Total newbie to UX design here.. like TOTAL noob (as you’ll see from the upcoming question) I’m currently wrapping up a class on UX core and fundamentals and, naturally, am wanting to start up my portfolio with ‘personal projects.’ I already anticipate a resounding DUH from anyone who’d be so gracious to take the time to respond to my post, but I just wanted to make sure: personal projects are purely hypothetical, right? I take a product or website, mock it up, dismantle and reconstruct it into a better, more intuitive version with fantastic UI, info architect, pleasing-to-the-eyes aesthetic, etc.. as well as document what, how, and why behind every tweak... but besides having it reviewed by acquaintances in the field for feedback, I don’t actually submit it, do I? Any personal project would simply be a “this is what I would do to improve this website/product” scenario/exercise in itself, am I right?
It's a designer's job to solve real world problems. The idea is to develop a portfolio containing case studies that demonstrate your ability to work through and solve problems.
Finding the problem
With a lack of a real problem you should create one. To get your problem you can find a product (or product marketing materials) with design that you believe to be lacking (don't pick something that's not lacking, your goal here is to fix a problem) or you can invent one.
If you've chosen something that already exists document what you believe the floors to be; "what are the friction points?", "what is currently unclear?", "what is missing?", "what is superfluous?. Your redesign should overcome these floors.
Otherwise, invent something! Create a product, company or application. This can be anything as long as you can identify a purpose and a market.
Now that you know what you're working on, identify the goals of the product and design. Ask "what user need does this solve?"
In determining the goals you should also be able to identify the users. Determine "who are they?" because it is closely tied to "what do they want?".
Perform the design
Now that you have identified the needs of your design you can begin developing.
Generate your idea Iterate through your designs
Build a prototype, perform some user testing. Keep your prototypes, they will form a key part of your documentation.
Documenting your work
Now as you work on the project you can document your process in order to form a case study. Remember that process is not as important as solving the problem!, so don't get caught up in process. The aim here is to show that you can apply critical thought processes to arrive at a design solution.
It's time to write a post mortem. Perform an evaluation and analysis of your work.
- Does your design achieve the goals/solve the problems that you identified?
- What were the challenges that you faced?
- What lessons did you learn for next time
The end product
In the end you should have a design that solves a problem and a case study to accompany it. You will have identified needs and then worked to fulfil them. The only thing that's different about this project and a real one is the requirement to work with clients.
Personal portfolio pieces are generally pet projects; redesigns of products you love, or a new website/app/anything that builds upon an existing brand. Or (if you have a great idea you want to share) the ability to design a new product that isn't actually being built, but you present it in such a state. This is all perfectly fine and accepted as portfolio work.
You'll want to present your work as explicitly hypothetical 'this is what I would do', as you don't want to run any risk of being associated with the real brand. It is indeed an exercise in design, where you can essentially show off your absolute best since you won't have to deal with stakeholder opinions or existing technical frameworks.
In the absence of paid work samples, hypothetical projects are a great way to show skills and understanding. Volunteer work also looks good in a portfolio. Maybe there's some tiny non-profit near you that needs a website, or wireframes for a website, or a social media plan.