Portfolios for Independent UX Designers

By Janet M. Six

Published: September 19, 2011

Send your questions to Ask UXmatters and get answers from some of the top professionals in UX.

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss what you should have in your portfolio to gain the most consulting contracts.

Every month in Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: ask.uxmatters@uxmatters.com.

The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Jessica Enders—Principal at Formulate Information Design
  • Adrian Howard—Generalising Specialist in Agile/UX
  • Whitney Quesenbery—Principal Consultant at Whitney Interactive Design; Past-President, Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA); Fellow, Society for Technical Communications (STC); UXmatters columnist
  • Robert Reimann—Lead Interaction Designer at Sonos, Inc.; Past-President, Interaction Design Association (IxDA)

Q: As an independent UX designer, what should I have in my portfolio to gain the most consulting contracts?—From a UXmatters reader

“Once you know what kinds of projects or products you want to work on, it then becomes clear what should be in your portfolio.”—Whitney Quesenbery

“First, let me address the question as asked, because it’s the wrong question,” asserts Whitney. “It reminds me of a conversation I had as I was about to complete a theater program. I wanted to be a lighting designer. My first interviewer asked me what I wanted to do. ‘Be a lighting designer,’ I repeated. ‘Yes, but what kind of theater are you passionate about? Do you want to work on plays, musicals, opera? What kind of company do you want to work with.’ And, as he intended, I realized that I had focused entirely on the skills of my particular discipline rather than the larger question of what kind of theater I wanted to help create. 

“If you don’t know what you are offering potential clients and partners, you are not an independent UX designer, but someone looking for direction. Once you know what kinds of projects or products you want to work on, it then becomes clear what should be in your portfolio.

“For a second try: Perhaps this question is trying to ask, ‘What kinds of companies and industries offer good prospects for work these days?’ That’s a very different question. In this case, we can talk about the kinds of skills or knowledge your portfolio should demonstrate. For example: Are you interested in mobile? You probably want to show designs for a range of platforms and types of devices and apps. Or maybe you want to specialize in iOS games. What about government? Probably need to show your experience in handling multichannel information and designs that works for a wide-ranging audience. And so on.

“Your portfolio should show what you can do well and an awareness of how your work fits into a larger process.”
—Whitney Quesenbery

“Third try: Or perhaps this reader is trying to ask, ‘How many different parts of my UX work do I need to include?’ That one is a lot easier. Your portfolio should show what you can do well and an awareness of how your work fits into a larger process. I’d be happy to see a portfolio that showed team work, as long as it’s also clear what your individual contribution is. Playing nicely with others and understanding the overall UX process is important, especially for a contractor.

“One of the best portfolios I have ever seen was put together by someone moving out of a long career inside an old-economy financial services company. She wanted to show that she had worked in many areas of user experience, so she put together her best work in each area: user research, stakeholder workshops, early prototypes, usability testing, and so on. She said right up front that none of her projects had involved a perfect process, but that across her career, she had been able to work in many areas of the field, succeeding even in difficult environments. She even included some of her stories about working around barriers, to show how she was able to get a good result even in tough circumstances. What was so impressive about this portfolio was the way it so clearly showed who she was and what she could do in the right environment. I also liked the way she communicated that there were some areas of user experience that she didn’t know as well, but knew enough about them to do a creditable job when she was the only UX person on a team.”

Tailored to the Job

“You should tailor your portfolio to the work you are trying to get. One of the biggest mistakes I think prospective contractors make is not customizing their portfolio for the specific client work they are attempting to land.”—Robert Reimann

“You should tailor your portfolio to the work you are trying to get,” recommends Robert. “One of the biggest mistakes I think prospective contractors make is not customizing their portfolio for the specific client work they are attempting to land. Customizing your portfolio does the following:

  1. It shows the client that you are all about client service and will make the extra effort to meet their needs.
  2. It allows you to craft a very specific story that will resonate better with the client and—assuming your work is equally good—give you an edge over competition that may be more generic.
  3. It forces you to think about your past work in the context of the prospective work, which allows you both to refamiliarize yourself with it and focus on the points most pertinent to your prospective client.

“Of course, these points assume that your portfolio already includes work samples that not only present clearly what you did, but also tell a story about how you arrived at your design decisions, what the context of the problem was, and what constraints or hurdles you needed to overcome. Ideally, the client should be able to glean this information, at least superficially, from the portfolio alone—hopefully leading to follow-up questions in an interview.”

“Potential clients look for evidence that you’ve done work that relates to what they have on offer. … Focus on bringing out what similarities there are [to your projects] and the underlying skills and knowledge that you have, which are applicable across all projects.”

“In my experience,” answers Jessica, “potential clients look for evidence that you’ve done work that relates to what they have on offer. That can mean the same industry, the same sort of design problem, the same platform or medium, or the same topic. Don’t panic if you do not have exactly the same kinds of projects in your portfolio. Instead, focus on bringing out what similarities there are and the underlying skills and knowledge that you have, which are applicable across all projects.

“The other thing I would suggest is thinking carefully about what type of work you actually want. Once you get one project of a particular type, the aforementioned focus on similarity means that more projects like that will come your way. Therefore, you might want to reconsider before taking that job in subject matter X, which you find really boring. You might also want to consider doing pro bono work in area Y, which you really like, just so your portfolio will show evidence of that specific ability.”

Show the Process

“The biggest failing in the portfolios that cross my desk is their focus on end results rather than process. … Great portfolios should tell a story.”

“The biggest failing in the portfolios that cross my desk is their focus on end results rather than process,” answers Adrian. “Don’t just show me the final design work. I need context! How did the design evolve? What false trails did you explore? How did you work with the stakeholders? How did you work with the development team to get the product delivered?

“Telling good stories is one of the core skills of great UX folk. Too many portfolios jump to the happy-ever-after ending. Great portfolios should tell a story.”

Adrian recommends that you check out a discussion of portfolios on IxDA, as well as the blog betteruxportfolios. Following these experts advice will help you to create a more effective portfolio.

1 Comment

Great article on this topic from Core 77 on the three stories everyone should be able to tell about their work:

  1. The process review - telling the story so far to an internal team.
  2. The final presentation - telling the big picture story to a client or professor.
  3. The portfolio - telling a capability story to a prospective employer or client.

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