So you want to get your first internship/job in UX. Great!
But, as a budding UX designer, how do you show work to prospective employers without having a real-world project that you’ve worked on?
If you’re lucky enough to have a degree in design, you may have plenty of university projects to demonstrate to employers. But even without a degree, you can use a similar strategy by coming up with your own project to show how you work through problems.
This works because it’s the thinking and process behind a project that a prospective employer will care about – not whether the client was real or not – particularly when they know that you are just starting out.
Creating your own project also demonstrates to a potential employer that you are passionate about UX and motivated enough to spend your own time tinkering about with things like this!
But you know all this. So, let’s get to the juicy bit – how do you get started?
Finding an idea for your project
Use your own experiences
A first sticking point can be – “How do I come up with a project?”
A first step is to think about some of the problems you face on a day to day basis, like the guy who redesigned train tickets after getting annoyed at how taking a return trip involves receiving so many pieces of paper.
There are plenty of things that annoy us as we are going about our day – can you pick one and try to improve it?
What problem do you wish could go away that hasn’t been solved yet, or that has been solved poorly?
Use existing products
Hopefully, as a prospective UX designer, you’ll have some pretty strong opinions about popular websites that may have usability issues already. So, use that as a starting point and ask yourself:
How can you improve some of the pain points that you experience on websites/apps you visit?
Use other people
Another good source of potential projects are the people around you. Ask friends and family what some of the frustrations are that they face when using products and services.
You could even do a bit of canvassing on the street – go to your local Starbucks and ask your neighbours if they’d help you with a project for a couple of minutes – ask them what websites/apps they use the most and what problems they often face. People are usually surprisingly friendly!
Getting started with your chosen project
The earlier the better
Be under no illusions – it will take you more time than you think to add a project to your portfolio, especially when you actually have to both do the project and then add it to your portfolio.
Get started as early as possible to give yourself a fighting chance of getting everything done in your timeframe.
Before you start worrying about how you will document the project for your portfolio, you need to first ask yourself how you are going to tackle the project. Create a plan of action so that you have a clear strategy in place for what steps you will be taking to explore your problem, how you will define and design a solution and what skills you will be demonstrating at each point.
Keep in mind that the purpose of this exercise is to showcase your UX skills to prospective employers. So, it is worth making sure that you are amply demonstrating the right skills!
It’s all about momentum
Block out some time where you’ll have a few uninterrupted hours to start exploring the problem that you’ve picked to solve. It will be crucial to keep the momentum up – you’ll find it doubly as hard to complete if you pause working on it for too long a time.
There is nothing worse than coming back to a project halfway through when you’ve not thought about it for a couple of weeks (okay, there are lots of things worse, but this is still super annoying).
Before you start, make sure you are amply provisioned with the stationery you require to create your portfolio project, things like paper, pens, post-its, and even magic whiteboard (I recommend a roll of magic whiteboard to every UX designer!)
Most importantly, make sure you have something on hand to document your process – a good phone camera will be ample – so that as you make a start, you can easily snap your progress.
Demonstrating your process
You can never document enough
This is very important! Remember to document every step you take – for example, photograph sketches and post-its during your exploratory phase, take screenshots of your wireframes/prototypes at each stage too, even video your guerrilla research sessions.
You’ll want photos, videos, screenshots to have some supporting evidence for every main step so that you can construct a strong narrative of your project with no gaping holes.
(Take a look at my work examples to see how I’ve documented my process in my portfolio)
Additionally, you can make your life easier by taking notes on the steps you are taking as you work through them, to make it as easy as possible for you later when reconstructing your process for your portfolio.
Once you’ve taken notes, all you should need to do to create a walkthrough of your project is to edit them.
State any assumptions
Because you are creating this project specifically for your portfolio, you’ll be designing without any of those pesky real world problems like technological constraints, budget, and stakeholders, to name a few.
Whilst this is great for you designing, I would recommend referencing these types of constraints in your portfolio so that you can demonstrate to the hiring managers that you are aware that in the real world, it wouldn’t be so simple.
You could think about stating assumptions up front, like “For the purposes of this project, I’m assuming that we work in an agile manner with developers collaborating frequently and that we have enough budget for user research”.
Creating the visuals
Process over output
Your project should have plenty of visual aids in it so that your prospective employer can see your work as you talk through it.
Bear in mind that this does not just mean including the final output. Your visual aids should be composed of (in my highly scientific opinion), 90% of visuals that demonstrate your thinking, and 10% of visuals for the final output.
Emphasising your process over your output means that you are focusing more on the UX thinking that went into the project. Please don’t fall into the trap of focusing all your energies into making that end screen pixel perfect.
When thinking about which parts of your process to include, remember not to discount things that you think look dreadful – those rough, early sketches that you want to throw away actually represent that vital first part of your thinking.
If you skip too many steps out, your narrative as you talk through your process with an interviewer will be stilted and disjointed, and this may come across as if you are confused.
Be clear in the steps that you took and try to have a visual aid that corresponds well to each part.
Remember to include helpful written comments on each visual aid that you include. Annotations should strike a good balance between enough detail so that it is descriptive, but not too much detail so that your interviewer must read an essay to uncover your point!
Keep it simple and clear, and remember that you can go into much more detail on the most important annotations when you are talking somebody through it.
Presentation is key
My final note is about the way your project is presented.
It should go without saying, but make sure that your project is structured well and has a logical flow through it. A prospective employer will be getting a clue of how you think not only by the content of your portfolio, but by the way you construct your portfolio projects themselces.
As well as a logical structure, give some thought to how your portfolio is visually presented – you don’t have to be a graphic designer to make it look at least as though you have considered its visual appeal. Keep things uncluttered, tidy and consider colour and font choices with care.
Having another person’s eye over your work is something that you will need to get incredibly comfortable with as a UX designer!
Get in the habit now and make sure that you get feedback on your portfolio before your first interview – but who?
A good listener can be really great at helping you un-knot problems, crystallise your thinking, and help you simplify things down. Utilise this person to give you feedback and give you confidence that you are on the right track.
If possible, utilise your UX contacts. They will be able to give you constructive feedback before you send your portfolio to a prospective employer.
If you don’t have any contacts already, it is worth making contact with some established designers – most are more than happy to lend an ear or advice to somebody starting out. Social media is a great place to start (feel free to ask me questions on Twitter @yaellevey or on Instagram @iamnotmypixels).
Remember not to blunder in making requests of people’s time straight off the bat. Take some time to look up your contact, introduce yourself and what you’re trying to achieve. Reference where you know them from and perhaps some detail about them, and softly introduce your request. You can even iterate on your messages so that you can test out different variants with different people.
This was my overview on how you can get started creating a project for your portfolio without having worked for any real life clients.
Do you have any tips or ideas that you can share? Let me know in the comments!