Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid in Your UX Research Portfolio

Whether you’re just beginning to gather experience in UX research or you’re an experienced UX designer looking to specialize, we’re here to help you build a UX research portfolio that stands out to potential employers.

As the field of UX design matures, there’s an increasing need for UX professionals who specialize in various aspects of the design process, such as UX writing, data analytics, and—you guessed it—UX research.

Because UX research lives within the broader field of UX design—as do many of the hiring managers you want to reach—this presents a challenge. Before you can land that interview, you need to build a UX research portfolio that is both research-focused and visually engaging.

As you embrace this challenge, you’ll want to avoid some common errors that UX researchers make when building their portfolios. Here are the top five mistakes NOT to make in your UX research portfolio:

  1. Pretend to be a visual designer
  2. Ignore visual aesthetics entirely
  3. Make assumptions about desired skills
  4. Emphasize outcomes at the expense of context and process
  5. Ignore the constraints you were working with
  6. Bonus tip: Practice what you preach

1. Pretend to be a visual designer

The temptation is real. You’re in a field that is largely populated by individuals in possession of strong design sensibilities. It makes sense to want a portfolio that is not only great to look at, but also provides a good user experience for your readers.

While presentation absolutely does matter (more on that in a moment), you want to avoid focusing so heavily on visual design that you inadvertently:

  • Distract your reader from actually seeing the great research work you’re trying to showcase
  • Make your reader wonder if you’re trying to compensate for something—like a lack of experience or experience that doesn’t exactly match what they’re looking for
  • Take time and energy from you that is better spent developing powerful case studies

UX research doesn’t always result in the same kinds of visually striking deliverables that we see in UX design portfolios. Because of this, a UX research portfolio will naturally be somewhat less visual in nature. So rather than stressing out about putting more “fun graphics,” in your portfolio, take a step back. Ask yourself:

  • What are the actual skills I need to demonstrate in this portfolio?
  • Does this visual element highlight those skills? Or does it shift reader focus elsewhere?
  • Does this particular screenshot, diagram, etc. actually showcase my specific contribution to the product?
  • Are there better artifacts I can use to show off my process and the deliverables I created?

As you look for visual elements that are specific to your work as a UX researcher, here are a few examples of what you might include:

  • Tasks created for usability tests
  • Quotes from user interviews
  • Affinity diagrams
  • Customer journey maps
  • Participant screeners
  • Excerpts from presentations
  • Early concepts or sketches

2. Ignore visual aesthetics entirely

While you don’t want to overemphasize visual design, your portfolio is, essentially, a product that you are developing to meet the needs of an end user—your target reader. Whether or not you have amazing visual design skills, you need to create an experience for your reader that balances utility and functionality with aesthetics.

Potential employers will certainly notice when flashy design is covering up a lack of substance or if the content of your portfolio misses the mark. But the Aesthetic-Usability Effect is real and good to keep in mind: good design makes minor usability issues and small shortcomings or oversights more forgivable. It can help compensate for the tiny things (word choice or tone, for example—maybe even the one and only typo in the entire document) that make a difference from one reader to the next.

Look at other UX portfolios, note what you like and what you think will appeal to potential employers, and enlist the help of Keynote, Google Slides, and other design templates (WordPress, Squarespace, and other content management platforms have these in abundance)—or actual designers who fit your budget.

It’s possible to create a research-focused portfolio that is both substantive and aesthetically striking.

3. Make assumptions about desired skills

It’s easy to focus so much on the strategic and analytical aspects of the job that you neglect other skills that are just as important to potential employers.

Peruse job postings for this role. Pay attention both to explicitly stated requirements (“experience planning/delivering workshops”) and the implicit ones (like that knack you have for reading the room and knowing when you need to explain something differently or come up with new and inventive ways of helping stakeholders interact with data).

As the bridge between the end user and all of the designers, writers, and stakeholders who are responsible for the product, your skills likely encompass everything from strategy, planning, and analysis to understanding human behavior and a talent for communicating vision and demonstrating value to stakeholders.

There’s an entire spectrum of skills that potential employers are looking for in a UX researcher! Pick projects and artifacts that demonstrate the full range of your skillset.

4. Emphasize outcomes at the expense of context and process

It’s true that you want to make it clear to potential employers that you get the job done. Outcomes matter. But the process you go through on the way to an outcome tells your reader more about you than a simple image of a customer journey map without any context.

Storytelling in a UX research portfolio is a critical skill to master. Rather than plopping a bunch of artifacts into your portfolio and leaving it to your reader to figure out why they matter or what they say about you, present your best pieces of work in the form of case studies that provide a concise narrative. Tell the story of that project. Ideally, each case study will give your reader insight into:

  • The context for the work you did. What was the problem or question that gave rise to the need for this particular research project?
  • Your approach to the problem or question. What were your first steps? What were your priorities before you even set your research objectives?
  • Your process for carrying out the research. What steps did you take to find research participants, conduct studies and tests, and gather data?
  • The impact of your research results on the design process and the product. Be as specific as possible. If you have numbers to back up your narrative here, flaunt them!
  • Any deliverables that came about as a result of your process (see the list under Mistake #1).

At the same time, your portfolio shouldn’t read like a mystery novel, saving the big reveal for the very last. You don’t want the outcome to take your reader by surprise.

Your readers are skimming these portfolios, often in five minutes or less. If it seems important in a given case study to show the outcome and then tell the story behind it, follow your instinct. Just make sure it’s clear to your reader that you’re starting with a flashforward. Understand the typographical elements that will influence where your readers’ eyes will land on the page or screen as they skim your portfolio.

5. Ignore the constraints you were working with

This one is simple. Don’t pretend that you didn’t have an extremely limited budget or that you were dealing with a non-negotiable deadline.

Most projects have constraints. While you don’t want to belabor the constraints and seem as though you’re complaining or making excuses, ignoring real-life limitations can leave your reader ignorant of important context.

If the work wasn’t as extensive and thorough as you would have liked, acknowledge that and show what you did to ensure the best possible information was gathered and delivered despite those constraints. If anything, this will show potential employers that you can deal with the realities of project management and still do great work.

Want to learn from others’ mistakes? Here are 5 things we wish we’d known before we became designers.

6. Bonus tip: Practice what you preach

You know that thing you do—starts with an R, ends with an H? Do your research.

Test your portfolio with actual humans—humans who are not you and who are, ideally, part of your target readership.

  • Find a colleague who can look over it.
  • Think of the connections you’ve made at conferences or previous jobs, with former clients, or on social media. Offer them pizza or a beverage of their choice to enjoy over a conversation about how you can improve your portfolio.
  • There are many experienced professionals—such as David Travis, Sarah Doody, and Ran Segall—who share portfolio reviews. These can be incredibly helpful in giving an unbiased glimpse into the approaches and perceptions of hiring managers.

And if you want a portfolio with a nice, polished appearance (but you’re not great at UI or graphic design), there are lots of free UX portfolio websites that will make the process easier.

Here’s another example of what a portfolio review looks like:

If you’d like to learn more about UX research and UX portfolios, check out these articles:

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