When we survey UX professionals about their career growth, we often hear that presenting a strong portfolio of past work is an important piece of the job-search process. As the global user-experience community grows and matures, we expect that it will be increasingly important for job applicants to present their research skills and past work.
A UX design portfolio can show the designs, from early sketches to polished screenshots. (Plus, definitely, a discussion of the design thinking behind the designs.) But as a researcher, you may wonder what exactly belongs in your portfolio. The work that you do is detailed and context-sensitive, so it may feel difficult to summarize for general audiences. You may wonder which of the many deliverables produced during a research project should be included in a public portfolio.
Here are 10 recommendations about how to create a UX portfolio that showcases your research skills.
1. Understand Your Audience.
Take a user-centered approach to designing your portfolio. Who will view your portfolio and what information is most important to them? Begin creating your portfolio with an understanding of what people reading it will want to know. Keep the most important information in mind and don’t get distracted by details that are ultimately secondary to what your audience needs to learn.
Many of the researchers that I talk with feel pressured to create visually stunning portfolios, even if their work does not usually involve interface and graphic design. It’s true that presentation matters when it comes to portfolios, but visual appeal is a secondary concern. Trying to incorporate too many of the latest visual-design trends can take attention away from the content of your past projects. What people reading your portfolio really need to know is the types of research you have done, how you approach problems, and how you deliver results.
If you are searching for a new job, think about what is most important for hiring managers to know about you. Companies value hands-on experience and the ability to extract value from research. Emphasize the professional work that you have done and how you contribute to a team.
2. Curate Projects.
One of the most common questions that we hear about UX portfolios is how many projects to include in a portfolio. The answer is “it depends.” A good rule of thumb is to have 3–5 projects in your portfolio and to keep those projects current.
Remember that attention spans online are short. A hiring manager, industry peer, or conference organizer may be more invested in reading than the average person browsing the internet, but you should still try to make a strong impression quickly. Select the projects that you feel are most important or best represent the type of work that you would like to take on in the future.
A common mistake in creating portfolios is to include every project that you have worked on in the past. This much information may be overwhelming to a casual reader and risks pushing important projects so far down the page that they are likely to be missed. Prioritize projects based on:
- Impact: Showcase research that had a measured impact on the overall user experience, on key business metrics, and on the company’s long-term strategy.
- Process: Call attention to projects with robust methodology.
- Recency: Feature projects that were completed in the past few years. If you have many years of experience, strike a balance between showing recent work and particularly influential projects from years past.
3. Present the Right Documents.
The documents you feature in your portfolio should give an idea of how you think and how you ensure that the work you’ve done has an impact. Include both artifacts that show how the study was conducted and deliverables used to communicate research findings to a large group.
We recommend including the following artifacts directly from your past studies:
- Study plans
- Tasks for usability tests
- Early concepts and sketches
- Wireframes used in testing
- Short quotes from usability tests or user interviews
We recommend including the following artifacts used to communicate research findings:
- Affinity diagrams
- Excerpts from reports or presentations on study results
4. Describe Your Context and Team.
Portfolios should clearly communicate the context of the research that you have conducted. Briefly describe the goals of the project, its duration, users studied and the project’s findings. Present the project so that it tells an engaging story: why was this research effort originally started and what did you accomplish?
Clearly state your role in the project and explain which parts you were directly responsible for. Describe the team that you worked with on the project. Your future work as a researcher will often involve collaborating with user-interface designers, developers, project managers, content teams, and many others — demonstrating that you have worked closely with a large group in the past is valuable proof that you can work well with a crossfunctional team. Credit your colleagues by name whenever possible.
5. Show a Broad Range of Skills and Experience.
Researchers should show a versatile skillset, so, if you have experience with different research methodologies (e.g., qualitative and quantitative research methods, usability testing and focus groups), prioritize capturing those skills in your portfolio.
Your portfolio should show that you can use different methods and work well under different conditions. Ideally, you should be able to show insights from both large-scale projects and smaller guerilla research efforts. Show studies that were conducted independently, as well as projects that were conducted as part of a long-term team initiative.
6. Communicate Clearly.
Communication skills are critical for research professionals. When we surveyed 963 user-experience professionals, we found that “presenting solutions and concepts” was by far the most commonly reported job activity. 97% of the people who responded to our survey said that they regularly needed to communicate these ideas to a larger group.
