5 mistakes I see students make on UX portfolios

I hope this article helps people new to the design profession create better portfolios (and book more interviews).

As a design professional, I’ve seen hundreds of student and jr.-level design portfolios. Across these portfolios, I see many of the same errors crop up. With a little guidance, I believe students could do a much better job of marketing their passion and growing expertise.

The end goal of a portfolio, in my view, is to get hiring managers interested enough to book an interview. It should also serve as a shared document to examine during a job interview. Here’s my list of mistakes (and how to fix them).

1. Too much focus on deliverables with too little narrative

Many jr. portfolios focus on the deliverables – the sketches, personas, mockups, style guides and other artifacts of the design process. Deliverables are necessary, but not sufficient. What’s interesting to hiring managers is the ‘why’ – the story and thinking behind what you are doing. Why did you undertake the work or make a decision? What did you learn from your research (or usability test) that was surprising? How did your work change based on these discoveries?

Hiring managers are looking to understand and gauge the quality of a candidate’s thinking and analysis. They want to know that candidates can stick through the build-measure-learn-iterate (especially the learn, then iterate) process and help them make better products.

One way of testing the depth of analysis is the ‘5 whys’ exercise. For any decision, ask and answer why this was so. So for example, questioning a hypothetical student on an example persona:

  • Interviewer: Why did you make this persona as it’s shown?
  • Student: We based the persona on 2 interviews.
  • Interviewer: Why did you choose those people? Did they have particular relevance to the demographic your app would target?
  • Student: We choose 2 people in our Facebook friend network and interviewed them.
  • Interviewer: So they are your friends. Are they relevant to the demographic that your app/project would target?
  • Student: They were related in age, income and in need of the solution we were offering.
  • Etc.

Students should remember that tools change every couple of years, and processes change at a slower, albeit steady pace. The deliverables will probably change form. What will not change is the need for correct thinking and analysis so that our work guides us towards building better apps.

2. The student’s portfolio hasn’t made them memorable (as a person) to the hiring manager

Hiring managers speak with lots of people. Students need to help themselves stand out by creating a memorable (good) impression in the mind of the interviewer. This means being different in a way that’s not off-putting or strange. For most of us, it’s a challenging task. To me, hobbies are a great way of differentiation. ‘The one who flies airplanes’ ‘The one who’s been to 24 countries’ ‘The one who plays unicycle football’ – These won’t get you hired, but they make it easy for people to remember who you are, and it’s an interesting angle that will at least want to know more about you.

Don’t underestimate your hobbies. If you love Dungeon and Dragons, that will help a hiring manager remember you after they’ve looked at 50 portfolios. Here are some more strategies to help you be memorable:

  1. Add your hobbies, but if you get paid to do them (like photography) then I would put them on a separate website. Specialization will help you land your first job.
  2. Add narrative everywhere, especially on dry project sections – narrative is much more memorable than the dry recitation of facts.
  3. Most designers have a tagline or short sentence as a descriptor – don’t waste this opportunity to be unique – a good tagline will help set the theme for your portfolio and help the hiring manager remember yours even after looking through a ton of others. This is an entire (separate) article on writing an effective tagline, but here’s my advice: take the perspective of the person looking over your portfolio. They want someone with a set of skills who is easy to work with. Write your tagline with your audience in mind. Ask what can you help them achieve (rather than what you hope to get out of life/employment).

3. The sketches don’t help hiring managers better understand the purpose or story

Remember that narrative is much more memorable than facts. Remember also that interviewers and hiring managers have limited bandwidth towards absorbing information. Messy drawings on a portfolio site only tell a hiring manager that you did a drawing as part of the process – they don’t help them understand more about the project, process or outcome. In fact, they make it more difficult. Look at Austin Kleon if you want a great example of someone who uses basic sketches to convey a powerful story.

Look at this basic drawing in the calendar, and how it conveys a powerful story about the journey that an artist takes through a project.

People will judge you on the cleanness of your sketches. While this might seem counter-intuitive, remember that deliverables are used to communicate. Messy sketches communicate that you don’t care what the hiring manager gets out of the drawing. Don’t give hiring managers this subtle cue. Show them that you are capable of working collaboratively (the messy drawing) and then give them a synopsis of the content of the drawing. Re-make, re-organize and communicate the important message, discovery or insight in the drawing or collaboration process.

4. Students don’t know who they are pitching to

When students use the word passion, a hiring manager might wonder if the student really appreciates why a business is hiring a UX designer. Passion is important to the student, but not so much to the business. Expertise is important. Being easy to work with is important. Having a keen mind and being able to communicate sharp analysis is important.

Pitch your portfolio towards the self-interest of the person (and business) hiring you. This means having a deep understanding of what they need. Informational interviews (to take a page from the book of UX 😉 is a great way to find out what skills and jobs-to-be-done are actually needed by people hiring for UX positions. As an added bonus it’s a great way to do long-term networking.

5. Students (and even experienced designers) often treat the portfolio as an afterthought

I believe that our ethic is present even in the smallest thing we do. I also know that a designer’s own portfolio is the most painful project they ever work on. Treat your portfolio with the care that you would give a client’s project. Have you done a current-state/competitive analysis of other portfolios in the design world? You’ll need to, because as a Jr. designer you’ll be competing with a large number of other people. As you move on in your career this will change, and the positions will have fewer (but more competitive) applicants. For now you’re going against a lot of people, and you need to really understand your competition.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *