A Process for Crafting Portfolios

Image Credit: Unsplash

User experience professionals who have been around for a while will tell you that we all have that first portfolio hidden away in an undisclosed part of the internet. Probably password protected. You know it, I know it. It’s a reflection of our younger, less experienced selves. A reminder of how far we’ve come. We’re all older and wiser now, but we didn’t start this way.

My own first user experience portfolio was ugly. I was in college and wondering how to do something that I had no reference for: designing a UX portfolio. I had no process, no guide. I chatted with some of the library and information science students (Portfolios 101 was not a course). I dodged portfolio bags of art students as they struggled in the wind tunnels between buildings.

I had seen the portfolios of web designers through hours of rigorous Google search too. Close enough. They’d be my teachers. So I sat in my room and eagerly got to work. What emerged was a scrawny 4 project website: scribbles, awkward buttons, and an auto-advance image slider that made you feel like you were trapped on a tilt-a-whirl of my early sitemaps.

In other words, ugly.

I was proud of it and yet it also embarrassed me. It felt awkward and unpolished. My projects felt young and inexperienced. But it got me my first job and I breathed a sigh of relief: no more parading it about. It could retire somewhere quiet, undisturbed. And as I grew, I made my second portfolio. Less ugly, more informative, still not what I envisioned.

The truth is, your first few portfolios aren’t going to be what you dreamed up in your mind. If they were, you were either not growing as a professional or you were that person that we all wish would just tell us: how in the world did you get your website to change color schemes and copy based on the local time?!

I must have gone through over two dozen iterations of my portfolio in the past decade. Everything format possible from my own hosted WordPress site to third-party solutions to PDF, my preferred format (hat tip to Anthony Viviano). My process for creating a portfolio has gotten better and it has continued to work for me.

So, what do you need to know about building a UX portfolio (and avoid my own missteps)?

Two quick considerations for way before you even begin assembling a portfolio:

  1. Document and store everything. Capture, record, document and photograph everything you do during the your projects. And I mean everything. Create a folder (desktop or manila, likely both) and toss everything in there. Keep your paper sketches. Take pictures of all the Post-it notes on the walls. Snatch up the napkin drawings. Save your emails and meeting notes. Version your digital wireframe files. It’ll make you feel a little bit like being a design hoarder, but when you sit down to sift through everything, you don’t want to go off rummaging through your files only to find that you’ve overwritten a critical file in the iterative process.
  2. Regularly reflect on your work and process. If there’s one thing that drives me crazy during the portfolio creation process, it’s that tiny but significant details slip my mind that would otherwise make it easier to remember my decision-making process. Why did I decide to add that dropdown menu on that particular page? Why is this modal designed this way instead of that? Some things have slipped into the deep recesses of my brain, never to be heard from again. But the simple act of jotting down design decisions and process notes as you go (or at least where to find them) will save you your sanity. Not to mention that it’s quite useful to have this information as you prepare to talk about projects and portfolio during interviews. Two birds, one stone.

Now, when preparing to assemble a UX portfolio (this process works for both designers and researchers), you’ll want to think about a few things:

  • How many projects do I have?
  • What are my most complete, successful, or favorite projects? Why?
  • What did I contribute to each project? How do I want to position and present my past experiences and skills for my next opportunity?
  • Do I have the time, skill or resources to make and maintain a website-based portfolio? Or am I more comfortable with using a existing service or product to create and host my portfolio?
  • Do I have projects or information that are confidential, under non-disclosure agreements, intellectual property or that contain data and personal information that’s sensitive?

To start, you’ll want to have somewhere between 4–6 strong projects. This is an average and is usually enough for to present the range of your experiences and skills. If you have less, that’s okay but you’ll want to add and build up as you go. If you have more, consider the ‘why’ behind your reasoning. Assess if the projects are spreading your brand and story too thin, or if your individual projects are strong enough.

