You Don’t Need a UX Portfolio

Posted on January 4, 2011.
UX Design portfolios and deliverables are overrated and rarely useful.

“Can they draw straight lines?”

That’s what my boss asks me each time I meet a new UX Design candidate.

I’ve interviewed a lot of UX Designers over the past two years. Inevitably (and at my request in most cases) we end up going through some of their past deliverables. Whether it’s in a book or an online portfolio, a series of wireframes is typically shown along with some kind of flow diagram, perhaps an old spec or a use case template as well. What I’ve found from these hours of interviews is that, for UX Designers, an online portfolio is overrated and rarely useful.

“Sure they can draw straight lines.” That’s my response because everyone can draw straight lines in Omnigraffle.

But those lines ultimately convey an experience– an experience that you’ve thought out, iterated on and designed through some kind of internal process. That’s what I’m interested in. I want to know why you made the decisions you did and how you got to those decision. Your online portfolio won’t tell me that.

Drawing straight lines on wireframes is the price of entry for any UX Designer. Save yourself the time of building out a robust online portfolio. Consider, instead, publishing a case study of some work you did and describe your thinking. Better yet,  blog. Get your thoughts, ideas, philosophies and processes out there. That will tell a potential employer much more than a deck of de-contextualized Visio wireframes.


41 thoughts on “You Don’t Need a UX Portfolio

  1. Jeff, I’m torn here because I agree with you 100% from my own experience, but I’m not sure this is a realistic approach for a lot of people.nnFirst, I definitely agree that a blog (or hopefully, answers & comments on Quora) shows far more insight into a person’s perspectives and depth of thought than a wireframe that was drawn up for a product that may or may not have ever shipped 3 years ago for a client that’s out of business today. Plus, for some people, particularly those of us with more ranging responsibilities than just wireframes or prototypes, portfolio work isn’t that sexy–it’s powerpoints to management, feature analysis spreadsheets, maturity models, roadmaps–things that some people just won’t understand without significant explanation, and things that are often really at risk to share freely among the interwebs.nnOn the other hand, I think people who do the screening and the interview gatekeepers can still quickly grasp a few things in a portfolio, just to show (or at least appear to try showing) they know how the rubber meets the road and they’re not all theory and ideas. A UX portfolio that only includes screenshots of a finished product may really indicate the person is best suited to an interface design role. Or a person who has fewer screenshots than concept models, wireframes, or research summary reports may suggest that person wouldn’t be comfortable in a position requiring more visual design responsiblity–either way, both situations are assumptions that could be snuffed out reading a number of blog posts or scrolling through a resume, but are quickly obvious upon a portfolio review.nnFrom personal experience, I have a portfolio I haven’t touched since I left DC–so no real mention of any strategy work at all over the last 13 months, yet it’s consistently downloaded via LinkedIn’s Often a phone call or email follows shortly thereafter (sometimes begrudingly so). That’s enough anecdotal evidence to me (and only me) that there’s still some demand for a portfolio, even if it’s just for donk recruiters who may not fully bother to understand what they’re looking at.

    1. Thanks Chris. I appreciate your dilemma. I think the key word in my post is “robust.” Clearly, if you have any experience in the field you’ve got *something* you can show if asked. In most cases, a recruiter who likes your resume will ask for a portfolio if it’s missing — or at least an example of your work. To your point, they rarely (with few exceptions) know what they’re looking at or why. Hence, I think that building out portfolios and reviewing them with these individuals is generally a waste of time. Show them something that proves you can draw straight lines and get past the gatekeepers.nnOnce into a hiring manager review, the context of the company will drive how important a portfolio is but I would say that the onus is then on the candidate (aka you, me and our UX brethren) to steer the conversation into one that articulates your thinking, experience and practice.nn[Jeff]

  2. Respectfully, I disagree that you don’t need the portfolio. nnI wholeheartedly agree with the notion that it’s equally (if not more) important that a practitioner can be articulate about their thinking process that went into the deliverables, but it’s a combination of the ability to communicate good ideas verbally, execute them in deliverables, and then see them through to production that I like to see in a candidate. I’ve passed on folks because they were smart, but couldn’t articulate those good ideas in visuals.nnI need the trifecta: good brains, good visual articulation (portfolio), and good collaboration skills. Just my two cents.

