UX Career

Elements of a Cookie Cutter Portfolio

What to avoid to stand out from mass production

UX has changed a lot since I first started as a junior designer. More than ten years ago, when I was a fresh graduate out of design school, I would have never guessed I’d stumbled upon UX.

Through the years, I’ve created so many different kinds of portfolios, but they all had a single purpose: to get my foot in the door. And granted, they did their job.

Fastforward to present day.

You’d think we would have figured out how to best display our work by now. Or how to improve the UX recruiting process. You’d think we’d appreciate skills such as critical thinking and the rare ability to ADAPT your process to each project’s unique characteristics and constraints.

And maybe we do. But how can we filter the potential of UX candidates, when we face this huge problem:

Most portfolios look the same.

Mass producing much? There’s not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to portfolios

I teach. I am a UX instructor & trainer. I’m a UX mentor and tutor. I work with bootcamps. Contrary to popular belief, I think bootcamps are useful. It’s just the mindset towards them that is wrong.

I had the pleasure of helping so many talented aspiring UX designers from different backgrounds and with unique experiences. Their perspective and skillset could have added so much to their UX journey, but instead, they feel pressured to follow the “cookie cutter” formula.

What to avoid to stand out from mass production?

These are the things you need to avoid.

1. Deliverables that don’t move the project forward

affinity mapping
“That was a lot of work you’ve done there. What does it say here again?”

Deliverables” should be our friends. They help us communicate with our team members, stakeholders, and move the project forward.

If your deliverables don’t do the above, then they are unnecessary.

Cookie-cutter deliverables:

  • Are only displayed for the sake of showcasing a “process” that never happened;
  • Don’t have a function: they didn’t move the project forward and they didn’t help you make any design decisions;
  • Are added afterwards!! — if you think this sounds crazy, I’m telling you 100% I’ve seen this happen before.

If you want to stand out:

  • Include deliverables that were used and had a function and role in the project;
  • Explain WHY and HOW every single deliverable needs to be there;
  • Wish you had done something differently? Don’t add it afterwards! Instead, include those reflections & key takeaways in the end.

2. Treating your case studies like class assignments

Your portfolio is not a class, you’re not trying to prove you memorized (or copied) a process

As I said above, personal reflections are important but a case study is NOT all about you. It’s not a school assignment where you need to showcase that you know what you learned in class. Don’t give us a book definition about what each deliverable means. Tell us WHY you did things that way.

If you want to stand out, think:

  • What was the impact of your work on the users?
  • What was the impact of your work on the business?
  • What’s the importance of each step and how did it move the project forward and towards the end goals?

3. Too much text

I usually love writing and the longer the paragraph the better. However, as we agreed above, your case study is not a dissertation or a masterclass.

“Let me sit here and enjoy my coffee while reading through this interesting case study.” — no recruiter ever

Do you know how much time recruiters and hiring managers will spend in your portfolio?

Hint: Not long enough.

If you want to stand out:

  • Make it easy to skim through. Highlights, bold formatting, and bullet lists are your friends;
  • Focus on what is important and remove anything else that is not relevant;
  • Tell a story: with a beginning, a middle and an end. It doesn’t need to be in chronological order.

4. Your generic title

“I design beautiful experiences.”

Dare to be different

After someone has visited several portfolios, they’ll have a hard time remembering any…

… except if you make your personal brand value proposition memorable!

Your unique personal brand value proposition should be able to explain:

  • What value you bring to the company / client (how does designing experiences benefit their business?)
  • What makes you different from other candidates (why should they hire you?)

5. Those vague project descriptions

App XYZ case study

Great mockup and all, but what’s the problem again?

Eye catching visuals might capture your readers’ attention — but they’re not enough.

Project titles and problem-focused descriptions instantly tell your reader that you’re taking a user-centered approach even before they click on your case study.

Don’t make your readers think.

6. No story

It’s true that most people might not even read your case studies. But if you want to increase the odds of someone becoming interested in actually reading it, then make it interesting!

Most portfolios follow the exact same structure and use the same boring titles. A story doesn’t need to be told in a chronological way; think about some of your favorite movies and books.

Using storytelling in UX is essential. You want to take your readers through a journey focused on your user needs, in a way that is easy to empathize with them. Make them care about your project.

Check our UX storytelling workshop if you want to learn more about how to use UX storytelling to create a compelling UX case study.

Photo of Person Holding a Book
Imagine your favorite book starting with “Section 1: Research” instead of a story

It’s not enough anymore to present your design process in a way that works only great in theory.

In todays’ competitive market, you need to show that you understand your process and can adapt it to each project’s unique needs. You need to stand out by being able to tell a compelling story and make others care about what you do.

Now that you know the elements of a cookie-cutter portfolio, all you need to do is to avoid them.

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