In our increasingly digital world, user experience, or UX, designers are some of the most sought-after creative talent out there. They are the people who develop the functionality of a company’s digital assets, designing the ‘user experience’ from both a technical and visual perspective. They come from diverse educational backgrounds, including graphic design, psychology, sociology, and even library science. They are creative and organized minds who research, analyze, and problem-solve in order to make user-friendly apps, responsive websites, intranets, widgets, and much more. And just like other creative designers, UX designers need to have a portfolio to entice potential employers.

Elizabeth Calabrese-Mahnken is a Senior Recruiter for Creative Circle, one of the largest and most well-known creative recruitment firms in the country. She has first-hand experience reviewing portfolios, and has also spent time as a graphic designer working in the digital space. With an insider’s familiarity working with UX designers, she shared her UX portfolio tips for getting noticed by creative headhunters.

Get a Website

Because of the nature of a user experience designer’s work, their UX portfolio should be digital and showcase their prowess with website user experience design. Rather than just links to projects and products that the designer worked on, the portfolio should live as an organized entity on a personal website. If a user experience designer doesn’t have one already, they need to get to SquareSpace, GoDaddy, or any one of the many other website builders, snag a website, and get ready to build.

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User experience designers should not discount the importance of having a website.

“Ideally, someone is working in the digital space in UX. Obviously, the client seeking creative recruitment wants to see that the candidate has their own website with a really strong user experience. So that’s the goal,” Calabrese-Mahnken explains.

Document Your Process and Be Able to Express Yourself Clearly

Much of a UX designer’s work revolves around research and problem-solving. Their UX portfolio should, therefore, include illuminations of that process. In the end, the completed UX portfolio should be a combination of language and images.

“Think about a case study. It’s almost a mix of a really strong narrative and storytelling as well as identifying key visuals. That is what these portfolios entail,” Calabrese-Mahnken says. “There’s a story of sure. There’s a journey you’re following from beginning to end in a content fashion, so your writing really has to be on point. You’re really walking a person through the process. If you think about it, in a user experience role, documentation is everything. Documenting that process is key.”

Calabrese-Mahnken also says that a working UX designer should be used to documenting that journey because it’s a part of the job. So preserve those work notes to include in your UX portfolio, which should be regularly updated. “They’ve been [documenting] the whole time along the way for their projects, anyway. They document for developers… for user interface designers… for QA testers. So they should already have that information,” she says.

“The problem comes in when they don’t display it. And with all of the documentation comes the key visuals, so we’re talking site maps, user flows, user journeys, wireframes, prototypes… A lot of times UX designers will also showcase their interactive prototypes, which is huge. That’s essentially a walk-through of how that app will work and function. Most of our UX folks are utilizing InVision, which is an online app that will allow them to showcase that.”

Finally on this topic, be careful to review what you’ve written so that none of the story is left out. “If your UX portfolio is not including process from beginning to end for a particular project, then there are missing pieces there.”

That Darn Non-Disclosure Agreement

Often an employer will have a UX designer sign a non-disclosure agreement, which prevents the designer from releasing particular elements of the design. In order to honor that non-disclosure, while still being able to include that project in a UX portfolio, Calabrese-Mahnken recommends two options. “What a lot of candidates do is password protect sections of their web site [so NDA-affected portions are not visible to the general public]. What they could also do is provide a PDF of those particular projects that they’re not able to show on a web site in a public forum. What’s important, again, is verbally discussing what a challenge may have been and how they solved that problem. Even if they can’t show key visuals because of the NDA.”

creative recruitment
Recruiters are looking for UX portfolios that properly document how a designer arrived to the finished product.

Quality and Diversity, Not Size, Matters

There’s no set measure for how many projects to include in your UX portfolio. More important than the number of projects included is the quality of the work. You want to represent the best work that you have for potential employers. “It’s much better to have three pieces that you are proud of and feel that you can communicate very strongly on, than having ten pieces where four of them, you don’t feel are a true representation of who you are as a UX professional,” Calabrese-Mahnken recommends.

You also want to be able to advertise your skills across different types of user experience projects. Being versed in more than one product is desirable. “If you are a UX person and maybe you worked on the checkout section for one web site within e-commerce, and you’ve also worked on a tool that will live on a desktop,” Calabrese-Mahnken comments, ”then you can showcase the way that you worked between those two mediums.”

Stay Current

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Don’t include an outdated project unless it’s a major professional milestone.

User experience designers are under constant pressure to keep up with technology as it changes if they want to get noticed by creative recruitment executives. Mobile devices, tablets, computers, smart TVs, etc., are ever-evolving and at rapid rates. This constant improvement and development continuously presents new challenges in the UX realm. Employers want to see that a UX candidate is knowledgeable about the user experience that can be expected with the most current technology. So if you worked on an app five years ago, and that app now looks and behaves much differently, which it most likely will, then it can be a detriment to include.

Calabrese-Mahnken makes an exception, with reservations, for triumphs in your professional life. She says, “If you were working on a huge Google app or a big bank app, where this is something that millions and millions of users have used, and it was a career win for you then it’s OK to showcase that. But be cognizant of the fact that if you’re showing it on an iPhone 4, then that might be a red flag that you are a little outdated to that employer.”

There is great demand for talented user experience designers, and both long-term freelance and permanent positions are often available. Calabrese-Mahnken sums it up: ”A client is lucky to have a UX person doing amazing work who’s jibing well with the team and wants to stay there. UX people are their moneymakers right now.” With an impressive UX portfolio that speaks well to your user experience process, you could find yourself on your way to your next professional success.

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