    1. Sounds like we’re close to agreement Kevin. I think where we diverge is the level of fidelity a document needs to achieve before it can clearly visually articulate an idea or experience. Sometimes a whiteboard sketch is enough. In other cases a pixel-perfect mockup may be needed but that shouldn’t devalue the whiteboard sketch — which, in most cases, is transient and therefore not “presentable” visually in a portfolio review.nnThis scenario is exactly where strong brains and collaboration skills (two things you mentioned above) can shine in a strong candidate.nn[Jeff]

      1. I think we are certainly in the same chapter, if not exactly on the same page. I think that if a candidate can’t visually express ideas clearly, they might not be quite there yet. I should be able to see evidence of that in a portfolio. Good post!

  3. Interesting perspective, Jeff. Seems that one could say that pictures in a visual designer’s portfolio tell a story whereas for a ux designer the stories paint pictures.

    1. I believe that for UX designers, the designed experience is way more valuable than the deliverable. To your point, telling the story of how you arrived at the experience in an interview is far more revealing to me than looking at a 30-page wireframe deck that I have very little context for.

  4. I disagree somewhat. (“somewhat” because I know your overall point is ‘building a robust’ portfolio – versus having nothing)nnI have never understood the pitting of portfolio against process (and thinking). I think they are both crucial to hiring a UX professional.nnA “portfolio” shouldn’t be limited to whether someone knows Omnigraffle and can create a wireframe of boxes. These deliverables – specs, personas, flows, mental models, functioning prototypes – are key reference points for communicating to different audiences, stakeholders, clients, developers, other UX professionals (content strategists, researchers, etc.).nnYou can take two UX professionals, have them synthesize research and create a persona or a flow and come up with completely different results in clarity and detail.nnI do think that building a case study (illustrated with examples) can SERVE AS a portfolio, and is a great idea to marry the artifacts with the thinking – so again, I’m not sure why the two have to compete, rather than go hand-in-hand.nnI would never hire a UX professional (ixd, ia, researcher, etc.) without a *strong* portfolio to show they can clearly communicate synthesized concepts.

    1. I don’t think process and portfolio have to compete. I think that process has traditionally not been a part of a portfolio and so we lack effective ways to articulate it there. And so perhaps we’re starting to stretch a term that was not intended to accommodate the type of work we’re putting in it and it’s starting to break. If not portfolio, then what? What does a UX researcher show?nn[Jeff]

      1. I think it’s a good point, in that maybe we’re borrowing the wrong term (portfolio) – that’s why I thought it wasn’t bad to think of case studies AS portfolio. I guess the take away is that process WITH artifacts are important.nnI haven’t had to hire a research specialist directly, so not totally sure what’s best to show. But, specifically, I imagine that seeing their research session protocols would give some insight to how they facilitate that type of research, and seeing some of their analysis would be good. Definitely not a traditional portfolio for sure. So, again, maybe a case study – but I do think research artifacts would be useful and lend insight to the thinking the researcher used to carry out the research.

  5. I’ve made similar points in an interview with Jeff Parks ( so it would be disingenuous to disagree with you.nnI might reframe this discussion and say that UX designers can’t afford to rely solely on having sample deliverables in their portfolio. They also need to be able to tell a good story.nnTo me, this comes down to how they select items for the portfolio and how they plan to use them in an interview. For an online portfolio, to get past the gatekeepers, it makes sense to have a canonical set of deliverables (wireframes, sitemaps, specs, usability test reports, etc.) nnBut you can’t stop there! In an interview UX designers also need to be able to communicate HOW they came to a solution, what the strategy was, challenges they overcame, and demonstrate their process. That story might come through best by showing work in progress, sketches, failed ideas… things that you might not put in an online portfolio.nnAs a hiring manager, I’d be nonplussed if a candidate showed up to an interview without a portfolio. But I’d be thrilled if the candidate was so engaging that I barely needed to glance at it.

