How to Make Your UX Design Portfolio Stand Out
You’re applying for a UX design job and you’re not sure what to put in your portfolio to stand out. We’ve got you! We interviewed a COO (and hiring manager!) to give you the best tips on what to include in your UX design portfolio.
Skillcrush launched its Break Into Tech + Get Hired program in 2021. Since then, we’ve successfully helped over 90 percent of our students get hired. Our expert job search support and personalized feedback help Skillcrushers thrive during the interview process and beyond.
One alumni of our program, Seyi Ibitoye, shared an experience with Skillcrush that truly inspired us — a detailed feedback email he received from a potential employer – Hesseltje (Hess) van Goor, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at SearchSmartly. Hess, who studied design and has worked in both web design and User Experience (UX), shared her thoughts on his interview and take home exercise, including what he did well on during the process and what he could improve on.
We were so impressed at the constructive and very helpful feedback that we asked Seyi and Hess if we could interview them for this post on what aspiring UX designers should include in their UX design portfolio.
Table of Contents
- What should a good design portfolio include?
- What makes a UX design portfolio stand out?
- How do you assess a design portfolio?
- What are you looking for in an assignment that might not come across on their LinkedIn or in their portfolio?
- How do you approach a design assignment?
What should a good design portfolio include?
A good design portfolio might include a portfolio website, a sample homepage design or template, webpage prototypes, detailed case studies, testimonials, etc. However, a great design portfolio isn’t just a collection of eye-catching passion projects, digital products, and UX case studies — a great portfolio reveals your design process (and more) to hiring managers and recruiters.
While a graphic designer might be concerned about typography and visual design, product designers with color palettes, and UI designers with wireframes and usability, different design specialties should have different areas of focus in their portfolio — though, of course, everyone should strive to showcase their best work and design skills on their portfolio site.
For Hess, what makes for a good design portfolio depends on what area of design the applicant is in and their career goals. An aspiring UX designer portfolio should showcase an understanding of format, environment, story, and evidence of user testing in their UX projects while a graphic designer, product designer, or even UI designer would have different areas of focus in their portfolio.
She says, “In terms of career goals, if you’re looking for a role in graphic design then what you need is different from UX. People come to me on UX design portfolios with Google UX certificates, user personas, and show the work, but for me, a strong UX designer understands their format — the environment where they’re designing.”
She adds, “The great ones (UX designers) have a sense of how a browser works and how the work they’re doing is being rendered. They go a step beyond and tell the story around that in their portfolio. I want to see interaction with customers and demonstrate that you spoke to someone about your work and an evolution in your work.”
For example, when looking at a good design portfolio for UX designers, she wants to see them “Go from V1, test, and adjust. Usually, in UX portfolios, candidates go in and do their primary and secondary research, have an idea, get it prototyped out, and end with a Figma prototype. I get a low and high resolution piece. What I don’t get is a validated Figma prototype. In reality, you work in a product lifecycle and then the learning starts.”
Even if you haven’t talked to potential clients, demonstrating that you know how to do user research and can redesign your design projects based on user feedback takeaways in your UX design portfolio examples can still give you a solid portfolio.
As a UX researcher candidate, if you can show the hiring manager you have experience with user testing, usability testing, interaction design, and your design process in addition to the final product, your portfolio will come across strong. You don’t need years of experience or schooling under your belt to showcase your thought process and skills.
What makes a UX design portfolio stand out?
Having worked in the design business and as COO, Hess has seen her fair share of design portfolios and notes a few keys to standing out: Storytelling is very important in a portfolio. She elaborates, “In terms of wowing me, a portfolio I would sometimes refer to when the candidate’s portfolio is missing a story is one from an agency. I would refer people to them because I think there’s something wrong with their storytelling.”
In addition to storytelling, what can make a UX design portfolio stand out is an understanding of metrics. Hess says, “The best designers link their work to outcomes. The most powerful way for a designer to articulate their value to themselves and the company they work for is metrics. This is the impact, how we measure things, and very often people miss that. I look at design as a subject adjacent to tech and marketing. How you position yourself comes back to what you want to get out of your career.”
Finally, another factor that makes a design portfolio stand out is an interest in technology and accessibility. She says, “With UX, show you have an interest in tech and accessibility. Think about where you’re going and work backwards to see what kind of scene I’m going to end up in [as the user].”
Good storytelling, paying attention to metrics, and demonstrating interest in tech and accessibility show potential employers that a candidate has gone the extra mile to highlight their craft, marketability, commitment to the field, and designing for a wider audience.
How do you assess a design portfolio?
When we asked Hess how she assesses a design portfolio, she told us that she’s looking for versatility, especially as the COO of a smaller company, a glimpse at the design thought process, and the designer’s ability to adapt to trends.
She explains, “Before we launch any recruitment, we do a job design exercise. Most of the time it’s in my head, but I’ll loop in the company to see what we need as a business to thrive. For this position, we had a very clear vision. We needed a couple of things. We needed someone who was versatile and could adapt to all sorts of situations. Someone who is organized and on top of things with excellent communication and who gelled with the product and with the market.”
Hess elaborates, “For me, the take home exercise (I do this religiously because it’s the fairest form of evaluation) is broad and vague and I observe how a person approaches this task. There’s predetermined scoring, and some code up entire websites, but what we were looking for was understanding of how an applicant approaches a situation.”
