How volunteering can help build your UX portfolio

Are you trying to build a standout portfolio, but unsure where to start?

Volunteering is a great way to build your UX portfolio, and do some good in the process.

In this piece, we answer the most common questions about volunteering with the help of our UX community.

Vesna Dean

Vesna Dean

UX designer at Grafana Labs

Vesna moved from hospitality to UX after studying UX design and building her portfolio through volunteer work.

James O’Brien

James O’Brien

UX Specialist at AND Digital

James is a UX mentor with over 10 years experience building and managing UX teams. He also has his own consultancy company.

Krys Blackwood

Krys Blackwood

Senior UX Designer at JPL, NASA

Krys Blackwood has been working in UX for over 20 years. She began her career in Silicon Valley working as both a researcher and designer before moving to NASA where she’s designing the future of mission operations.

Why you should volunteer your time and skills?

1. Work on something you’re passionate about

Volunteering means you can use your skills to contribute to something you’re really passionate about. Your project could focus on anything from saving the bees to helping the elderly.

Whatever area you choose, your time will be valued. Design skills could normally be unaffordable for some volunteer groups. It also feels good to try to solve a social problem and make a difference.

Hiring manager James believes that volunteering signals to employers that you have positive outcomes in mind.

2. Add an interesting project to your portfolio

It’s not selfish to think “what’s in it for me?” when it comes to volunteer work either. Volunteering can advance your career by adding interesting projects to your portfolio and help you stand out in the hiring process.

UX expert Krys believes in doing one project for free starting out:

I’m a big believer in getting paid for your work, but it’s ok to do one project for free when you’re building your portfolio. Choose a charity that deserves and needs your help.

James recommends doing volunteering over unpaid internships:“I’m not in favour of unpaid internships. In my opinion they are predatory on the labour of people who don’t have a lot of power, organisationally. They are also discriminatory against people who can’t afford to live in a city.”

Junior designer Vesna chose to do voluntary groups for the same reason, saying “I know designers who’ve complained about their unpaid internships with corporations. They see that they’re doing the same work as other paid designers. I don’t think it’s fair.”

Everyone has a different UX journey. Think about what’s the best option for your career path.

3. Gain real world experience

Doing UX outside of the learning environment for the first time brings new and exciting challenges. A voluntary project shows that you know how to deal with them.

The UX process isn’t always smooth. Krys explains:

The real world is very different from your classes. You are taught in school that UX works a certain way, but when you get into the trenches, it’s different. Having that experience on your resume is incredibly valuable and it will help you as a practitioner.

After studying UX, Vesna wanted to get more real-life collaboration skills. She explained “you won’t learn that from a book, but you need to do it to be able to talk about it in interviews.”

Vesna advises to “just see if you can get that collaboration experience. Even better if it’s something that’s going to be handed over to development. If you can’t find that, work together with some people to experience what it’s like to work on a team.”

Volunteering helped Vesna to confidently talk about growing her UX skills in interviews.

4. Develop in-demand UX skills

Volunteering gives you an opportunity to develop important soft and hard UX skills. Vesna increased her UX knowledge by designing a health app with a group of developers:

I tried to follow the full UX process. I did interviews, competitive benchmarking, created personas, sketches, wireframes and prototypes. The greatest thing was that my team actually listened! It was actually a great first real life UX experience.

It’s important to closely follow the UX process in volunteer projects. Skipping steps can lead to less than ideal outcomes. Don’t feel pressured into doing any “quick UX” by your group. Tell them that you need to follow the UX process to get results.

Volunteering shows hiring managers like James that:

you got up to speed with the sector, increased your knowledge, made changes to your processes, and collaborated with subject matter experts.

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How can I get started?

We answer four common questions about getting started with voluntary work.

1. Where can I find volunteer opportunities?

There’s a wide range of voluntary groups out there. Reach out and see if they need your help. Alternatively, there are volunteer websites like VolunteerMatch and Catchafire, which list UX projects. See if your country has dedicated volunteering websites too.

2. Is applying for voluntary work like a job interview?


When Vesna applied for voluntary projects, she found that “they were more interested in my help. I’d already set up the portfolio from the UX Design Institute and showed them that. Getting a volunteer position isn’t that hard.”

3. What expectations should I set before starting a project?

It’s wise to be honest about your availability before agreeing to a project.

Everyone has different schedules on voluntary projects. You might be free to dedicate 40 hours per week or 3 hours on weekends. Be open about it.

Your team could also be spread all over the world, so projects can move at a slower pace. You need to be patient with your group.

Confirm how many hours per week you can work and discuss what you can deliver in the timeframe. James believes that this will help keep the commitment manageable. “It’s also a great portfolio case study to show that you understand how to scope the UX process,” he said.

4. I don’t have the time to volunteer. What else can I do?

Not everyone is in the position to volunteer free time. There are other things you can do to build your portfolio.

Do you have transferable skills from previous roles or university studies? Do you have any experience building software? Sell these skills and experiences in your portfolio too.

James encourages job hunters to

always remember that your portfolio is a sales brochure – make it work hard for you. The UX industry is full of people with unique and interesting pasts who apply that to their daily practice. Don’t be afraid to sell yourself based on your own past!

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