How to create a UX design portfolio without work experience (2021)

A mentor’s guide to creating a portfolio that gets your first UI/UX designer job

Elina Zhang
Jul 15, 2020 · 8 min read

Why is UX portfolio important in job hunting? What should I showcase in my UX portfolio? What is a case study and how to come up with a good one? I’ve never done a case study or designed anything, where do I start? What UI/UX tools should I learn & use? Which format is the best? How to make my portfolio stand out? How can I improve my portfolio? What are the best ways to apply for jobs and get interviews?

As the founder of Flowhack and senior UX designer and mentor, I’ve been asked portfolio related questions a lot, therefore I want to share with you my complete guide to creating a UX portfolio from scratch to fast track transition into a UX designer.

A good UX portfolio is about showing the process, not only the end result.

Portfolio is a mandatory requirement in almost every job application because UX design is extremely hands-on, and employers want to see that you can execute an entire UX design project from research to implementation, that you’re familiar with industry tools, and that you’re able to identify users’ problems and solve them in an effective way. Especially for career-changers with little to zero professional UX experience, a strong portfolio holds the key to stepping into this new career.

The people who review your portfolio will be recruiters, fellow UX professionals, product managers or head of design/product/tech. They usually have very limited time to look through portfolios which is why your portfolio should be scannable and concise. It should allow people to look through your work in 60 seconds and know what projects you’ve worked on, what processes you went through, what your strengths and interests are, and how you solve problems.

Develop at least 3 solid UX design case studies to showcase your problem-solving and visual storytelling skill, user-centred thinking as well as design process in your portfolio.

(If you don’t know what a case study is, I will explain it in the next question.)

Here is a UX portfolio check-list:

It’s recommended to have at least one case study which covers all those aspects so that you can present it during the interviews. It’s also good to include both mobile app and responsive website design.

Images/graphics and bullet points are compelling and easy to scan. Images and graphics give a quicker and more vivid overview than texts. I strongly recommend adding infographic of research data, user journeys, a photo of a brainstorm or user testing session, as well as low fidelity wireframes into your portfolio. Avoid too much text and use more bullet points.

Portfolio inspirations/best practises:
Bestfolios
awwwards

Case studies are the core of an excellent UX portfolio. They tell the stories of the projects that you’ve worked on, show your potential employers how you think, cooperate, work as a UX designer, and ultimately how you solve users’ problems.

Taking a course is a great way to start your learning journey. It will give you a basic understanding of UX design.

Some high-quality online courses that I’ve taken with certifications which you could add to your LinkedIn profile:
Interaction Design Foundation courses (Flowhack is an Education partner of IDF and you get 3 months free with this 25% discount link)
Coursera — Interaction design specialization

Learning by doing and don’t get intimidated by all the new terms, it’s not as complex as you might think. One of the keys is to design with users in mind and keep iterating.
UX design process consists of “User research”, “Synthesis”, “Ideation”, “Information architecture”, “Wireframing and Prototyping”, “Testing” and “UI design”. If you’d like to know in details how to carry out each step, please refer to my complete guide on “How to become a UX designer from scratch”.

This is one of the biggest challenges for UX beginners: If I’ve never worked in UX, how can I come up with case studies that actually solve real-life problems? Here are some good options:

  1. Improve an existing product or find the problems you want to tackle in the fields that interest you
    As a start, you could find an existing product that you like or is popular, analyze the problems in their user experience, conduct usability testing to find out key pain points and user needs, so that you can improve the product.
    If you want more originality, pick an industry that you would like to work in such as health, fin-tech or e-commerce and identify some potential problems and unmet needs through user research. The problems and needs should specific and not too broad or general. From there you can create design solutions and validate with users.
    Here are some case study inspirations: Case study club
  2. Join a UX Bootcamp
    In a Bootcamp, you will get well-structured courses, hands-on projects and clear guidance from a mentor which are very helpful for beginners. You will learn to make case studies, put up a portfolio and also interview skills.
    Another benefit is the peer group and community. In some Bootcamps, you can get a learning buddy or ask questions in an online community that can motivate you. Also, most of them offer a job guarantee so it’s designed to help you get your first UI/UX job. If you have the budget and time, it’s worth the investment to fast track your transition into a UX designer.

