AnaSantos UX and LXD

How to Build a UX Portfolio—Without Clients

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Ana Santos

👩🏻‍🏫   As a UX Educator and Learning Experience Designer, I help you create impact-driven courses and training programs that help your learners achieve their goals

🎓  I have a BA in Design, Post-Graduate in Neuropsychology (Adult Education), and currently pursuing MSc in Education

👩🏻‍💻   Currently working full time as a senior design program manager. Formerly mUX lead at Google. Writer at Entrepreneur & Adobe XD Ideas blog

It can seem like a Catch-22 to get your first UX job when you’ve never had a UX job before. 

Whether you want to apply for UX jobs or start a freelance career, potential clients and hiring managers will want to see your work. And that’s why it’s essential to have a well-crafted portfolio where you showcase your skills, process, and business impact.

Now, this can be challenging if you have never actually worked on a professional UX project before.

So, what are some ways you can add work to your portfolio to showcase your process and also your ability to adapt to business needs and constraints?

Potential projects can fit into two main buckets:

  1. Fictional work.
    • The goal of this type of project is to give you the opportunity to showcase your process step by step and how you’d approach a challenge under ideal circumstances. It also allows you creative freedom and the chance to display your personal style.
  2. Real client work.
    • The goal here is obvious. The purpose is to showcase your ability to work within business constraints and adapt to a real client’s needs. How did you solve the problem, and what was the impact you had on the business?

Fictional Work

Fake UX projects are so valuable that not only beginners work on them. In fact, it’s a great thing to keep doing these to keep up with your skills and critical thinking, even if you’re a senior UX pro.

1. Come up with your own brief

There are different ways to approach this, but what is important is to focus on a specific problem that needs to be solved.

or example, you can focus on solving an issue you currently have, as a user of a certain product, and develop a potential solution. You could be either designing something completely from scratch or redesigning an existing product or app. You could also choose to focus on improving a very specific feature. The key here is to focus on a problem you want to solve for the users of this product.

Some examples of this type of case study:

2. Work from an existing brief

If you try to solve an existing challenge or a brief proposed by someone else, then you can replicate how you’d respond in a real case scenario when there are specific requirements and constraints.

Where can you find practice briefs or UX challenges?

Real Client Work

While it’s not impossible to get hired once you have perfected your portfolio of fictional projects, it’s certainly not easy to land your first job or gig when you don’t have any real client examples yet. So what is the easiest way to get started?

1. Relevant pro-bono projects

Volunteering to work for free can be seen as less than ideal, but it depends a lot on how you approach this and which type of projects you target.

Remember that just because you aren’t receiving monetary compensation, it doesn’t mean you should work without receiving something in return. You could obtain a lot of value from a pro-bono project: learning from other team members or the mentor leading the project, recognition, networking, potential referrals, and of course, being able to add the work to your portfolio with data and the impact you had in the business. You need to clarify from the very beginning the scope of your work, your availability, and agree on what can be shared publicly in your portfolio. Besides these non-negotiables, it’s important that the project is relevant to you and to the type of work you want to be showcasing in your portfolio.

Where to find pro-bono work?

Besides networking and social media, you can find start-ups that constantly need people who are able to volunteer their UX skills at AngelList.

2. Internship and junior roles

A very valid option is applying for an internship. It’s already expected that you will have little to no experience, and you’ll have the chance to work on real projects that you can showcase later in your portfolio.

To apply for an internship, you should have theoretical knowledge on UX, which you can obtain by reading and completing courses, whether online or in person. Better yet, you can combine both the theory and the practical learning in a program like the Springboard UX Career Track, which also comes with a job guarantee.

3. Non-profit and charity – Do it for a cause!

Volunteering for a cause we’re passionate about and doing it for a greater good is very different than simply working for free. That, of course, is motivating on its own. You’re giving back, and you’re also getting experience and work you can add to your portfolio. Not only that, but your initiative and will to help are skills that won’t go unnoticed on your CV.  

Where to find organizations in need of help?

You can of course simply contact an organization that might benefit from your help. Or you can try these networking options that match non-profit projects to people who are willing to donate their skills:

Conclusion: Having an updated portfolio that matches your career goals is essential. And you don’t need paid clients to get started right now.

Looking to start a career in UX?

If you want to start a career in UX, I’m a mentor at Springboard* which I highly recommend due to the quality of their curriculum and the fact you get a lot of support from the community and your very own personal mentor. With their new UX Career Track*, not only you get weekly calls with a UX mentor but also access to a career coach, both of them focused on your success, plus a job guarantee within 6 months!

Join Springboard and get $750 off any Career Track with this link*

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Need guidance or extra help as fast as possible?

*Affiliate disclaimer: If you purchase through an affiliate link I might earn a small compensation. This has no influence in my personal opinions.


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