UX Portfolios: The good, the bad & the ugly

Resources & Guides
·
October 20, 2022

A portfolio is a staple of artistic endeavors. It’s a curated list, showcasing your best work.

If Da Vinci was still with us, his portfolio would include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and the Vitruvian Man.

Leonardo Da Vinci's portfolio

From Van Gogh, we’d get The Starry Night, The Sunflowers, and a classic self-portrait.

Van Gogh's portfolio

Portfolios tell their owner’s story.
They communicate their worldview.
They showcase their contribution to the world.

It’s not surprising, then, that portfolios have also made their way into UX.

UX Designers have portfolios. They use them to tell a story that starts with problem discovery and ends up with a solution in users’ hands.

UX Researchers have portfolios. They use them to dive deep into the research methods they use, the processes they implement, and the evidence they collect as proof of their work.

Building a compelling User Research portfolio or case study though, is understandably hard. User interviews and survey results are not as cool or sleek as prototypes. No one is hyped to check out the new google forms you created. The personas you crafted for your new client aren’t going viral on Dribbble.

How can you put together an outstanding portfolio of your research work?
How can you stand out from the crowd?

Let’s take a look 👀

In this article, we will go over:

The building blocks of a UX Portfolio

UX design portfolios have an unfair advantage: they are visually appealing by default. The outcome is pleasing to look at and easy to consume.

Research on the other hand, is much less tangible. Understanding it requires a lot more context. Your portfolio can end up in the hands of non-researchers looking to make their first hire. You can’t afford to confuse them.
To top things off, you need to prevent the portfolio from boring the average reader to tears.

Sounds like an uphill battle. Here’s a rough map of the terrain to help you out.

Building blocks of UX portfolio

A good UX portfolio will give the reader a sense of who you are as a person, let them evaluate your skill set, and help them contact you if they so decide.

  1. Say hi👋You get here using a short bio. The purpose is to give the reader a quick sense of who you are. Check out Mikey’s portfolio here. His intro is brief, convincing, and gives a quick sense of where he’s coming from. Jules Lee manages to introduce herself using even fewer words.

  2. Impress them 🤯 This is the meat of your portfolio. The purpose here is to show off your skills as the research genius the recruiters are looking for.

Pick a few pieces of work that you think work well for the kind of jobs you’re applying to. Doing some research into the company beforehand will pay dividends here - figure out what they value and frame your portfolio accordingly.

Three to five pieces of work generally work well at most levels. If you are looking for your very first gig, you can also include the work you did while in college or bootcamp. The recommended way of presenting your research work is through crisp case studies. We’ll discuss a format for your case studies in a second.

  1. Reassure them 😌You are great at research! You know it. We know it. The recruiters might need more convincing, however. The purpose of this step is to build the recruiter’s confidence in the legitimacy of your work using testimonials and referrals of people you’ve worked with. Understandably, this won’t always be available, especially for researchers who are just getting started. If that describes you, you can either decide to skip this step or put in testimonials from previous coworkers, managers, or teachers.

Get invited🚪Don’t forget to connect! Be sure to highlight your professional social profiles, email, and mobile to help recruiters reach out to you.


A quick word about case studies

UX Portfolios case studies

The best framework we’ve found for structuring case studies is POWER by David Travis. According to David, a case study should narrate a story instead of presenting information mechanically. His POWER framework enables this storytelling.

To write a case study to present your work, start by describing the project. What was it about? Is there some interesting context to help understand the project better? What compels you to present this project on your portfolio?

Then, move on to the objective of your work. What was the project’s desired outcome? Why were you asked to work on it? What problem were you trying to solve here?

With the project and its objectives described, move on to the work you did. How did you approach your task? Why did you settle on this approach? What steps did you take?

Once you’ve described what you did, describe what came of it. Did you achieve the desired outcomes?

Finally, show off your skill for introspection. What did the experience teach you? What could you have done better?

You should read through the original, in-depth article by David. We can’t recommend it enough.


Best practices for research portfolios

We hope you’ll craft a wonderful portfolio using the building blocks mentioned here.

While we’re at it, here’s a quick list of best-practices to keep in mind:

  1. Keep it skimmable.📖
    Assume that the kindest of readers will give only a few minutes to your portfolio. Avoid complicated sentences. Avoid fancy words. Avoid clutter. This is a handy editor you can use to identify complex sentences and make Ernest Hemingway proud.
  2. Highlight your work.🔬
    It’s appealing to include the flashy mockup that your team came up with, but that will only distract from what you did. Your work should get attention.
  3. Showcase tangible results where possible.🔢
    Metrics and quotes from users/customers are effective, real-world results. Readers will always appreciate having something to objectively judge your portfolio.
  4. Keep evolving.🦕
    Your body of work will grow as you pursue new opportunities. It’s always a great idea to ensure your portfolio shows the best you have to offer. As you add new pieces to your portfolio, however, do ensure that it’s reasonably short. Delete the projects from the past that no longer demonstrate your skill set.

With that out of the way, it would help if you could learn from the best. Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Here are a few portfolios we love. Unleash the great artist inside you.

Great research portfolios to take inspiration from

1. Alessandro Battisti’s portfolio is delightfully simplistic 😍.

Look at him go through the steps we discussed above.

Best Research Portfolios

Key takeaways from Alessandro’s portfolio:

2. Jason Lipshin is a senior UX researcher at Youtube 😯. His portfolio is the opposite of fancy - it’s a simple presentation that does a great job of selling his expertise.

Jason Lipshin's UX portfolio

Key takeaways from Jason’s portfolio:

The drawbacks of portfolios

While portfolios can be an incredible tool to show off your work and speed up the hiring process for recruiters, they have their drawbacks as well.

For anyone working above entry-level, a number of barriers crop up preventing the portfolio from staying updated.

Some UX professionals have NDAs with their employers, making it legally impossible to showcase their work. This is a considerably worse problem for researchers, since a lot of what they do can remain hidden under NDAs even after they’re done with projects.

Some UX professionals have work that never went anywhere. Teams can spend weeks on projects only for them to be scrapped. A scrapped project is tough to include in a portfolio.

Drawbacks of portfolio

Some UX professionals are simply too busy to maintain a portfolio. As researchers and designers move up in their career, they’re more likely to fall into this camp.

There’s also the sinister problem of biases creeping up in the hiring process. There isn’t a standardized format for portfolios and the subjective nature allows biased judgement to go unchecked. This can be particularly harmful for communities already underrepresented in the UX space.

Soft skills often matter in UX jobs almost as much as technical skills and portfolios do a bad job of highlighting them. Are you able to communicate insights? Were you able to influence decision-making? Do you play well in a team environment? These soft skills may be as important as research skills, but they are hard to convey via a portfolio.

So go ahead and build out that groundbreaking UX Research portfolio and showcase your skills, but remember its limitations—it’s one more arrow in your quiver, not a silver bullet.

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