    Here are the Bootcamps I mentor at and can recommend:
    *DesignLab UX design short course or UX academy*
    Highlights: can complete in 15 or 28 weeks; group critiques
    *CareerFoundry Intro to UX or UX design Bootcamp*
    Highlights: both mentor and tutor support; specialization in UI design, VUI or web development
    (Here is a 5% tuition discount link.)
    *Springboard UI/UX design Bootcamp*
    Highlights: one 40-hour project with an industry partner; unlimited mentor calls
    (If you sign up via this link, you get a $750 discount)
    *Flowhack UI/UX design Bootcamp*
    Highlights: affordable; personalized to students’ experience, pace and goals; students peer group; job search support

    If you are looking for detailed Bootcamps reviews, check out my other article: How to choose the best UX design course or Bootcamp for you?
  3. Volunteer at a startup or NGO
    A lot of startups and NGOs have great ideas but don’t have the budget to hire a UX designer, some of them might not even know what the difference between UI and UX is. You can reach out to some organizations which interest you, explain how you can help them solve the problems. This is a great way if you have time because you get to solve real-life problems.
    There are also online platforms such as VolunteerMatch where you can find projects which need UI/UX design.
    +Acumen also offers design courses that are real project-based.
  4. Do an internship
    An internship doesn’t require previous work experience or sometimes not even a design degree as they will teach/mentor you to become a junior designer, a lot of the time you can transition to a full-time designer in the company afterwards.
    You might still need a portfolio to apply for the internship so I suggest you develop at least one case study through option 1 or 2 and emphasize your ability to learn.

The must-use tool is undoubtedly paper & pen! And here I also listed the most used and useful tools/software:

Sketch
Adobe XD
Figma
Miro
InVision

I recommend having your portfolio in both PDF and web-based format.

Web-based version can be accessed both on desktop and mobile as long as there is internet connection. It appears more professional and shows your ability to design a responsive website. There are many online platforms where you can make a portfolio site easily and update it regularly.

Platforms and templates:
Webflow
Squarespace
Canva templates

Some job applications forms only accept portfolio in PDF format. Moreover, PDF version also allows you to tailor the portfolio to a specific company/role. The disadvantage is that you cannot update it once you’ve sent it out. One more tip: Make sure to compress your PDF to under 5mb.

Tools:
Adobe Indesign
Keynote or PPT

Once you’ve finished your first case study, send it to others, or ideally a UX mentor to get feedback so that you can improve your portfolio. They will tell you if there is anything unclear, confusing or missing.
Use Grammarly to check spelling and grammar mistakes.
After each job interviews, make note of what interests the interviewers and what is unclear.
The more you improve, the better your portfolio gets, and the higher your chance of getting a good job is.

Books
Don’t make me think- Steve Krug (Must-read for UX designers)
The Design of Everyday Things- Donald A. Norman (Must-read for designers)
UX strategy- Jaime Levy (A deeper understanding of UX design)
Sprint- by Jake Knapp (How to run design sprints)
Design books by Rosenfeld media

Blogs
Interaction Design Foundation article
s
Nielson Norman Group articles
Medium publications: (free account only has access to 3 articles per month)
muzli, UX collective, Flowhack

Networking offers you a great opportunity to get a UX design job in a company that you like.

Attend some local UX meet-ups and talks, talk to the people who are working in the companies that you are interested in and leave a good impression on them. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for their contacts and referrals. This is an effective way to get job opportunities.

LinkedIn is another great platform. Set your profile to open for recruiters. Add as many connections as possible especially the designers/recruiters who work in the companies that you like. Write in your job title what makes you a good UX designer. Add all the course/Bootcamp certificates you’ve achieved.

Make sure to include a cover letter tailored to the company, PDF&web version portfolio, CV in your application

meetup
IXDA
LinkedIn
Flowhack slack

  • Your design process is more important than end-results
  • Always design with users in mind
  • Learning by doing and keep improving
  • Use more images/graphics/bullet points than long texts, keep the stories concise and compelling
  • Show that you are a fast learner and your potential in UX design
  • Last but not least, trust yourself! Yes, you can get a job in UX without any work experience! ; )

Let’s connect! I’d love to hear your feedback or questions.

I’m Rachel Zhang, the founder of Flowhack and a senior UX design mentor at Designlab, Springboard, CF and IDF. I’m passionate about sharing my knowledge and helping people get into UI/UX design and remote work!

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Elina Zhang

Written by

UI/UX Design Mentor | Senior UX designer | Remote career & Design thinking coach | Founder of flowhack.co

Flowhack

Flowhack

Insights on UI/UX design, Personal growth and Conscious impact entrepreneurship.

Elina Zhang

Written by

UI/UX Design Mentor | Senior UX designer | Remote career & Design thinking coach | Founder of flowhack.co

Flowhack

Flowhack

Insights on UI/UX design, Personal growth and Conscious impact entrepreneurship.

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