How do I create a UX portfolio with no real-world experience?

Today’s question comes from Rashmi Bhat, one of the 8,267 students taking my User Experience Design Fundamentals Course on Udemy.

Q: Joe, I was reading a blog on how to find job as a UX/UI especially if you are new to this field. As I am just in learning mode, how can I make a portfolio without having worked on any real projects (without any experience)?

A: Rashmi, this is an excellent question, and it’s something that every new designer or developer struggles with. The unfortunate reality of this industry is that you’re expected to be able to demonstrate proof of your ability, via a UX portfolio, but nearly all entry-level UXers haven’t had any real clients yet. It’s a rather large Catch-22, to say the least.

However, that does not mean you can’t show proof of what you’ve learned, and how you are able to apply that knowledge! What any potential client or employer is looking for is proof you can help them in some meaningful way. And while they will most certainly lean toward candidates who have actual client experience, I assure you it’s not a requirement that will keep you from getting your foot in the door. The key to overcoming that lack of experience is making a strong showing of how you use your UX skills to improve things. Here’s how you do that.

Create projects for yourself.

Take a website (or an app or a piece of software) you feel could be improved and develop a new Information Architecture for it. Or create a set of wireframes that show how the site’s UX or UI could be improved. In your UX portfolio, you show every aspect of the process, not just the finished UI design: your notes, sketches, Information Architecture, Workflows, wireframes, etc. Reveal the entire journey, not just the end product. What will make people stand up and take notice, more so than a slick UI design, are the things that show them how you use what’s between your ears.

To this day, I show everything to prospective clients, and I find that the sketches and whiteboard pictures are what resonate most. This work sends a clear signal that I am going to dig in and really think about the issues they face just like they would – from a business strategy perspective as well as a UX perspective. Here are some examples:

UX Portfolio sketches

Showing your thinking is like “showing your work” in a math class. You’re demonstrating how you think, what you considered, how much work you did before you jumped to a finished solution. So take the most relevant examples — those that demonstrate what you’re changing and why — and make sure they’re included in your UX portfolio.

Then present this stuff in public, wither on your personal website or in a blog post. Create a document or a post explaining:

  1. What you changed
  2. Why you changed it
  3. What you think will happen as a result (e.g. more traffic, more sales, more downloads and product adoption, etc.)

Be clear that these are not client projects.

You’re not presenting any of this as “real” projects — make sure you state specifically that you were not commissioned to do this work. Be honest. What matters in terms of presenting yourself as being able to do UX work is that you demonstrate how you think about these things (“I believe product adoption is suffering because…”), and how your research and analysis (“people on Twitter are complaining about…”) informed your actions (“so I designed it like this instead.”).

What I want you to understand is that in addition to the work itself, you are also demonstrating a critical skill that any smart employer or business person will value: that you are a motivated self-starter. That you are not the kind of person who waits for opportunity to fall into her lap. That you act instead of react. The clients and employers you want to be working for are those who don’t want order-takers; they want difference-makers. And difference makers don’t wait for perfect scenarios: they move forward and make something happen.

Don’t wait for an official project. Create one (many, in fact), do the work and show the details.

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If you’d like to get more advice from me every month on building a strong UX Portfolio that gets the attention of recruiters and hiring managers — in the form of training videos, full-length courses, e-books, downloadable templates and more — check out my NEW online school, the UX 365 Academy. Every month I publish new content, and you also have access to every course, book and training video I’ve ever created — some of which have never been published online before now.

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