a pro-bono gig, the short answer is: make it happen. Here’s some personal advice on how to make more time in your life. I don’t mean to make this sound condescending, but I feel like I’ve made grounds and learned a lot about this subject in my own life over the last few years. I don’t pretend to be an expert, or that it’s not something I don’t still struggle with from time to time. But here it is, for what it’s worth:
[][B]Watch less TV.[/B] This sounds a bit trite, but think about it: how many hours do you spend in front of the TV? At the moment I watch about 5 hours a week (1 hour most evenings, but there’s usually 1 or 2 nights a week when I have something on. When Luke and I were planning to launch UX Mastery, it was less—just 1 hour a week. A Saturday evening treat I allowed myself. This freed up a bunch of time.
][B]Sleep less.[/B] This isn’t an option for everyone. Some people simply can’t function if they don’t get enough sleep. I’m fortunate in that I can usually function at a reasonable level. It’s not ideal or sustainable, but for sprints it is an option and I resort to this occasionally when client deadlines are looking tight, or we’re working to get a new ebook out to coincide with a promotional event, for instance. A couple of years ago I wrote, illustrated, and self-published a children’s book, while working a full-time job, by working on it entirely between the hours of 10pm and 2am while the rest of my young family were sleeping. This was my only option at that time, so that’s what I did.
[][B]Schedule tasks and stick to them.[/B] You have a bunch of tasks that you know you want to get through. You probably have a rough idea how many hours each task will take you. So, in Google Calendar, pick a day and set aside a block of time that you’ll spend working on that task. Don’t pick up the phone during this time. Don’t agree to invitations to go to the movies during this time. Consider it as important as if it were a client board meeting or something. Protect it. And then get it done during that time. Having it time-boxed will help you stay motivated and not drag out longer than it needs to.
][B]Cut back on news.[/B] I know, finding that plane and tracking that new war are all important and interesting and you’re obliged to stay informed, right? Wrong. Take a break from current affairs. Plead ignorant for a while. You’ll be amazed at how it can be OK to not be on top of it all.
[][B]Cut back on social media. [/B]Same deal—there’s interesting stuff flying past your Facebook and Twitter feeds, right? Take a break from it for a while. It won’t kill you.
][B]Check email less often.[/B] I am not good at this one. But I’m trying! Physically closing your email app while you’re doing something is a very effective strategy for not being distracted when a new message comes in.
[][B]Learn smart.[/B] When I listen to UX or entrepreneur podcasts, I usually do it while doing something else. Often it’s the dishes. For a while my exercise was riding my bike while listening to podcasts (only on bike trails, not on the road!). If you can find a way to consume that learning you’re doing while you’re doing something else that doesn’t require a lot of thought, it’s more productive use of your time.
][B]Practice just-in-time learning.[/B] It sounds like you’re reading and watching a lot of educational content. Do you need all of it right now? Will you have forgotten anything by the time it comes to actioning what you’ve learned? Make sure the stuff you’re reading is relevant to what you’re working on now (that portfolio Skillshare course you linked to is a good example, as it’s what you’re focussing on right now). Delay the HCI and Coding and other courses until you’re working on that.
[][B]Be strict on scope.[/B] Luke and I learned this when we volunteered our time with a community project last year (watch our presentation about the project here). We were clear about what we would be delivering and what we wouldn’t. We probably could have handled it a bit better, as Luke did get pulled in for a bunch of stuff after our engagement ended, but the point remains: write it down and get it signed by the sports club/non-profit group/friend, so all are in agreement about what you’re promising and what you’re not.
][B]Expand what you already have.[/B] If you’ve delivered projects, but you weren’t happy with the outcome, or you didn’t follow a user-centred process or create some of the key UX deliverables along the way, there’s nothing stopping you from going back and creating them now. I’m not suggesting you misrepresent the process you followed, but I really don’t see a problem with you showcasing deliverables you’ve created for a project that you worked on, and not making a huge deal about the fact that they were fleshed out after the fact. Yes the end result may look a little different if the personas/scenarios/journey maps/workflows that you create point to a different direction, but at least you’ll have demonstrated your understanding of a) how to create these deliverables, and b) the importance they have in influencing design decisions. If there are a bunch of mockups that are presented as just that, but the end result is quite different, I’m sure you can rationalise that without sounding disrespectful to others on the team. It’s just a matter of finding the right words to express disappointment at the fact that your vision is a bit different from the end product, e.g. by acknowledging that design is often a compromise, and expressing optimism that you hope some of the ideas that you’ve explored will make it into future releases.
[*][B]Code less.[/B] I wouldn’t get too hung up on trying to become a unicorn. Yes, being able to create functional prototypes is a useful skill to have. But unless you’re inventing an entirely new interaction model, capturing your vision in a tool like Axure or Balsamiq should be more than adequate for communicating your story to a recruiter or hiring manager. I’ve just about stopped coding altogether, personally. I’ve discovered that I’m better able to contribute value to an organisation by operating in the space that encompasses strategy, user research, idea generation, wireframing, interaction design, and information architecture. I can do some visuals or write some code if I have to, but it’s never as good as what a dedicated graphic designer or developer will do, so I usually just leave it to them.
[/LIST] I don’t know if that helps. There’s probably a list that’s more comprehensive somewhere on the web. But that’s how I tackle this problem, so I hope you take something from it. :slight_smile:




My sense is that you want a firm and clear definition of what is needed in a UX portfolio to get a UX Design role. It probably feels like trying to hit a target, but not even knowing what the target is.

I have seen this a lot, most recently in an interview I will publishing soon with a UX Designer who just landed a role at a great company.

(I am not going to pretend I understand all aspects of your situation, needs and desires, so I apologize if any “advice” from myself or others comes across as overly blunt.)

Here are some things I would ask you to keep in mind and may help in your journey:
[]I come from a visual design background and in my mind, portfolios exist simply because a resume is an inadequate tool for showing what you did and can do going forward. Because each person’s skill set varies, a portfolio will vary. Layer on top of that every company, role and team is different and its no wonder why a UX portfolio is a moving target for anyone.
]Patrick, Matt, HAWK and others really are giving you some golden nuggets and pointers - the same exact things I often suggest.
[]Patrick in particular can be very curt and direct, but that is an economy of words talking. He loves UX and has only the community in mind. His blog is signal, not noise:
]If you want to do UX, do UX. It sounds like you have a promising opportunity to help transition your current role - I would embrace it. Of the options you listed, I think #8 is the place to spend effort. Frankly, an entry-level UX role would likely be doing the same thing somewhere else.
[]If your day job is not going to help your portfolio efforts, make something from scratch that solves a real problem and show that from post-its to prototype. It doesn’t have to be “live”. Show what you know.
]A lot of folks without a visual background, such as Library Sciences, who don’t know a PSD from PDF are insanely jealous of you right now. Leverage your ability to design UI into showing UX thought process and execution.
[*]Above all: show your portfolio to a UX Designer and get feedback. To do this, you will need to generate content and not get hung-up about not showing anything. Treat your portfolio as an agile product in development - you need to “usability test” on the target audience and iterate to improve your product.
[/LIST] Best,




Thank you all very much for your responses. I will have a more detailed response coming later today (or tomorrow, or whenever y’all on the other side of the planet work), I’m about ready to start my workday, but real quick, HAWK, if you want to tweet it out, go ahead! I think I’ve left it fairly innocuous so far and am not too worried.



Again, thanks for the advice everyone. I was hoping to score big in Warren Buffet’s Billion Dollar March Madness Bracket Challenge, but I already got knocked out (thanks Harvard & Dayton), so I guess I have to keep up this ‘pursuing my career’ thing.

It was towards the top of my library queue on Amazon. Just ordered and should get it for the weekend!

Thanks for the point by point breakdown, and it’s not condescending at all. I explained what I could but can understand if not everyone knows my exact circumstances, so if it has to be dumbed down, so be it.

The TV thing is something I’ve been doing for years (that is, not watching it). Can’t stand it, most of it is terrible. Reality TV is anything but. I’m pretty sure I have misophonic triggers to commercials. Don’t get me wrong, I like sports, and yeah there’s a good series in Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or House of Cards or whatever, but ultimately I only sit in front of the thing on a Saturday evening with a movie. Cable is the best money never spent. However, it is easy to get caught up in Youtube, so I need to keep an eye on that!

​Somewhat wary on the sleep less thing. I do work out at the gym (smartly, usually only there for 45 minutes tops, in & out) and want to make sure my body is getting the rest it needs. I have the “advantage” (?) of not having a family to support, so I have a more flexible schedule than most. But at the same time, I want to make sure I’m taking care of myself. Interestingly, as you mentioned with your children’s book I do have an idea for a YA book that I would like to write & self-publish in the meantime, and maybe my concerns about fitting that in are subconsciously affecting me here.

Oh, and I just read this.

The rest of your points are great and very helpful. I think the big one is the whole becoming a unicorn thing. I’m obviously a believer that UX is a legimate job, but every time this debate rages on I always keep feeling pressured to start picking up Ruby on Rails or Python or whatever at the sacrifice of anything else. Even though I have an understanding of programming logic and have completed quite a few tracks in Codecademy and Treehouse, it’s just not what I want to be focusing on. I want that seat at the table and helping develop strategy, not be a cog in the “build and fail often” wheel. I know enough of code to know what can/can’t be done in a larger context, just not necessarily writing it myself.

Thanks Troy! Like I mentioned with Matt, it isn’t blunt or condescending at all. I prefer the Hemingway approach to advice; straight and to the point. Same with Patrick’s; sure, hearing that about the one project not being enough was a bit of a downer, but I would rather hear it that way than have it dressed up.

Of yours, this point in particular

A lot of folks without a visual background, such as Library Sciences, who don’t know a PSD from PDF are insanely jealous of you right now. Leverage your ability to design UI into showing UX thought process and execution.

is very encouraging to read!

As far as something from scratch, I do have a project idea I’ve been kicking around for a web app that was part of the motivation of learning to code, because I wanted to make it legit (delusions of grandeur of being another Zuckeberg perhaps?). I’ve got a pretty clear idea of how it would look, and I think it would be a pretty killer app if it were to see the light of day, I just got stuck in procrastination indecesion (“do I do the MVP thing with actual production code,” or “build out the UI?”). I think I just need to hunker down, do it as a project akin to the Killer UX project, and post it as a case study. Among other things, of course.

Once again, thank you all very much. Really appreciate all the advice. Going to sit down, gather my thoughts, and plot out my plan of attack here.



You’re very welcome. These kinds of conversations are exactly what we’d hoped would happen in the forum, so I’m glad you posted it and found the responses helpful.



Hi everyone, really great discussion.
This had put a voice to a lot of the issues i’ve been knocking around in my head.

crimsonvessel, I can relate to many of the issues you bring up, I goes from hope to hopeless sometimes reading job descriptions, so for now i’ve stopped looking at them.
However the more I learn about UX the more comfort I get from knowing that the Visual Design background and education I have is a real head start.
I’m currently working on a redesign of our website at work, and seeing our IT guy working in complicated coding is scary, but it also makes me realise that I don’t need to code at that level.
Its a joint venture, the IT guys doesn’t think visually and doesn’t see things like mis-alighments etc.

Some great advice guys, thanks.

This has helped me to re-focus on the things I need to do.

  • User test our website at work, set a schedule and timetable for this.
  • Gather and organise portfolio elements and build on it
  • I’ve a few ideas for websites real and made-up, its time to pick one and get it done, research personas, storyboard, wireframes, etc

Great tips Matt also.
I find when I’m working I need close tabs that are not required as they become a distraction.
And I tend to timetable my day also, but including non work parts to it, and definately early morning is when I do my best work.

All the best