A Freelance UX Person (and self-titled Full-Stack Human Being) with more than 10 years of experience, Clive K. Lavery helps leading digital agencies and in-house teams make their users and clients happy.
Based in Berlin, Clive proudly makes up part of the Adobe XDI team and is active on the European UX scene. There he co-organizes UX Camp Europe, mentors students for CareerFoundry and has revived the local UX book club.
He is currently exploring the impact of voice and sound design on UX. Also, he is thinking about how to use his skills for social good rather than just solving first-world problems and making rich companies richer.
I talked to Clive at the Amuse UX Conference Budapest. He shared his thoughts about what skills UX designers need, how to showcase projects in a UX portfolio and how to start up a UX career successfully.
Hi Clive! Thank you so much for coming onto our blog, it is a pleasure to have you here. Please tell me about how you became a UX designer.
When I left school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do at all. I knew I didn’t want to go university particularly. I didn’t wanna just start my studies like the others did. So I started as an industrial clerk at 3M in Germany, just because I knew they offered an apprenticeship for two years. I also thought, “Yeah, who knows? I could always use this if I ever wanna do freelance work or start my own company.” I wasn’t so much into design yet. But then in the PR department, I saw someone playing around with Photoshop. I thought, “Yeah, that’s cool. I want to do this as well.”
After that, I left 3M and did an apprenticeship as a media designer. In the 90s, this was still very much print-based. Then the internet came up and I thought, “Yeah, interesting. Let’s see what happens.” So I went on to study graphic design.
There I very quickly found out I’m okay as a visual designer, but others are better. What I produce is cool. It’s fine, but it’s not fantastic or awesome or super great. And I was almost always more interested in the conceptual side of things: why something works, how it works, basically coming up with the research and the background about the products we use.
Then I heard about a thing called usability and user experience. I didn’t know very much about this before. Then I did a masters in interactive multimedia at the time. Just to say how long ago this was, there were still CD-roms and so on.
There we had our first professor who actually had his own research studio and usability lab. We got to learn the ropes of that. This really fascinated me. After that, I went back to Germany, to 3M as a software trainer. Already there, I noticed the stuff I’m doing is UX. I was responsible for implementing the big purchasing software throughout the whole corporation. Actually, I did UX without it being called that.
So then I thought, “OK, let’s look at this career path.” I applied at an agency in Düsseldorf. That started my path through some agencies, what I did for almost 10 years. Then I decided to go freelance three years ago in UX. In a nutshell, that was my path.
What makes up the biggest challenges you face as a freelancer compared to the agency work?
I think they’re very similar. I work more, but I do it for myself. So psychologically, I don’t mind at all. A challenge is, in a month like January, if you haven’t got a client project or gig that goes from the old year to the new year. If you haven’t got a gig, you can leave the country, really, because nothing happens.
So you have to plan for that. In UX, luckily, usually the gigs I get last three or four months, not a week. In comparison, a visual designer maybe will do this logo in a week. I don’t think you can do meaningful UX work in a week. I think it takes longer to really delve deeper.
That’s quite good. Another challenge also comes not taking on board too much work at the same time. Saying “no” poses a real problem. Because A, you need the money, and B, you’re not quite sure. Then you wait for this gig to go through. At the same time, you have to pay your bills, rent, medical insurance, etc.
So far, so good, it’s been fine. But, especially when I started, I was really nervous. I had a few sleepless nights, as well. I was thinking: “What do I do if I don’t have any money within the first few months?” But, it went all right. It went quite well.
Sure, so the beginning might be one of the hardest parts. What do you think, what skills do UX professionals need to be successful freelancers?
I think most importantly, you need to be really curious. You have to also have a bit of humility and modesty. We always preach, “You are not your user.” Although everyone says that, you’ve still always got an opinion on something. You have to be able to let go of your opinion, because it doesn’t matter what you like. It matters what works. And you have to stay curious about how things work and not be happy with the first answer you get.