    1. Thanks for this Karen and thanks for using the word nonplussed in your comment (I love that word!). Yes, the story of the process is the core part of the candidate assessment process and I agree that the deliverables get candidates through the gatekeepers but I would suggest that those gatekeepers aren’t savvy enough to tell the difference between all the components of that canonical set of deliverables. In fact, I believe they’re simply looking to check a box — Wireframes? check!nnSpending time building out robust portfolios to appease (the majority) uneducated recruiters and talent sourcers seems like effort that could be better spent during the interview process.nn[Jeff]

  6. Nicely phrased. I have always balked at presenting a portfolio of my work. It rarely tells the story. It’s the story that matters.nn My portfolio does at least show the problem, the solution approach I took, and the tools I used (for some odd reason, potential clients care about that arcana).

    1. Many potential clients and non-UX hiring managers unfortunately do fixate on specific tools, Joe, and that’s unfortunate. What’s even more unfortunate (as I mentioned to Nick and Ian on Twitter), those same managers define the whole UX practice in terms of deliverables — and that is truly tragic.nn[Jeff]

  7. Hi Jeff,nnFirst off, great post! It hits home for me because Iu2019m currently in the process of putting together a portfolio so I can apply for UX/ID/IA positions. Youu2019ve articulated everything Iu2019ve ever felt when it comes to UX Design. To me, UX was never about the outcome so much as the process. The process leads to discovery which leads to more process, and a site full of static images and end results will not show you that. nnHowever, Iu2019m not employed as a UX Designer, yet, (I hope to be someday!) so I feel like I have to play the game and create a portfolio website. Almost everywhere I look for these types of positions Iu2019m told I need a portfolio. What Iu2019d really like to do is talk to them about how I arrived at the resultsu2014the process. In fact, if I could just get the interview I know Iu2019d sell them on my theories and knowledge of UX.nnYour idea of starting a blog is one Iu2019m going to keep in mind as I continue to develop my portfolio. Iu2019m a novice when it comes to creating websites, beautiful prototypes, and other artifacts that seem to be the norm for UX positions. So I feel like my only defense (and asset) against the pros in Photoshop and Flash and HTML/CSS is my experience in the process of designing. If I can tell the story well enough of my experiences, possibly an employer will overlook my shortcomings in these programs.nnAgain, thank you so much for an excellent post! Please keep them coming!nnBest,nnSauln

  8. I strongly disagree, though I say this as a junior interaction designer. nnA portfolio properly done can effectively show a design process and the resultant experiences. A curated, descriptive, and above all, presentable body of work allows for several things: the edification of the portfolio’s creator through reflection and organization, a point of reference for the interviewer in organizing their questions, and as a foundation for ones future work.nnThe way I’ve read your post, I feel as though you’re looking for the same thing from a graphic designer and an interaction designer in terms of “end deliverables.” In no way should the two be the same. nnI think a good graphic designer and a good interaction designer will reflect something in common though, which is a considered evaluation of process and reflection. A good portfolio won’t just show an image of the end product. It will show sketches, it will show mockups and prototypes, it will involve a case study and reflections from user research. It will show the thinking, consideration, and process behind the design: the whole tree instead of one leaf that is the end product. nnIt doesn’t matter whether you’re designing the interactions of an automated banking machine or the visual brand identity for the bank: it’s the process that matters and the process that makes the two designers. Frankly, if you’re looking for someone without a portfolio, then you’re either looking for an intern (as I was not too long ago) or a strategist, not a designer.