When Hess was assessing designer portfolios for the UX researcher role, she kept these questions in mind, “How do you cope with an assignment? Do you ask follow up questions? How do you interact with me as a recruiter and how do you approach the task itself? Do you have several prototypes or just one? A sketch to finished design without any verification? Are you adapting your design to the brand? In the finished Figma file, is this person on brand? I don’t ask them to be on brand but I just see whether they’re on brand. The unprompted behavior is important.”
As a designer, as with resumes and cover letters, you can adapt your design portfolio to the particular company in terms of the UX design work you showcase on your portfolio website or homepage.
For example, when applying to a startup, you could consider showing all of the different types of projects you’ve worked on to display your versatility, whereas, for a larger enterprise, you might consider showing depth in your portfolio to show off your problem-solving skills.
What are you looking for in an assignment that might not come across on their LinkedIn or in their portfolio?
When it comes to take home exercises, we asked Hess what she was looking for in an assignment that might show her something about a candidate that isn’t obvious from LinkedIn or in the designer’s submitted portfolio and she replied, “Initiative and proactiveness.”
Hess talked a bit about the person they eventually hired for the position, saying, “The person we hired asked for an extension. Very few people take the initiative to question something. She asked a question and I liked that because it showed she was proactive and engaging with me in a conversation about it, which is something I need in my business.”
Hess noted, “She said, ‘I want to check some things,’ and she took the Red Cross landing page assignment and interviewed six people in her network about why they would or would not donate to a charity. She had direct conversations with people, identified a number of themes relevant to the problem at hand, (establishing trust, etc.), and brought those insights into her final design, which was on brand to the Red Cross.”
She continued, “My team was blown away. It secured her final round interview, but, fundamentally, it was incredible. It was the theory in action. What I thought was really interesting was that we had asked for the landing page but her final output was a mobile app. She changed my brief based on her understanding of the customer.”
“For some companies that’d be a red flag, but for me,” Hess said, “This is perfect because we’re a small business and we need someone who is adaptive and thinks on her feet. There’s no one size fits all approach but, ultimately, it’s a dating exercise. Am I going to be happy working with you and is this person going to thrive in the environment we have here?”
How do you approach a design assignment?
In addition to asking Hess about her advice for UX design portfolios, we also asked Seyi what advice he would give for approaching a design assignment.
Seyi, upon reflecting on his former process, said, “Back then, I was focused basically on getting out the design. Get the design out there and put all the things you learned, push it out, and let them see you learned so much.”
“Now,” he says, “The first thing I think of these days, apart from design tests, is to sit back and look at the brief from the beginning. I imagine the end user and what is coming out of this project, think from that person’s perspective and not from my perspective. I want to sit down in the user’s chair and think of what I want and what I expect from this. If this doesn’t go well, what would make me want to start over from the beginning.”
He notes, “The major thing in approaching an assignment is: ask yourself or other people questions. Most of what I did before is look at how someone else did it and see if it looks good. Now, it’s about whether something is useful. Does that box need to be there? Will it still function? Before I go into my aesthetically pleasing skills, I like to do that part that speaks to you when you look at the design first.”
Hess agreed with Seyi and added, “Show your work, show your thinking [your design process]. I have seen design tasks completed with 60 to 70 percent written and some diagrams. People assume a design task means putting out lots and lots of assets. One person put in an assignment with a lot of writing, but the writing was good and walked me through their thinking process. It just showed this contextual awareness.”
She elaborated, “From a production perspective, this candidate kept it quite nice and showed he could do the right things. Definitely when you go for a UX role, show your work. Talk to people around you and not just the customers in your head. If you can find an individual you can poach for a five minute conversation about the assignment, it will show you’re proactive, doing the research, and your interest in the company. It will show the process of UX and is ultimately what the employer is looking for.”
What did Seyi learn from this experience?
When we talked to Seyi, he reflected on his experience interviewing with Hess and Searchsmartly, emphasizing that this process taught him a lot about user experience philosophy, thinking about user needs, and why he admires the work of the candidate (Diana) Hess ultimately hired.
Seyi had only positive things to say about the candidate Hess hired, saying, “I looked up Diana and I would’ve picked her too. She created the user persona and user flow that I’ve incorporated into my designs right now that I didn’t have back then. It was really impressive and I was blown away.”
In fact, looking at the other designer’s work helped Seyi think about UX philosophy and user needs. He says, “I use Diana’s work as a reference point and as a base for the moodboard I’ve been making so I have a clear picture of what I’m looking for. Most design roles have UX ingrained in them somehow, so you need to have the user’s thinking cap on, even if it’s graphic design. I’m thinking about how the person is going to feel and what they really want. I think I learned that from viewing Diana’s portfolio.”
Finally, Seyi has this advice for user testing, “I like to give my family members and anyone around me the design to test. I do this two to three times in the interaction process. When the new person doesn’t ask me any questions after going through the new page and can explain to me what I’m trying to achieve, I feel something is working. User experience is like a door and if the user notices he is using the door, then it’s not working but if he notices after he enters, then you know you’ve got it right.”
📌 PS — Want to learn more about how to break into web design and get hired? Check out our Break Into Tech + Get Hired program for tech skill training and job search support!