“You have to be able to let go of your opinion, because it doesn’t matter what you like. It matters what works.”
So, the classic thing in the agency: The client will come saying, “Ah, we need an app.” And by then, I think as a UXer that you have to take the questions such as, “Why? What problem should it solve? Could it be solved in a different way? Is the app really the best solution?” And so on and so on. So, really question things and the status quo all the time.
And then there’s this magic word, “empathy”, that you hear all the time. People use it very loosely. I think it’s really important as well, with every job.
I think this holds true if you work in an agency. In the age of the freelancer, it is more similar as compared to working in a company where you’ve got one product as your baby for five years. Compared with a freelancer where you always have new clients, new gigs. You have to start very quickly. You have to become an expert in a field that you know nothing about.
And then you really have to know how this works. What processes lie in the background of stuff you’ve never even thought of. I really love that about the job as well because it broadens your horizon, and it is not always the same thing. It’s not only about making something pretty or adding pretty colors to something. But that also sets a challenge, of course.
Sometimes, you get hired for two months. During the last big project I had, it took me two weeks to understand what they actually do. So, I couldn’t just start doing something from Day One. “We need wireframes for this by Friday.” “But I don’t even understand your business.”
And then of course, you have to make the client accept that you need to understand them first. That definitely poses a challenge. Now I could tell you about how power supply works in Germany if you built a new home. I never knew about that before. So most importantly, you have to be curious and a bit of a geek as well, I think.
You just mentioned many soft skills. What would you suggest: How can someone showcase these skills in a UX portfolio?
Yeah, good question. That is a real good challenge. Well, I think it’s also a big question of where you are in your career. I think that a UX portfolio is very important. At the same time, it’s totally not important. So, there’s two ways to it.
For instance, me: I’d call me quite senior, obviously. The last four years, no one ever wanted to see my portfolio. Work came only by word of mouth or my network or because I did something for a different person. Before breaking into the industry, a portfolio is more important as a door-opener.
Specifically in a UX portfolio, I don’t really look only for the finished product or something that looks lovely, but tell me about the process. Tell me about why you did something the way you did. What did you try and why did it fail? Why didn’t it work?
“Specifically in a UX portfolio, I don’t really look only for the finished product or something that looks lovely, but tell me about the process.”
So, I really want to see your thinking behind something. This is, to me, much more important in a UX portfolio. And also: If you’re applying for a job in UX, there’ll probably be 200 people applying for the same job. So it has to somehow stand out without boring the other person, but telling a lot about your personality as well. Show process and some personality as well.
And even if hiring managers won’t spend too much time looking at your portfolio, all those nights of hard work are not rendered useless. An experience I see is the work that’s gone into it.
Also, when you’re young, interesting side projects are great to put in. What else do you do on the side? Maybe do you do some NGO work? Are you passionate about something, and you’ve created a website or something? I think this is interesting, as well. Obviously, when you’re just out of university, you cannot say, “I’ve worked for the big tech companies.”
That doesn’t really matter anyway. It’s more interesting to see how you approach things. In UX, I also think a value with junior people as well: They value research and that they’ve done their research. They’ve fought for the research as well.
I see a lot of younger people moving into the industry calling themselves UX/UI designers. And I’m not too happy with this word because I know maybe two people I think have truly earned this title. It’s either one or the other skill is not as strong.
“If you want a pure UX portfolio, it doesn’t have to have beautiful accents. It doesn’t need to be polished. But it needs to show your process also.”
Often you have visual designers or graphic designers that call themselves UI designers. “Oh, UX is a thing now as well. I’ll just call myself a UX designer.” Then, on the other hand, usually UXers try design. It usually has quite some different skill sets. They can complete each other. So if you want a pure UX portfolio, it doesn’t have to have beautiful accents. It doesn’t need to be polished. But it needs to show your process also. That’s important for you.
You mentioned to showcase the design process. How should they do that? What format or structure would you recommend to be used?
It depends on the kind of person you are as well.
“Tell a bit of a story as well. Everyone wants to see how long this project took, your role, how you got involved, how did you contribute?”
Maybe one of the biggest tips I give everyone: Document your work all the way through. In a workshop with posters on the wall, take photos of you facilitating it or doing things. Show your early stage scribbles as well. Then, easier said than done, but if you can, tell a bit of a story as well. Everyone wants to see how long this project took, your role, how you got involved, how did you contribute?
Tell it based on what happened in real life. This could be interesting as well because quite often, as UXers, it’s really hard to please everyone. You could say, “I created this website or this app.” Often, the live product is quite some miles off your actual concept. Because there were budget cuts, because suddenly the CEO wanted something else. The finished product is often not what you came up with, one of the biggest frustrations of the job as well. But I would understand that if I interviewed you and if you could talk about this in an engaging and intelligent way, that’s worth a lot.
“Pick three to four projects you would have a case study about.”
And also, try and go for diversity. Pick three to four projects you would have a case study about. Just mention, “OK, I did this as well for this and this and this.” Or, “If you want to dive deeper, I could show you at the interview.” Because to me, the portfolio only opens the door for the interview. It could be a wonderful portfolio.
If I meet this person and he or she is funny or has an attitude or thinks they know everything, I know I don’t want to work them. I don’t want to spend half a year mentoring them or anything like that. So, the portfolio should tell something about you and should make me interested in inviting you.
Also, if you showcase your projects in your UX designer portfolio, you can talk about them more easily in the interview, right?
Exactly. Yeah. But sometimes then, also bring your files if you’re allowed to. If you signed an NDA contract, be very, very careful, because this can also be a test. I know sometimes at interviews, people then open a file they weren’t allowed to open, and say, “Oh, this stays in this room.” This happens all the time. But, it could also be a test. Because if you don’t respect the NDA of your old employer or your old job with the next job, you probably won’t respect mine either. So it’s a balancing act.
You can also try to fake. You can maybe wireframe a project. Take out the real logo and try to tell the story on that. I’ve got loads of projects I’m not allowed to talk about, even say that they were my client. So I just have to say, “A big multinational client in the travel industry” or something like that. Usually, people know what’s meant anyway. But you’re not allowed to say it. And, really stick to that.
Remember, it’s a scene as well. Everyone knows everybody. And it shows a level of professionalism as well.
Sure. Do you remember a specific example of a super good portfolio you reviewed? How did it look?
I remember one of my interns, Marie, a student from France. She picked to show me a more “student” project. But she also told the story about why she picked this particular project, why it was interesting. And she showed the process. That was a nice one.
It depends. Obviously, you can show off your skills as well. If you happen to be a good illustrator, of course you should show this as well. I mean, there’s no point holding back with that.
Usually, I look at how they present their projects. But I look at the whole big picture as well, so do they just send a portfolio? “Hi, I saw your job. Here’s my portfolio.” What’s the cover letter like? If they send any. Are they really motivated to work here?
And of course, I stalk them online. I check their LinkedIn profile, their student profile. I check if they’ve got a website. Are they on Twitter? And then I’ve gotta get a feeling.
Can you recall some typical mistakes they make, when you say no way you would invite them to an interview?
Yeah. Showing too much is a mistake. I’d still invite someone if they showed too much, to talk it through. But don’t make it too complex or complicated. Just show the highlights.
Moreover, I’ve also seen a lot of portfolios that applied for a UX position, but they had only finished, polished designs. It looked lovely, but told me nothing about the involvement of the person. Did they take it from storyboard to final result or anything? I don’t know. That’s a big mistake. Not saying what role you played.
And, not pretending. I don’t know, “I created the Google website,” or such exaggerations. You have to make your role very clear. So I think it’s a big mistake, not being transparent.
