Creating a content design portfolio with no UX experience

Emily Wachowiak
Emily Wachowiak
June 27, 2024

Did you know that some content designers would rather write an entire article about portfolios than revamp their own? (It’s me, I’m some content designers.) 

Although “update portfolio” languishes on my own to-do list, I’ve spent many hours talking about and reviewing portfolios as a member of hiring panels and as a UX mentor. I often talk to mentees who are unsure about what to include in their content design portfolio to best showcase their skills and stand out in a crowded applicant pool. 

Creating a portfolio is extra challenging for folks who have little to no UX experience. But the good news is that you don’t need a UX title on your resume to create case studies that show your UX chops, working style, and overall problem-solving skills in the best possible light. 

When building your portfolio, it helps to take a step back and consider the three types of projects you could possibly include:

  1. “Real world” work from a previous job or volunteer position
  2. Work from a course or training program
  3. Speculative work

In this piece, I’ll talk about why it’s important to try and lead with real-world work, and how to do this even without prior UX experience. I’ll also explore ways to use coursework and speculative work strategically to highlight your skills.

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Why you should always try to lead with real work…

Work produced under real-world conditions showcases far more than your content design skills — it shows you know how to collaborate with a cross-functional team to solve problems and handle the setbacks, technical constraints, and compromises that inevitably pop up. 

But I often hear from people who feel like their previous work experience is too messy, incomplete, or not relevant enough to include. I’d like to challenge that thinking and share ways you can feature real projects in your portfolio… 

…even if you’ve never worked in UX

Shoutout to all the folks working hard to break into the industry — it can be brutal, especially in this competitive hiring climate. If you’re a career-changer, think deeply about your work history to pinpoint areas where you’ve showcased any skills that are parallel to, adjacent to, or even in the same metaphorical zip code as common content design processes. This will help you get to a list of the skills you have that hiring managers are looking for, such as: 

  • Writing or planning content for internal or external audiences (e.g. blog posts, email templates, newsletters, lesson plans, slide decks, etc.)
  • Analyzing, auditing, or organizing multiple pieces of content (e.g. web pages, articles, videos, etc.)
  • Collaborating across different teams (especially with marketers, visual designers, legal experts, executives, engineers, or other technical roles)
  • Developing or shaping guidelines or review processes for any type of written content
  • Leading or assisting with any type of research, including competitive comparisons, quantitative surveys, or qualitative studies (you can even get scrappy by conducting informal research based on customer conversations, or volunteering to gather team insights for an internal project)
  • Recommending user-centered changes to a product, document, or process based on research or internal data 

Depending on your work history, you may need to get creative here. This exercise will be much easier for those with a background in content-centric fields like marketing and copywriting, but I’ve talked to career-switchers from education, academia, journalism, small business, and non-profit backgrounds who have done a lot of these things, even if they lacked the UX vocabulary for it at the time. 

Bottom line: it doesn’t have to be traditional “UX” work to show off your UX skills. You just have to be able to tell the story in a way that parallels common UX and content design processes, showcases your transferable skills, and of course includes the artifacts and examples to bring the story to life. Check out this article by Andy Welfle for more tips on creating a UX writing portfolio when you’re new to the field.

…even if you only have volunteer experience

Having the time for unpaid labor is not a luxury everyone can afford. But for those who are able, volunteer projects are great for boosting your portfolio with work that has a real-world impact. Whether you’re volunteering with an organization like Tech Fleet or Develop for Good or partnering with a local nonprofit or small business, make sure you’re saving drafts and artifacts as you go to make it easier to assemble your case study later.

Keep in mind that volunteer opportunities often can’t provide a lot of support or mentoring for newbies, and many organizations will have little to no experience with design processes, let alone UX writing. You’re likely to encounter challenges with communication and expectation-setting that you need to solve on your own. Still, these challenges parallel ones you’ll find in the UX field, and learning to navigate them will only grow your skills and show off your resilience and adaptability.   

…even if your story doesn’t have a happy ending

The project got canceled before it launched. It launched, but there’s no data to measure success. You got laid off mid-project. None of this should stop you from including work in a case study. As long as you are able to tell a compelling, coherent story about the state of the project when you entered it, your role in it, and its state when you stopped working on it, that can form the basis of a strong case study.