    1. I would make a strong argument for why a case study is the more appropriate artifact. If it’s the process we’re interested in then an investigative overview, outling the methods and principles, is most effective. Within the case study you can offer the evidence (sketches, prototypes, et al.) to support your approach in solving a complex system design. The evidence alone is not enough without the appropriate narrative to string it together.

    2. Totally agree that it’s the process that matters. Sticking with the IxD’s portfolio for a second — I believe, as I mention in my reply to Karen McGrane, that the effort needed to build out these robust portfolios is wasted on uneducated readers. The bulk of your online portfolio reviews are done by recruiters who really don’t know what they’re looking for. Know the story of the process but spend the effort articulating it clearly in an actual face to face interview with a hiring manager who’s eager to hear about it.nnTouching briefly on a visual designer’s portfolio — I don’t believe it’s the same thing as the IxD’s portfolio. Visual designers are being hired, among many other things, for their aesthetic and design talent. In these cases it’s important to assess whether that aesthetic fits in with the hiring manager’s needs. Robust portfolios help immensely here.nn[Jeff]

      1. Thanks for the response, and I do agree with that. A portfolio are (when done properly) targeted, specific, and strategically created to convey a message of competence, knowledge, and fit within a particular environment; when simply created because one feels it’s required or when you don’t know your audience, it tends to fall short. That’s kinda where I think the case studies that Peter mentioned comes in to play. I tend to think of case studies as a higher fidelity component deliverable in the portfolio process, with part of the process being personal reflection and development. In the development of my (small) portfolio, I did two case studies for my personal role in a project, _but_ didn’t include them in the portfolio I sent. Instead, I used them to inform my interview strategy and reflect on the experience I had during my internship.nnAs for the visual designer portfolio, I agree that they’re not the same as an end product, but should reflect a similar design process/development path. I had the opportunity to work under two fantastic graphic designers this summer, and their methods of ideation, collaboration, and development in the design process were similar to that of the interaction designers I worked under.

  9. I’ll bite. UX design is applied design. If you are executing someone else’s vision/concept/solution then sure, a portfolio to show that you can use a tool to convey that solution is excellent. nnIf you are the person designing the solution, I would rather hear the fine consideration taken to reach the solution that led to the design. That is something that does not come across in a portfolio. Anyone can learn to use a tool. Some designers with excellent vision and strategy are not as skilled in creating a 2D representation of that vision. Is the fetishization of deliverables really important? Does the deliverable effectively communicate the design?nnI like the idea of a “case study” which gets to the core question: how does this solution impact the business? How are they correlated? Lastly, I’ve seen designers crumble when being challenged on a design solution. Can they thoughtfully debate and defend their design solution? Super important.nnI also think cultural fit should be at the top of the list for how a candidate will work with the other members of the team. To Kevin’s point, the trifecta is great, but if you’re an asshole and no one wants to work with you, the team has a problem. Hard to suss out when reviewing a portfolio.

    1. Great feedback Chris. I think you nail it on the head on every point not the least of which is that NONE of the things you note as important truly come across in a traditional portfolio. We need something new or, alternatively, the bare minimum to pique interest and then prove ourselves face to face.nn[Jeff]nnP.S. – Say hi to my old friend Sid Bos over there at Jive 🙂

  10. Thanks for the great discourse, Jeff. Iu2019d like to throw in my Recruiter perspectiveu2026nnTo portfolio or not to portfolio? Itu2019s not a one size fits all answer. As in other disciplines, there are differing ideas of what the penultimate UX Designer is. Design philosophies differ greatly from one company to another, and the required screening materials vary accordingly. I have one hiring manager ask me for wireframe samples in VISIO, and I have another client who requests a robust mobile portfolio going beyond browser only, into the actual device, showing in depth design process from start to finish. Is either one right or wrong? No, but they show the level of practical experience which the hiring manager has indicated is necessary for success within their organization. nnThe practice of UX ranges across mediums, audiences, cultures, outcomes, etc. It is a much more complex candidate assessment , because as echoed before, it includes analyzing strategic as well as critical thinking processes. What one looks for in an industrial designer for an automotive company may be vastly different from a UX Designer for interactive television (or it may be very similar!). Doesnu2019t it follow that if the criteria for the position are so varied and complex, the portfolio materials should take out the guesswork and tell a succinct story about what the strengths and accomplishments of a designer are? Whatu2019s the saying? u2013 If your grandmother canu2019t understand the basic concept, then you arenu2019t communicating it well.nnThe relevance of a portfolio depends on what kind of candidate youu2019re looking for. If youu2019re looking for line drawers, then youu2019re probably not looking (not seriously anyway) for thinkers. Most of my hiring managers want to see that a UX Designer can take a smart approach to a project AND can execute. For this purpose, I think a portfolio with a strong storytelling element throughout is a great marketing tool that can open the door to an interview.nnI agree that many HR folks and Recruiters struggle to understand how to properly recruit for User Experience Designers. Do some recruiters ask for a wireframe so they can check off a box? Yes. Thatu2019s clearly not a competent strategy for hiring A-level designers. Recruiters need to work hard to take the burden off of hiring managers, by screen candidates as rigorously as possible (a well -designed u201cinteraction processu201d).nnCommunicate your story to the recruiter and hiring manager as though they were your user u2013 because ultimately, thatu2019s what you want them to be. While itu2019s a nice idea to direct people to your blog, the reality is that a manager is being bombarded with thousands of resumes, portfolios, tweets, emails, phone calls, case studies, blogs u2013 and doesnu2019t have the time to go through all the content. You need to make an impression in a manner of seconds. (Core UX design principle, no?) A portfolio can do that much better than a blog. The portfolio is a tool to open the door to that interview, where the larger conversation can be had.nnLook forward to hearing more thoughts on this subject!

    1. Meg -nnFirst of all this is a brilliant reply. It clearly sets you apart, by far and away, in another class of recruiter. Your understanding of the field and the nuances of the various disciplines within shines in your comment. Kudos to you. We can only hope for more enlightened recruiters like you to come forward.nnTo your point — making a strong first impression is key. As I’ve said to a couple of folks on here though (and as you point out), you can make that impression quickly and effectively without the need for robust and elaborate portfolios. Create just enough to get the point across that you know the craft and get a foot in the door.nnWhat you create, again as you point out, should be relevant to your specific discipline within UX.nnAgain, very well said. Thanks for contributing.nn[Jeff]

    2. Meg, you truly do set yourself apart from all other recruiters I’ve dealt with! I felt just like Jeff originally wrote, whenever they’d ask to see samples of wireframes in Visio – “You’ve seen my Art Direction, illustration, complete websites, and now you want to see if I can draw a couple squares?!”

      Wireframes without the context of the story and without seeing the process are just a couple of squares on a page. Whenever a recruiter asks for wireframe samples, I try to reframe the discussion to the story – the client needs, the size of the team, the timeline, our goals, etc. In fact, these days, I’m working so feverishly in an agile environment, more often than not my wireframes and storyboards are marker board drawings and sticky notes. Not exactly your classic deliverables.

      And it’s difficult to walk into a coffee shop for a meeting with a recruiter with an 8-foot markerboard. The sticky notes always fall off.

  11. Great post and discussion. You’ve inspired me to want to start a UX thought blog. nnIn all the years I’ve been doing UX I’ve never had much time to put together a tidy online portfolio or blog (times of unemployment were always short) and I’ve always felt a little inadequate about it. nnBut now I am inspired and just need to find the time to do it… nnThanks, Jeff!nn./b

  12. Thank you for starting this discussion, Jeff! It’s very helpful to read the different perspectives here. When I hire a designer, I want to know how effectively she contributed to creating a great product, not how great her design is. A UX portfolio that stands outside the context of the business and the usage has never made sense to me. I have always felt quite lost about the subject of a portfolio, may be because I transitioned into a UX career from a background in product management and business analysis. I never really thought that my wireframes, usability testing reports, product specs, mental models, task analysis, use cases, user flows, and other artifacts served any purpose beyond being a means to collaborate with my team and communicate with my stakeholders. I have designed products/applications that have resulted in tangible value to the business and to the users and am fortunate to always have great references from people I worked with. I do some times think about creating an online portfolio just to check off that one box in my profile, but, not convinced yet that it’s worth my time. nMy fear though is that if designers remain focussed on finding other good designers based on design deliverables, and do not find a good way to judge designers based on their contribution to delivering good products, we will be continuing to do the mistake of putting our own individual deliverables ahead of the product. I would judge every member of the team, be it product marketing, development, QA, IT infrastructure, or anybody else based on the success of their product or platform. Why should designers be judged any differently? What is so special about designers that we can use a portfolio that lies outside the context of the business and the users to showcase our work? I may land up creating an online portfolio some day, but, I am yet to be convinced of it’s value.

  13. a) A portfolio is a result and clients needs results. They don’t care about your process unless you impress them with a good result (a portfolio).nb) An enough experienced designer can read an interface or a device and see with x rays flaws, intentions, A lot of companies, studios and agencies ask about the process to take ideas, be aware of that, it is like spec work and design students.nnYou can use a portfolio as a start point to ask about a process. Seems very logical that you need to talk with a real design that with “only theory” stuff.nnMost academics can talk a lot about the perfect process, but just those who take actions and deliver results are the best ones in the market.nnMy two cents by common sense.

  14. Can you show that you can answer all the questions that you design problem has presented you with – at a macro level (strategy, objectives, goals) all the way down to a micro level (what is this element, where is it coming from, is there a default, what values can it accept, what does it do, etc.).nIf you can think through all the questions, and chase down all the answers (either found an answer or documented a smart assumption), and if you have been able to translate your experiences into a point of view – brillant – oh, and be able to draw it up so others can understand.

  15. Hey Jeff, would you consider the “Work Examples” section on your site a UX Portfolio?

    1. I would. Took me all of 10 minutes to put it together as it’s just a slideshow. My analytics show that it’s one of the less trafficked pages on the site. What I hope that means is that the value I bring can be assessed from my employment history and more importantly this blog.nn[Jeff]

      1. Jeff,nnI totally agree with you that defining our discipline in terms of deliverables is “tragic”. With that being said I do think that completely dismissing the UX portfolio is perhaps going too far (although it makes for a good attention grabbing headline). The truth, as you well articulate it, is that there are more important ways to evaluate a UX candidate. The portfolio is a best a box to be checked and something to provide illustration of the bigger story that candidate must be able to tell…nnAnd to that point I would submit that in addition to the employment history and published thinking another, perhaps even more important, barometer of “good” design is quantifiable business results. The best design process, best design thinking, and indeed best design deliverables don’t matter if the end product does accomplish what it was intended to accomplish. The bottom line is that as designer we’re essentially problem solvers and as designers we should be judged not just our journey, but on our results.nnCheers!nBen-

  16. It would be great if people had the patience to hang around on a website and learn all about someone before deciding whether they are interested, but the reality is they’re looking to see if a candidate can produce results. Show, don’t tell. Save the philosophizing for the interview. Wow them while you’ve got their attention for the 5-30 seconds they’ll be on your website or you’re not going to even get that call and chance to talk more about your thought process.

    1. That was one of my main points – in 5-30 seconds show one or two things and talk about your role. It’s not robust. It’s simple and gets you that next step. nn[Jeff]

  17. I used to panic about interviews because I kept getting letters confirming and asking me to bring my ‘portolio’. Eventually I stopped worrying and realised that I didn’t want to work for those people because they didn’t know what they were looking for as a role.

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