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Over the past couple of years, I have been reviewing a lot of portfolios. At IBM Design, I am fortunate to review with a number of designers. So, a single portfolio will get a few sets of eyes on it to help us come to some consensus as to whether or not we should move the candidate to the next round. From this experience, I found that the most successful applicants tend to follow a clear outline that helps step the reviewer through the logic of a UX portfolio project. Here are the five elements they leveraged to best show their work and process.

1. Outlining the project background

Too often new designers launch reviewers into their work without any context. Wireframes or visual mockups make very little sense unless they are framed by the focus issue and /or the client request. What is your project about? Who will benefit from this work? This answer can include an actual client or group that your work will help.

Eric Bue Exercise Tracker

Eric Bue’s example of how to set up a project background and designer’s role

2. Understanding the problem

Show that you invested time to better understand the problem. Talk to people you assume are affected. Validate that they feel this is a worthy thing to address. Research the competitive landscape. Identify that there are gaps for you to fill. Reviewers look for exploration around understanding the bigger story. When we see any gaps in this area, then we start to raise red flags.

Edmund Yu’s Competitive Analysis

Example of a competitive analysis from Edmund Yu

3. Narrowing down the right solution

Explaining your process on how you narrow down to the right solutions is just as crucial as researching the problem. Reviewers are looking for the logical connections between the problem and your initial design decisions. This is the part where we begin to see how you interpret the balance between business goals, technological feasibility, user needs, and design. Show us what steps you took to trim your brainstorming ideas? What were the reasons some ideas survived?

Simon Pan’s focus on goals rather than featuresExcerpt from Simon Pan’s work showcasing a focus on goals over feature sets

Excerpt from Simon Pan’s work showcasing a focus on goals over feature sets

Alan Shen’s decision diagram

Alan Shen goes into the “nitty-gritty” with a decision diagram to detail how the experience should work behind the UI

4. Detailing your work

At this point, start bringing in your sketches, workflows, and wireframes. Think about using a high level of content fidelity. Blank boxes and lorem ipsum may make sense to you, but to us they do not add much value. Taking the next step to putting believable content such as a realistic user bio or location name can help convince us that you spent the time to really understand this topic.

A peak into Kristian Tumangan’s storyboards

A peak into Kristian Tumangan’s storyboards

5. Blowing them away

Make the screens on your final slide(s) look real. You will need to use some color. If you are not confident with your visual design skills, then use only one or two colors to help guide reviewers through your screens.

Rebecca Li’s visual work that helps bring her UX portfolio project to life

Rebecca Li’s visual work that helps bring her UX portfolio project to life

Bonus: Make all of your UX portfolio project look good

Your work on your final slides have to look good. One mistake I see on a lot of portfolios is that designers put up artifacts in the last state they were in. They often end up looking sloppy and half complete. I go back and redraw pencil sketches, redo illustrations for storyboards, clean up wireframes, and even remake visual mockups to ensure that all of the artifacts in the project look cohesive.

Rebecca also does a fantastic job of showing the work as a cohesive presentation

Rebecca also does a fantastic job of showing the work as a cohesive presentation

When I present this framework to students and designers new to their careers, I often hear some resistance. Some feel that retooling their work would alter the integrity of the work. I would argue that your goal is to impress your future employer with your abilities. In order to do that, your work has to show in a logical and visually comprehensive way.

Matt Eng

Matt Eng

DesignOps Manager. Based in Austin,TX. Worked with clients such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ogilvy, RBC, Deloitte, Whirlpool, Polycom, Symantec, and Pebble. Matt teaches, mentors, and speaks about design, creativity, and fostering stronger connections within teams.