The strength of a project will come from a variety of factors:

  • How well projects met the goals and needs of users/customers
  • What your process was
  • How much (and what) you contributed to the project
  • The range or depth of skills and knowledge you used
  • The complexity or uniqueness of the problem you solved
  • The scope of the project and the level of involvement you had throughout the duration
  • The performance of the design in feedback/testing and the real world
  • The quality and completeness of the solution or design you delivered

Once you’ve selected the projects that you’d like to move forward with, there’s a few more steps to consider:

  1. Sit down and journal about the project. This goes hand-in-hand with the documentation process. Write down what happened from start to finish, discussing decision-making points and key activities. It helps if you write it as if you’re telling a story from a first person perspective. You’ll want to also reflect on the project’s objectives and metrics for success (if you had them), your contributions, tools, duration of the project, outcomes, recommendations and conclusions (or next steps).
  2. Sort and “catalog” the essential artifacts. Once you have your project narrative, gather up the documentation you have from that project that best represent key checkpoints for the project: sketches, notes, wireframes, business research, photographs, data, etc. Copy them over to a “this is going into my portfolio, maybe” folder.
  3. Inventory your content. Next, take the narrative you wrote and highlight or underline all the points that you mention a particular artifact or deliverable. If you say, “I worked with the client to sketch low-fidelity screens”, then reference the screens you’ve mentioned. Think of it like a link or annotation. What you’re doing here is building a content inventory list. So, if that’s five screens scribbled on a notebook, then you label them as such and drop them into the folder.
  4. Reduce and refine your story and content. Once you’ve collected your pieces mapped to your narrative (and logged in your content inventory), condense or prune pieces so that you emphasize the main discussion points you want to focus on. Do this until you have concise, good quality content and key points from your process. I’d also highly encourage getting feedback from a peer or more experienced professional that you trust.
  5. Layout and design your portfolio. By this point, the high-level phases of your process will have been identified. Take everything that you’ve picked out and prepare to lay it out in your portfolio. Since the foundation of everything came from your project narrative, it should have kept the structure of a story. Consider how your content will affect your chosen platform or format for portfolio. If you’re a visual or UI design, you may choose a design that makes it easy for viewers to view images. If you’re a researcher and have more text and charts, maybe you’ll want to make a PDF-based portfolio.
  6. Build your portfolio. Your next steps will be dependent on your format or platform, where you’ll have to translate your design and content. For confidential projects, make sure you have permission to use the work or remove key identifiers and sensitive data.
  7. Testing and tweak. Once you’ve begun to transfer projects into your portfolio, be sure to get a few portfolio reviews in and get feedback. Iterate as needed.

And that’s how I’d recommend approaching your portfolio building process.

A few quick notes:

  • Previous non-UX work or portfolios. If you’re currently a non-UX designer or have a portfolio from a previous life that doesn’t pertain to UX but that you’d like people to know about, you’ll want to determine which (if any) of your past works translate well to a UX portfolio. In some cases, designers may be able to transfer some projects over if they’re relevant. In other cases, non-UX work may take away from the strength of your brand and story. Want to find a middle ground? Link your previous portfolio via your “About” page. Employers and clients will know that you have other skills that they can choose to leverage.
  • Pieces that need rework. Design in a perfect world would happen exactly as we hope. But it usually doesn’t. Now, some designers will disagree with me on this (and some hiring managers will wag a finger at this too). If you find that you didn’t have time to completely polish up a final design or if your designs didn’t get used, you can still go back and re-work them. It could be tweaking UI or visual design to getting more a little more research to support flows or interactions. You want portfolio piece that you’re proud of and that reflect your approach and decisions. Note: I’m not condoning overhauling entire projects or every projects, there’s merit in talking about the realities of your projects. But it’s not a bad thing to have rework as an option.

As for maintaining your portfolio over time, you’ll find that there’s a lot of benefit in regularly collecting artifacts from your projects and reflecting on them. I do this on a quarterly basis, blocking off an afternoon on the weekend to dig through my files and evaluate my past work.

Sometimes you’ll remove a project or two, other times you’ll be adding them. On occasion, you’ll decide that you want to convert your portfolio to a different format or platform. That’s okay too. But be sure to save old projects. It’s not that you’ll likely use them again in your portfolio, but sometimes you may need to reference them. And you’ll want to be able to see is how much progress you’ve made in your journey (and that’s pretty awesome).

And there you have it. An end-to-end process for putting together a portfolio. What was your first portfolio like, and how has it changed since then? What questions or tips do you have for building a great portfolio?

Thanks for reading! Questions? Comments? Drop me a note via Twitter, connect with me on LinkedIn or say hello via my site.

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