In my career as a UX Manager, UX Lead, and ultimately Head of Product Design, I've had the opportunity to hire dozens of great designers. Be it Product Design, UX Design, Service Design, or Visual Design, every recruitment process for individual contributors in a design space involves one crucial step - a Portfolio review.
Being a designer myself, I know that creating a great portfolio can be a hard task to do, and even though we’ve all seen multiple articles on how to design a good one, most of the candidates fail on this step... So how to do the job right?
In this article, you will find the four essential tips on how to approach the portfolio creation process and prepare a product design portfolio that gets you hired.
Understand the role you are applying for
One of the most common mistakes is putting projects in a portfolio that are not fitting the role one’s applying for. I don’t mean that designers come from different industries or worked on different products altogether because this can actually be a value-added - coming in with a new perspective. What I mean is that many designers apply for a role of a Product Designer without a single Product Design piece in their portfolios.
Here’s the deal:
When creating your portfolio, make sure to pick projects that are connected to the path you are interested in and plan to apply for. Great Visual Design skills are always welcomed, but when you are applying for a Product Designer role, you shouldn’t focus too much on these. Instead, try to focus on product strategy, the information architecture of complex systems, jobs to be done and other more Product Design skills that every hiring manager is looking for.
💡TIP: Read the job description carefully - it’s a great source of information on what to show in your portfolio!
Show your process, not only the effect
The product development process is complex, and it actually takes a village to build one. No sane person expects the designer to do all the work by themselves. What’s more, they expect you to collaborate with other Product Team members and build the final result together. That said, it is important to include the process you took to reach the goal more than the effect itself.
When describing the case study, spend some time describing the Team that was involved, what part of the process you’ve been responsible for, and how did you collaborate together. This will ultimately be your job once you are hired, and that’s what is more important than the effect itself.
As designers, we all know that there may be many paths leading to the same result. Make sure to show the one you took and explain what was good and what you’ve learned along the way. While sometimes the process itself is not something in an individual contributor’s control, you can always mention things you would’ve done differently if you could.
📚 Read more tips on How To Make a Great Impression at the Interview
You are hired to deliver value - show it
One thing that may seem obvious, but I have actually very rarely seen in the portfolios, is good design. Many times you could see interesting projects, but it is important to understand what good means in the Product Design space and show that what you’ve designed was actually good.
The thing that separates great designers from mediocre ones is how they define the success of their work. Many designers struggle to measure their work, some even may say that it is not possible to do so. And while it is harder for creative or brand design as there are plenty of other factors in play and there is no easy leading metric to pair, this is not the case for Product Design.
What does it mean for you?
An important piece of the portfolio entry should be the impact section, where you can show why the design was successful. Here are a few points on how you can structure that:
- Start with showing the metrics your project was aimed to improve, mention why you and the Team have selected them,
- Continue with what influence you were trying to make to clearly provide the success definition,
- Finish with the post-implementation values, and show the impact,
- If success criteria have not been met - maybe you have some ideas on how it could’ve been improved, and this is the right place to share those.
Always be true to yourself and show who you are in your portfolio.
We’ve all had some projects we loved and some that were just a job. Try to show the former rather than the latter if you want to do more of what you like. And I guess one of the reasons you are looking for a change is to be able to do more of what gives you joy. Design is very demanding when it comes to engagement, and it is not that easy to stay excited when you hate what you are asked to deliver.
Remember that one of the key factors that are considered during the recruitment process is fit. Both: cultural to the company and (equally important) skillset distribution in Design Team. The projects that you show in your portfolio should reflect who you are and what you are good at to help the hiring manager make a decision about the individual’s compatibility with other Team members.
BONUS: Practical tips ready to be implemented!
Now, it should be easier for you to pick the right projects for your portfolio. I know it is not an easy task on its own, but I assure you, it is the most important part of the portfolio creation process. Once you have the projects ready, it’s high time to showcase your work!
Quality over Quantity
Less is more. Only in some very rare cases hiring manager will have enough time to go over more than just a handful of projects. You need to make sure that each of those that land in your portfolio is worth their time.
My golden rule is 3 (to max 5) well-crafted case studies. Too many times, I’ve seen portfolios with plenty of screenshots from different projects that were just that - screenshots. Pick fewer examples, but put the time in them to properly describe your work.
Format does (not) matter
What type of format you will pick for your portfolio most often doesn’t matter. What matters, though, is that the format you pick allows you to show all the important pieces of your work. Popular platforms like Behance or Dribbble put a lot of emphasis on the visual part of the process. But what usually ends up on those platforms is a beautiful picture, while you should aim to show your thought process instead.
I often see surprised faces when I tell my designer friends that I use PDF files for my own portfolio. Pick what suits your storytelling best, be it a well-structured Figma file, Miro board, PDF file, or website.
But here’s the kicker: Make sure you tell the story instead of showing the artwork.
Create a structure for your case studies and keep it consistent throughout the portfolio. I already mentioned a few points that I recommend to be there, so let’s break it down:
- Intro - Set the context for your work, and describe the Team and your role. It is a great place as well to go through the baseline for the metrics and the success criteria. Those are key elements that you want to go back to as you present your work.
- Process - Step by step, go over your actions in the project. Focus on the tools and methodologies you’ve been using, but most importantly, the deliverables you produce along the way.
💡TIP : A great idea to connect Intro and Process pieces is to back up the decisions you’ve made in the project with success criteria, which could be as simple as:
”I’ve chosen this set of items for the checklist because we found that those correlate the most with the AHA moment, which was our ultimate goal of the onboarding process.”
- Impact - This is the part where you confront your assumptions with reality. Show the breakdown of metrics with actual outcomes to show the value of the work you and the Team did (it is never a solo job). If something goes wrong, don’t be afraid to admit it, and if possible, try to provide some insights into why you think you didn’t succeed.
Hope this guide will help you ace your Product Design portfolio. This is a challenging task, but if done right, it can be a deal breaker for you finally landing the interview at the dream job.
As you progress through the design process, you’ll soon realize this is not as daunting as it may seem when before you begin. A good portfolio can be a great way not only to impress the future employer but to share some knowledge with the design community, so don’t be afraid to share it and, who knows, at some point, it can become something you’ll be proud of.
Time to roll up your sleeves and get started! I keep my fingers crossed for you!
If you want to share your thoughts on this topic, feel free to contact me via LinkedIn!