5 strategies for building a UX Research portfolio without work experience

Raise your hand for volunteer work, learn by doing, and break the entry-level barrier

Lawton Pybus
7 min readOct 1, 2023
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It’s a classic “chicken-and-egg” problem. Which comes first: your first UX Research role, or your first experiences doing UX Research?

With many job descriptions asking for some combination of work experience or case studies, it can seem a daunting — even impossible — paradox for folks seeking a first role.

The good news is that you can develop a compelling portfolio of case studies even before starting a job. While you can’t fake years of experience, you can bolster the experiences you already have and simulate experiences close to those needed for a new role. And getting hands-on experience with practice projects is a valuable early indicator that you’re suited to doing the kind of work you’ve been considering for a career.

In this article, we’ll look at five ways to crack the problem, listed in a roughly ascending order of lesser to greater difficulty or time commitment. Several strategies involve raising your hand for volunteer work — which might feel like a step backwards, but one that will hopefully enable you to take two steps forwards. Whichever methods you choose, I encourage you to work with a mentor in the field who can evaluate your work and guide you in the right direction.

1. Give new emphasis to old work

If you’re coming to UX Research (UXR) from a graduate program or adjacent career, you likely already have work that you can repurpose.

Although academic work differs from user research in various ways, both subtle and significant, what they do share will be of interest to hiring managers. For instance, while you may never use a sonogram or EEG in industry as you did for your thesis data collection, you can talk about how you designed a study with the right methodology and appropriate sample size to address your research questions. The manuscript you submitted to your field’s flagship journal might look nothing like a typical UXR report — but you might be able to repurpose a slide deck from a conference talk or the elevator pitch you gave in an interview with the popular press. Similar examples would apply for those transitioning from another career, like market research.

In any case, be careful to share just the information that’s relevant to the role you’re seeking and provide any context a UX hiring manager might need that your original audience would have already understood.

2. Conduct research to improve unfriendly designs

There’s an interesting phenomenon among medical school students called “second year syndrome.”

As they begin studying the symptoms of a range of diseases, they start to report experiencing them themselves. Much like the cocktail party effect, in which one can pick one’s name out across a loud and crowded room, researchers believe this a normal function of observing newly salient stimuli that was there all along, rather than unleashing a latent tendency towards hypochondria.

I’ve observed that something similar, though less stressful, happens when folks begin to learn about and internalize ideas and concepts from user experience. Their perspectives on frustrating technological interactions suddenly shift. Rather than being caused by their own lack of skill or understanding, these problems were actually the predictable result of poor design! And they begin to see this everywhere.

I’ve encouraged mentees to harness that energy by keeping a list of the unfriendly designs they encounter as the seedbed for sample project ideas. Then, whenever you’re developing a practice project with an unfamiliar research methodology, consider whether it might be an appropriate tool for finding problems with or improvements to one of those unfriendly designs you encountered.

3. Volunteer UXR skills for a cause that’s meaningful to you

Although you may lack the funds to financially support the causes closest to your values, you can still lend the skills you’re developing as a valuable means of support.

Nonprofits and charitable organizations are often spread thin and strapped for resources. Many have websites with lots of room for improvement. If your research could help them convert more visitors to donors or volunteers, you’ll have made a tangible impact that translates directly to the kind of work that UX Researchers do every day.

Reach out to the organization you’re interested in helping and schedule time to discuss what might be most valuable given their current initiatives. Then propose an engagement with a fixed term that details your research approach and what you’ll need from them. For example, they may be able to connect you with volunteers and donors as study participants. If not, you can try the classic guerilla method of offering gift cards to the patrons of your local coffee shop in exchange for 15 minutes of their time.

By the end of the project, you’ll have gained practice working with a real stakeholder under constraints, getting scrappy to answer research questions meaningful to their organizational objectives, and putting together an actionable report — all ingredients for a powerful case study.

4. Get involved with a tech apprenticeship group

Believe it or not, most folks trying to break into tech aren’t looking for user research roles. Many of them are seeking positions in engineering, design, product management, or even project management.

Fortunately for everybody, there are apprenticeship groups that attract talented transitioners to do valuable projects on a deadline for real stakeholders at startups and other worthy causes. You’ll be placed on a cross-functional team, often under the oversight of an experienced advisor. This allows you to simulate a realistic working group and develop communication and collaboration skills. Plus, you won’t be flying solo — you’ll have others to filter and sharpen your ideas. And unlike working as a volunteer or with a local startup, as discussed in the next suggestion, these apprenticeship groups find the projects and facilitate the introductions and handoffs so you don’t have to.

If you’re interested in pursuing this route, look into groups like Hack for LA, UX Rescue, Catchafire, and Tech Fleet.

5. Work with local startups

Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, once likened life at an early-stage startup to “jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down.”

These companies may be searching for product-market-fit, or ramping up to their first product launch. What little cash they have on hand might be claimed for the foreseeable future. Even so, they’re one of the groups with the most to gain from user experience work. By volunteering to share your research skills and insights with them, you could have a huge potential impact on the future of a fledgling company. It’s also possible you could translate the gig into a larger role or some sweat equity — but temper your expectations, since most startups fail.

You can explore your local startup scene through tech incubators, conferences, and meetups. Further afield, you could scour Wellfound for ideas that look promising.

Bonus: Seek freelance projects

Let’s say you’ve already done one, two, or perhaps all of the above. And now, you’ve put together a diverse portfolio of case studies, but for whatever reason, a full-time role hasn’t materialized yet.

The good news is that you can start to earn some money while you continue looking. Reach out to your network and let them know that you’re open to freelance UX Research projects. You can also join a project marketplace like Upwork or Fiverr to begin taking on engagements.

These projects will give you not only some cash flow, but also the confidence that you can make a career out of UX work. And completed projects can be sanitized to further extend your portfolio. Just be careful not to overcommit yourself while you continue applying and interviewing for positions.

Summary and conclusion

You need not have prior UX Research experience on your resume to build a portfolio that will help you stand out for entry-level roles. This article discussed a few ideas:

  • Repurpose existing work from graduate programs or adjacent careers to highlight relevant skills and experiences for UX research roles.
  • Keep a list of unfriendly designs you encounter and use them as a starting point for practice projects to develop your research skills.
  • Offer your research skills to nonprofits or charitable organizations to help improve their websites and make a tangible impact while gaining experience.
  • Join apprenticeship groups that work on real projects for startups and other causes, which provide opportunities to simulate a realistic working environment.
  • Volunteer your research skills and insights to early-stage startups, potentially making a significant impact on their future while gaining valuable experience.
  • Start earning money by reaching out to your network for freelance UX research projects or joining project marketplaces like Upwork or Fiverr.

These options vary in difficulty and time commitment, allowing you to gain meaningful experiences while you seek a full-time UX research role.

Regardless of the pathway you take, your goal is to create realistic experiences that you can share with a hiring team. Working with other product team members, reframing business objectives into research questions, designing studies, recruiting participants, collecting and analyzing data, and presenting it to stakeholders are all key aspects of a UX research job that you can get a taste of before you ever land your first role.

A version of this article first appeared in The ¼″ Hole, a newsletter about UX Research. Thanks to the many mentees who have asked for advice on this topic, and to Summer Harvey for sharing her experiences with me.

If you enjoyed this article and would like more early career advice for UX Researchers, there’s more at the list below:

Early Career UX Research Advice

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Lawton Pybus

UX Research Consultant · Human Factors PhD · Top writer in Design · I share monthly UXR insights at https://www.quarterinchhole.com