February 21, 2021

Break into UX design: create competitive advantage in your portfolio

It's hard to get your first job as a UX designer, and a strong portfolio is a must. But how do you focus on the things that matter? If you already have three projects, do you need more? Should you spend your time on something else instead, like writing cover letters? It's frustrating to have the willingness to run hard and fast, but no way to determine which direction to run. Hopefully this helps you figure it out. Note that this isn't a simple flow chart – every person's background is different, and you need to do the critical thinking for your particular situation.

What everyone wants is what's hardest to get

At the top of the "desired gig list" is the holy grail, the full-time paid entry-level job with the title "UX designer" or "product designer" or something similar. This is what everyone in your shoes is competing for, which means that the barrier to entry is also the highest. Unfortunately, the people most likely to get interviews for this type of gig are more likely to already have this kind of experience. This is because employers also value this work the most, because they can more safely assume that you have developed the skills that matter to them, shown in the rightmost column: designing with real constraints, designing solutions that are implementable, and more.

Value of experience, from most to least
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Sure, not every Paid UX Job is created equal, and not every designer who has one of those has the same level of skills. But on the whole, it's a safer bet for employers – who don't know anything about you – to say that someone who has had a Paid UX Job has more of these skills than someone who hasn't. This leads to the kind of circular logic that frustrates many an entry-level job applicant: how to get experience when every job seems to want the very experience you're seeking?

Unfortunately, there really isn't a direct substitute for this type of experience, and companies should know what else to look for when filling entry-level jobs. But many companies tend to still value the candidates with "the most previous experience" most, whether that's internship experience or contract gigs or personal projects, which leads to an arms race where every entry-level designer tries to present themselves as the "most experienced." While I think this is an unreasonable expectation to have of entry-level designers, I don't have control over these companies' hiring practices, so I hope instead to help candidates present themselves more effectively.

Lower risk and increase upside

Just because you don't have that coveted Paid UX Job doesn't mean you can't piece together enough evidence to convince companies to take a chance on you. The phrase "take a chance" is key here. When a company rejects less-experienced candidates out of hand, it usually isn't anything personal to you; it's just that any unknown quantity is inherently a riskier bet. In addition, they don't really want to spend the time and effort (read: money) to figure out a way to determine which entry-level designers are best-suited for the role. From their standpoint, it's much simpler to apply the (flawed, but very common) heuristic that more years of experience in the exact type of role = more highly qualified candidate.

So, what do you do about this? You should seek to lower the perceived risk and increase the perceived potential upside of hiring you.

First, lower the perceived risk of hiring you: clearly demonstrate competency in various areas, even if you have to do it piecemeal. It would be most efficient to get the ultimate multi-combo, which is one job where you hit all the competencies at once, but hitting one or two competencies at a time with separate projects is better than nothing. A potential hiring manager can put two and two together and reasonably assume you can combine your various skills, even if it doesn't come as easily as it does for an experienced UX designer. The key is to make this public and easily consumable for others; don’t force them to multiply 23 and 15. If companies can see some demonstration of your skills out in the open before they invest time in talking to you, that helps your standing in the long list of applicants waiting to be called.

Second, increase the perceived potential upside of hiring you. This is sort of the flip side of lowering risk, but I think there's more to it than that. Lowering risk is like raising the floor, while increasing upside is like raising the ceiling. You want to show that you have a higher ceiling than your competition: pick me, and you'll be picking a rockstar before they hit their peak! This means showcasing attributes like how quickly you can learn, or that you've overcome greater odds, or that you already have deep knowledge in a particular industry.

"But what does this mean in terms of my portfolio? More projects?"

I think some people hear "demonstrate competency" and "show your potential" and translate that to "just do more projects" – the more, the better! That way, companies will see just how dedicated and determined you are, right? No. Not all projects are weighted equally in a hiring manager's mind, so you should be strategic about your projects rather than pouring all your energy into more of the same thing you already have.

I recommend planning your projects to touch upon as many of the list items as possible in order to demonstrate that you have the breadth of skills that companies are looking for. Take a look at the projects you have on your portfolio. Do you have projects that span all different types, or are they all just one type? Hint: students and bootcamp grads tend to have projects that are concentrated in the bottom two types.

This isn't to dismiss the value of those projects, since they're necessary for learning and developing those early skills. A personal project you do on your own, in particular, can be valuable for demonstrating your exact skillset. Someone looking at that project will know that they don't have to try to parse what your contribution was, since no one else was involved. It’s uniquely valuable because there is a high degree of accountability within that project. However, it falls short on basically every other competency. So if you already have a great personal project on your portfolio, maybe your next project should be different.

Because the barrier to entry for this type is the lowest, you can also assume that your competition also has the same exact type of project on their portfolio. Of course, there are still ways to make your project stand out from the rest: apply more time and energy, morph it into another type of project by working with a friend to get it implemented, etc. Generally speaking, you should only invest more time in it if you can improve it far past the point where other people tend to stop (i.e. make it more competitive).

When should you spend more time on an existing project versus starting a new one? There's no right answer; you'll just have to try to strike the right balance. Just keep in mind that your time and energy are valuable resources you should be trying to allocate efficiently.

"Where do I start? Should I go for the most valuable ones first?"

Because these are arranged in order of hardest to get to easiest, an easy way to decide the order is to start at the bottom and work your way up. But don't be afraid to develop your own unique combination of projects in order to develop those skills. The exact categories I've come up with don't cover all possible situations or possibilities. Your goal is not to fit your projects into each category as neatly as possible, but to use the categories to assess yourself as a candidate and fill in any major gaps. It’s merely a tool, not a step-by-step tutorial.

Find your competitive advantage

Ultimately, what this all comes down to is a) establishing that you’re at least as qualified as your competition and b) finding a way to differentiate yourself on top of that.

So, what's your competitive advantage? If you can figure this out and find a way to package it up nicely, you’ll be in a much stronger position.

One often-overlooked type of gig is the Paid Non-UX Job. If you're a career switcher, by definition you have this type of experience under your belt already. Some people seem to believe that in order to get their first UX gig, they have to erase or downplay every other aspect of their previous work history. Personally, I think you should do the opposite: lean into this as an area where you possess specific domain knowledge and skills.

Another mistake is muddling the message: the portfolio says you're a UX researcher, but you have visual design examples on your portfolio. Or you call yourself a UX designer/researcher/visual designer when what you want is a mostly-UX job. You might fall into this trap if you know your background isn't perfectly aligned with what you want your new gig to be, so you try to cover all your bases. However, I think it comes off as stronger and less confusing if you call yourself one thing, with a background in another thing. The "one thing" is what you want your next gig to be, and "background in another thing" is whatever your competitive advantage is. For example, certain job openings might better suit UX designers with a background in research than UX designers with a background in visual design. What companies don't look for is someone whose skills and motivation seem mediocre in everything.

Also, remember that you'll never be the most qualified person for all Paid UX Jobs in the market. The point is to find the right fit, not to water yourself down to fit into any mold out there. It's tempting, I know, because when you're starting out you just want a Paid UX Job and you may not know what the right fit is anyway. But competent hiring managers should be able to look at your background, put you through an interview process, and they'll determine whether you're the right fit. You just need to present yourself in a way where enough hiring managers decide you've got enough potential to start that assessment process.

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