Building a Successful Product Design Portfolio

Building a Successful Product Design Portfolio

Putting together a robust product design portfolio is no small feat. Selecting the most impressive work, showcasing it well, placing the designs in the best possible order and writing a well-thought-out description could be a stressful undertaking, even for the most experienced designers. However, your portfolio is arguably an essential tool for representing yourself and your design skills. It is a story that maps out your achievements and career to-date.

 

There are certain commonalities amongst great product design portfolios:

1. A picture isn't always worth a thousand words.

A strong design portfolio consists of stories that represent your design approach and thinking process. A single-pixel-perfect wireframe, a complicated but isolated flow chart or a flawlessly animated interaction doesn’t tell much by itself. As Chad Thornton (Design Manager at Medium) suggests ‘showing that you’re a great thinker, not just a great Photoshopper' goes long way. Research notes, preliminary sketches, usability testing findings that influenced your iterations, when joined together, create a powerful, strong design narrative.

2. The strongest case study first.

Start your portfolio with the project that best represents your design skills. With dozens of emails per day, hiring managers are unlikely to spend more than 2-3 minutes walking through your portfolio. So, ensure that your first piece is eye catching.

3. Don't shy away from the unconventional design pieces.

Peter Merholz (co-founder of Adaptive Path) advises to include experimental, 'most off-the-wall' designs. Be it your zombie-inspired illustration series or a custom typeface you've worked on during the holidays — show what makes you tick.

4. Talk about your side project(s). You have one, right?

Having a side-project not only is a perfect boost for your creativity but shows that design isn’t just 9-to-5 but something that wakes you up in the morning and keeps you up a night.

5. Share your design thoughts.

Does it seem like everyone and their mother has a design blog? Yes, but that’s okay. Sharing the design process drives our industry forward. It inspires and makes other designers question their approach. It's safe to say that hiring managers are eager to read your design thoughts.

 

Tips for building a great case study:

1. Always start your case study with a goal.

Explain how it was translated to your design in all steps of the way.

2. Talk about your design approach.

Include notes on your methodology and don’t forget to mention how research informed your design solution.

3. Elaborate on the used UX tools.

Don’t just include single images of proto-personas, user flows, card sorting, experience maps. Show how your journey map evolved your design and why capturing the proto-personas was essential for your case study.

4. Don’t jump to high fidelity prototyping right away.

Focus on exploring as many sketch iterations as possible. Test as often as you can. It’s faster (and ultimately cheaper) to test your assumptions early, rather than discovering when it's too late.

6. Pick the most exciting flow(s) and show all the steps.

The truth is in some cases (especially in your personal projects) you can’t design everything. Example: pick core functionality flows vs. sign up flows (unless it is a complex, multi-step, several-scenario flow).

7. Include what failed.

Showcasing what didn’t work is as important as showing what did. It speaks to your research and iterations.

8. Proof Read.

Not everyone is considered to be a wordsmith. Luckily, for folks like me, the tech world created multiple grammar tools (Grammarly FTW). Alternatively, consider asking someone who you believe has great writings skills who can help you review your resume and website copy.

 

A few more thoughts:

1. It's okay to not be an expert at everything. But be an expert at one (or a few) things.

You'll likely find a handful of 'unicorn-like' job postings out there. That's simply because not every company can afford to assemble a full product design team. However, the industry understands that it’s unrealistic to find a creative individual who will be great at interaction design, create pixel-perfect prototypes, conduct thorough market research, and write compelling product copy that will trigger conversion. If you are not an expert UX researcher it’s okay to not know how the remote eye tracking can help capture the customer insights but expect to identify the importance of the research and be able to conduct simple usability testing.

2. Portfolio Platforms.

I highly encourage my team to learn the basics and principles of coding. But don't get discouraged if you are not yet at the level where you can create a robust portfolio. Hiring managers usually don’t expect you to code the entire product on your own unless you are being hired particularly for that role. It’s okay to use design platforms to help with your personal portfolio. Squarespace, Wix, WordPress, Format and Behance are all great tools that enable you to put together a solid presentation of your work.

On the other hand, I highly encourage to compile an additional PDF/Keynote with one or two of your strongest projects for the interviews. Here you can provide additional information about your research. Include preliminary ideas and sketches, low fidelity prototypes, and notes on how your design evolved. This provides context and showcases your process.

3. Not all NDAs are created equal.

Be sure to review all NDAs before including past projects in your portfolio. Under certain NDA’s you are forbidden to show anything related to the project but some NDA’s only ask to not reveal certain parts (example: research methods and tools that were used). Potential options could include: replacing the client's name with a fictional logo and adding a note to your case study about the NDA. Or you could explain what you've learned from the project in a form of a blog post.

4. Keep your portfolio user friendly.

Approach the design and IA of your portfolio the same way you would at work.

5. Don’t forget mobile.

Remember a laptop is not the only device the hiring manager could be using to browse your portfolio. Tip: don’t use text as an image — it’s difficult to read on a mobile device.

6. Get it out there.

Think of your portfolio as a never-ending project. Recall frequent updates used in Agile methodology and design sprints? Publish sections as they become ready, rather than waiting for the entire portfolio to be finished.

7. Research the company, and write sincerely.

Starting your email with 'To whom it may concern' is lazy. I personally won't be bothered if you connect with me on Linkedin. It shows that you've done your research. And don't forget to keep it personal.