However, hiring managers want to know that you know what should go into a product launch and post-launch analysis. So if you don’t have post-launch information available, try to include the following:

  • What metrics would you have monitored post-launch? What action would you have taken on those signals?
  • What experiments would you have run on this feature? What would you hope to learn from them?
  • What would have been your “fast follow” design improvements after the launch? 

Don’t be afraid to acknowledge the curveballs and even missteps that happened during your project and share what you learned from them. Real UX work doesn’t happen in a straight line, so why should your case studies? 

This messiness is a feature, not a bug. Hiring managers should be looking for candidates who can deal with mess, someone who can jump into a project mid-flight or quickly pivot to a new project when priorities change.

How to include coursework in your portfolio

While formal training isn’t a requirement for landing a job, content design courses and bootcamps can be helpful for learning foundational UX skills and building a design vocabulary. Many courses brag that their students walk away with portfolio pieces, which is super appealing for those just starting out.  

I’m not here to say that content designers shouldn’t ever include coursework in their portfolio. But I would strongly advise that, if at all possible, your portfolio should contain more than coursework. 

With the exception of courses that include a volunteer or internship placement, many “portfolio assignments” follow a clean, linear process that is inherently much simpler than a project would ever be in real life. Often the results emphasize surface-level skills, like editing sign-up flows or writing error messages, in a context- and constraint-free vacuum. Hiring managers are looking for deeper skills than this, even for entry-level roles. 

Worse, you may end up with a portfolio piece that’s nearly identical to thousands of other students who have taken the same course. That’s not a great way to stand out in a competitive hiring environment.

If you do choose to include coursework in your portfolio, ideally as a supplement to real world work, take extra steps to showcase your design and critical thinking skills and make your assignment more distinct:

  • Make a list of teams and roles you would have looped in in a real project and what questions you would have asked them
  • Detail any steps you would take that your assignment may have left out, such as user research, usability testing, and experimentation
  • Explain what signals or metrics you would look for to know if your proposal was successful
  • Go above and beyond with polished mockups or prototypes that show off your Figma skills

How to make spec work work for you

In UX, spec work (short for speculative work) refers to work that is a hypothetical analysis or redesign of an existing product that you complete on your own. For example, you might take an app you use every day, analyze a few key flows, and document or mock up improvements you would make to the experience. 

The nice thing about spec work is that it doesn’t cost anything but your time. Doing spec work about the company you’re applying for may even work as an “interview-getter,” as Jason Fox described (though your ROI may vary in a competitive job market).

But spec work is prone to many of the same issues as coursework: it’s theoretical, context-free, and siloed from any realistic constraints and impacts that would allow you to showcase the skills hiring managers are looking for.

However, you may want to round out your portfolio with spec work that helps you demonstrate more tactical UX skills that your real-world case studies may lack. You can certainly elevate a speculative case study by following the suggestions listed above for coursework. You can even do your own competitive research or scrapy user research — anything to make the case study more realistic.  

Just remember: you shouldn’t approach spec work with a “teardown” mindset. This could really backfire on you. It’s easy to be dismissive of copy or designs without realizing that the team was dealing with internal or technical constraints that led them to make these choices. Try to offer constructive criticism while acknowledging that there’s information you don’t and can’t know. 

To sum it up…

Portfolios may be the bane of any content designer’s existence (yes, specifically this content designer), but it’s comforting to know that there is no one right answer or formula for how to build one. 

If you are new to the UX field, take a moment to step back from all the industry buzzwords and jargon to just think about the core skills that hiring managers care most about, like solving problems within realistic, complicated, messy situations. From there, you can prioritize the stories that let you really shine.

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Emily Wachowiak

Emily has been shaping digital content for 10+ years, shifting from marketing and content strategy to content design. Her favorite parts of content design are diagramming and untangling messes, collaborative problem solving, and connecting the dots between projects and opportunities across an organization. As a UX mentor, she enjoys helping content designers enter and navigate this field. Her hobbies include cooking, learning to sew, and watching bad movies with her husband, cat, and dog.

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