Your research skills help you carry out your day-to-day responsibilities and your communication skills ensure that your research has an impact. Showcase your writing and reasoning abilities in your discussion of your past work.
Plain language in writing is always recommended, but it is particularly important when writing a portfolio. Remember that most of your readers will be unfamiliar with the context of your work. Explain the research, project context, and user needs in a way that is easy to understand for readers outside of your company and industry. Communicate UX concepts without relying too heavily on industry terms or jargon. Expect that your portfolio will be reviewed by recruiters, hiring managers, and executives who do not work directly in your field.
7. Summarize Important Findings.
Describe the results of your research clearly and concisely. Highlight findings that changed your team’s approach to a problem or that you found particularly interesting. Readers of your portfolio need to know that you can extract valuable insights from the data that you gather.
As you write project summaries for your portfolio, think about one or two of the most relevant or surprising findings from each project. Ask yourself how you would answer a reader who skims over your work and asks “Why is this important?” Showing insights to someone who is not familiar with your specific project, problem space, or user base is challenging — focus on a few key data points. Charts, graphs, and other visual representations of data can help illustrate your findings.
8. Demonstrate Value.
Show that you understand how to apply your research and how to extract tangible insights from it. Hiring managers reviewing portfolios are ultimately making a business decision: they need to feel confident that value added by the researcher that they hire will offset the costs to recruit, hire, and onboard that employee. Help them feel confident in that decision by concentrating your case studies on the impact of your past research projects.
Metrics are valuable in portfolios. If the research that you conducted led to measurable changes, note those numbers. Some of the most helpful metrics include:
- Reduced calls to customer support
- Decreased bounce rate from a site
- Decreased cart abandonment on an ecommerce platform
- Increased clicks or conversions
User quotes can also illustrate the importance of your research. If substantial design changes were made in response to your findings, include quotes in response to the product “before” and “after.” The difference in the ways that real people see the product can help readers understand the impact of your work.
9. Acknowledge Constraints.
Research is often done under imperfect circumstances and always with constraints. Portfolios can acknowledge that projects were conducted with a limited budget, a small data set, or a convenient sample of users. Describing these constraints demonstrates that you are able to find solid data under imperfect conditions. Discussing what you would have done differently given more resources shows humility and a willingness to learn.
Portfolios, like research projects, often have to be created under less than ideal circumstances. Here are a few of the most common obstacles to putting together a research portfolio:
Creating a Portfolio as a Student or Career Changer
One of the most frequently asked questions I hear about career development in UX is how to get started in the field. As a student or someone new to the field, you may wonder how to showcase your professional skills without direct professional experience. Building a portfolio of student, personal, or volunteer projects shows the type of skills that you will need in this field.
If you are a student, prepare case studies on group projects that you’ve completed while working towards your degree. Unfortunately, many university projects focus on rather esoteric designs instead of bread-and-butter corporate concerns, so try to do at least one project of obvious business value, such as the design of an ecommerce site.
If you are changing careers to work in user experience, consider taking on volunteer projects for charities and nonprofits to build your skills. Personal projects can also show research skills: conducting independent research or preparing heuristic analyses of existing products showcase your thought process. However, it’s important to clearly note what work was completed as part of a personal project versus professional work.
Creating a Portfolio When You Are Unable to Publish Past Work
Research professionals are often required to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) before beginning a project. Compiling a portfolio is difficult when you are legally forbidden from sharing past work. However, sometimes it is possible to “sanitize” research documents to the extent that nobody will be able to recognize what company or product they concern, while still preserving some ability for readers to understand what you did. For sure, it’s easier to present research components of a project this way than it is to demonstrate design skills without showing any screenshots.
Consider writing case studies on past projects that showcase your skills without revealing protected information or sensitive client data. Ask past clients if there is any information that they are comfortable with you sharing — you may be able to post short excerpts of your research deliverables in your portfolio. Finally, consider asking for a testimonial or recommendation. Even if your past clients feel the need to keep the work confidential, they may be happy to speak highly of your skills.
10. Iterate on Your Work.
Portfolios are living documents. Update your portfolio continuously throughout your career to keep a current record of your work. Seek feedback on your portfolio from peers and mentors to learn where you can improve.
Compiling a research portfolio can be intimidating, particularly if you are at an early stage of your UX career. Remember that iteration is an important part of the design process. Your portfolio, just like your research skills, will improve with time and effort.
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