At the beginning of a UX designer's career, mock projects can be a great way to demonstrate technical skills and gain experience with tools like Figma. These projects are typically created in a vacuum and are not based on real-world user needs or feedback, making them a great way to practice the design process and experiment with different ideas. However, more than mock projects are needed to make a compelling portfolio. Here's how to get around this.
Why mock projects are not enough
You could start a mock project like Let's imagine a museum of modern art reaching out to me for a new website. You follow the well-established design process you learned in school or UX bootcamp. Following every neatly laid out step, you go from research (primarily competitor analysis) and mood boards to wireframes, high-fidelity mockups, and maybe even prototypes. And the result is a beautiful design ready to be showcased on dribbble, Behance, and your portfolio. But there's a problem with this approach.
In real life, things don't go so linear, and I'm interested in how you deal with challenges like:
- the requirements are not well defined, and they likely change once the project is underway and the depth of the problem because obvious;
- the deadline is approaching, and you're pressured to cut corners;
- jumping into a project mid-way;
- working in a multi-disciplinary team.
And after you manage to navigate all of this, the users might reject your solution, and you're back to square one. What do you do then?
In addition to the 3 skills I look for when interviewing designers, it is essential for me, as an interviewer, to know how you would handle situations like the ones mentioned above.
A recipe for better mock projects
Sure, you can only demonstrate all of the above with a real-life project, so let's simplify this and look at what is in your power to do. At the core of a UX designer's job is to care about the user. A UX designer's portfolio should demonstrate the designer's ability to work with real-world user feedback and research, think critically about the user experience, and create designs with a good level of polish and attention to detail. All of this you can do without a real-life project.
To make your mock project compelling, the project should include the following:
- Research: Find people that are the users of the product you're thinking of, and talk to them to gain insights into their needs and behavior.
- Design solutions: Incorporate user feedback into your design process and create solutions that reach a high level of polish with each iteration.
- Validation: Test the designs with actual users (preferably the ones you first interviewed in the Research phase) and validate your design solutions. You won't get it right the first time (none of us do), so adapt your designs and repeat the process until your users are happy.
These are all things that are in your power to do before you even get your first job or client.
The formula applied in real life
I once interviewed a designer with a similar problem. Though he did have experience, his portfolio was empty. Due to clauses in his contract, he couldn't show any work he had done for the past couple of years.
He decided to do something about it and to prove his skills. He decided to do a mock project: an app for booking bus tickets in his hometown. The transport company still only sold physical tickets, so there was no chance to implement this app in real life. Still, he started simple, and to validate his idea's interest, he built a landing page asking people to sign up for a waiting list to get the product. He even spent $100 on ads promoting the page. There was some interest, and people signed up on the waiting list.
With a list of email addresses, he reached out to all of them, mentioned what he was doing, and asked if they wanted to participate in interviews. Some said yes, and after talking to prospective users, he understood the real-world challenges and needs of people using the public transport system.
He used the knowledge gathered from interviews to create a great app, but it didn't go smoothly. Once he had his first draft, he reached out again to the same people, and they found it hard to use. Back to the drawing board, he incorporated the feedback, created a new solution, and brought it again back to users. It took three attempts, but in the end, he had something that they found helpful.
Though the project was never shipped, it was enough to convince us to make him an offer. We appreciate his ingenuity, but we loved that he was willing to do the work and find actual users, not just test it on his friends who wanted to support him but would never use such an app. And we valued that when users rejected his first approach, he didn't give up. Instead, he incorporated their feedback, put in the work, and eventually devised a better solution.
Mock projects can be an excellent way for UX designers to practice their skills and gain experience with design tools. However, mock projects are not enough to make a compelling portfolio. To make a portfolio more compelling, designers should include research, design solutions, and validation. Additionally, designers should demonstrate their ability to work with real-world user feedback and research, think critically about the user experience, and create designs with a level of polish and attention to detail.
In the end, I want to bring it back to you and ask you to think of a mock project you enjoyed creating. What steps could you take to validate your work and find out how well you accomplished what you set out to do?