“I am the user of your portfolio. […] So, you would approach your UX portfolio like any UX product.”
If there are more questions than answers when I read this portfolio, I probably won’t bother. I think it’s your job if you are in UX. Because I am the user of your portfolio. You have to respect that as well and think about me, how I feel. So, you would approach your UX portfolio like any UX product.
So you say it’s important to be honest, no?
You also said you would like to see the failures.
Right, that’s super interesting because I can remember the amount of times I failed. Failure can happen. But then obviously, the next questions: “How’d you react? What did you learn about them? What were your takeaways?” “We had some kind of wireframes, but we didn’t have enough research.” So we can have the lesson that the next time, we’d invite 10 more users or apply other relevant research methods.
I think it’s super interesting and it says something. Because you fuck up all the time. And, that’s how you learn. Especially in an agile culture where you build, measure, learn and then just throw away what doesn’t work, keep what works, and then build upon on that.
So yes, it’s totally fine. You could even have a section; “My biggest fuck ups.” I would like that. No problem.
I’ve seen some portfolios like this. Actually, we recommend using this structure you just mentioned. We at UXfol.io think that it’s important to show the design process, the design decisions, to tell about the story of your design, your role, etc. And the last section can be the learnings.
Yeah, perfect. I agree.
Also build a network early. It’s just as, if not more important, than a portfolio. It’s all part of it. You have to show yourself. Go to local meetups. Ask if you can help organize one or if you co-organize something. Make yourself useful in your community. It just shows your enthusiasm about the whole thing. Travel to conferences. There are usually volunteer spots to go in there if you can’t afford a ticket in the early stages. Put that in your portfolio as well. “I volunteered at Amuse Budapest.” This says so much about you as a person as well.
And really get out there. A personal tip for me: Only network with people you actually like. I know a lot of people that collect business cards of everyone that could be useful for them. But in the long run, you won’t be happy if you work with an asshole who pays good money. So what’s the point?
Sometimes you might see a speaker from an agency you admire or a company you admire. Then you see this person on stage and you think, “Wow, OK. I’m not sure I want to work with him or her.” And on the other hand, you might bump into people just having a coffee. “Oh, that was a really nice conversation. Where does she work? Maybe that would be something to go to.”
Often, jobs are spread at these events, as well. So when we do our book club, there’s always an announcement section. Looking for a job? Offering a job? I always invite someone who heard about my job at an event. Sometimes then you close the deal and there won’t even be a job ad out there. Don’t only wait for job ads.
I’ve got loads of gigs as a freelancer that weren’t announced anywhere, just by word of mouth. Or, “Oh, by the way, we’re planning a project in three months. Are you free then?” “Yeah.” “Cool.” That’s it.
And they’re happy because they don’t have to pay for recruitment and headhunters. So get out there. It’s no good hiding behind your computer, doing some nice designs.
By and large, UXers are nice and everyone’s happy to help. If you ask people, you usually get some helpful reply. If you’re lucky enough, find a good mentor. If you’re later on in the senior stage, do mentoring yourself. That’s what I do. And you learn so much about yourself as well. It’s not only giving. It’s a give-and-take.
So, portfolio’s a part of it, but it’s not the whole package. Portfolio is important but a good portfolio alone wouldn’t make you a good UXer. It’s a whole package.
That’s true. Thank you very much, Clive, for the inspiring interview and the great tips!
Take Clive’s advice: Network as much as you can and present not only your finished product but your design process and the story of your design in your UX portfolio.
And if you need a great platform for it, give UXfol.io a try.
It is a UX portfolio builder tool created especially for UX professionals. It is quick and easy to use, it allows you to build an outstanding UX portfolio Clive talked about in minutes.
It gives you help in the copywriting part and you can even get your case studies reviewed by the community and UX experts.
Start building your outstanding UX portfolio: Click here to sign up to UXfol.io and try it out!