How to Craft a Case Study You’ll Be Proud Of
This was first used as a personal learning material for a mentorship program created by IDF and RookieUp. I am one of the UX mentors. I wrote this for my mentees. Recently, I’ve also shared this with our UXD students at General Assembly. I hope you learn from this as much as we did.
Some basic principles I’ve learned over the years:
Focus on the Narrative
Every product, every experience is part of a bigger story. From conceptualizing problem statements to testing the prototypes, it’s a big part of it. As a designer, you are the orchestrator. The maker. You may not have full control over everything but you do have a say in how you articulate and present your case study.
Start with the why: Why did you come up with this project? What were the initial assumptions you had jumping into? Who is the hero for this product? What were the challenges you’ve encountered in your research? How did you resolve those? What does the conclusion (solution) look like?
Resources to help you focus on the narrative:
[Video] Start with Why by Simon Sinek
[Article] Story First by InVision “Product stories find their origins in research, not genius. Customer interviews will expose important moments of frustration, aspiration, and triumph — all of which are potential plot points in your story. “
[Article] The Value of Quick Visual Storytelling
Be Relentlessly Character-Driven
In UX, it is always about the user, the humans behind the work and the humans for the work. Jeff Bezos is famously known for being extremely customer-obsessed. He has a laser-focused vision on the ultimate end goal: Making users happy, and beyond satisfied.
“Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf.“ — Jeff Bezos on his 2016 letter to shareholders
This is equally applicable and relevant to UX case studies. Get into your users’ shoes and mental models. They are the anchor to your central thesis.
In the book, Design for Real Life, authors Eric Meyers and Sarah Wachter-Boettcher encourage designers to think deeper about the product use cases. “Making space for real people also means making sure the features we build match our users’ priorities- even when those priorities are different than what we imagined.”
On the image below, for one of my own case studies, I’ve supplemented the design documentation with an experience map. Starting from the perspective of the primary user, I’ve highlighted the different parts of the core experience. Addressing both the user need as well as the business needs, it ultimately leads to the overall product vision. For more information on this project, please visit my site.
Resources to help you think deeper about user personas:
[Article] Personas, Goals and Emotional Design
[Article] The Story of Spotify Personas
[Article] Predictive Personas by Laura Klein
[Video] Design for Real Life
Don’t Sleep on What Went Wrong
Designing digital products would often require iteration, and tests. One thing that was hard to learn coming from a more traditional art and design background is how to keep yourself from falling in love with your initial idea. Simply because as a designer, it was never really just about us. Our ideas mean nothing if no one would be able to use it, if our users’ lives won’t improve in some way, if it has no value whatsoever to the world.
Case studies are the perfect environment to showcase this unique ability. A perfect product and experience isn’t born overnight. It’s the direct result of endless iterations, effective testings, and research and late nights of perfecting the user interface itself from a design perspective. These are the things that make this craft truly exciting: messy deliverables, sketches and explorations, ideas scribbled on a piece of paper, whiteboards of flows, maybe even code snippets.
The cherry on top of that is the product pivot, which may be the result of an event, or a redirection, or even a complete overhaul of that initial idea. The ability to start over and to challenge your assumptions is a great skill to continuously hone. Show the flaws in your thinking. Embrace the mess. Don’t be afraid of vulnerability. Celebrate your product “mistakes”. These are the things that are the true test of a good story.
And what is a case study, if not a celebration of a story.
Resources about product pivots:
[Article] The slack origin story
Make It Editorial
After all that is said and done, you now actually have to publish this case study. Before choosing the right platform for it, here are a few things to ask yourself:
- Who am I writing this for? Fellow designers? Recruiters? Potential employers? All of the above?
- Which parts of the case study stood out the most? Is it the Discovery phase? Information architecture?
- What is the overall tone for the UX case study you’ve done? What sort of industries would be interested or would benefit from reading this? Is it a consumer-facing product, or is it more of an enterprise-level one? Is it more of an overhaul/redesign of a utility product (banking apps, electric company websites, transportation…) or a completely new thing that can potentially disrupt an industry?
Take inspiration from how the New York Times is leveraging long-form narratives to tell a story that looks great on any device. You have a punchy headline, and an introduction, supported by huge, context-driven visuals. In this case, they could be your deliverables. They could also be a sleek banner image (think of it as an ad) that aims to get your readers excited.
The way you present screen flows can also be inspired by editorial pieces. This is where storytelling and narratives can play a huge part. I’ve used that technique for an old work I did years ago. This is a part of a big web app for a children’s educational platform called ChangeMyWorldNow.com.
Resources about the anatomy of a case study:
[Article] How to write a UX Case Study by InVision
[Article] Behind the Carbonmade onboarding UX
[Article] How-To: Good UI Demo Videos
If You Can, Incorporate Principles
Crossing over to more product design-thinking, case studies should reflect timeless principles that influenced your thinking.
According to Principles.Design, “Design Principles help teams with decision making. A few simple principles or constructive questions will guide your team towards making appropriate decisions.”
From top tech companies such as Apple to Airbnb, Design principles are used widely and thoughtfully. It not only helps designers think more holistically about the product, it also helps carve a design legacy for the makers themselves. While it is true, a case study is a living document, a perennial work-in-progress, it would not hurt to think this early about design principles.
Think of it as a foundation for how you approach problem solving via design thinking. What makes this product special? What makes this approach unique and captivating? What makes your case study worth reading?
This is not limited to case studies alone. You can apply the same concepts for your own process documentation. See how I did it here.
Resources about Design Principles:
[Website] Material Design
[Website] Laws of UX
Just like everything else in UX, there’s no one right way to do this. You just have to get started, and do so with a few goals in mind. A bulk of what a case study is is purely writing, ideally as in short and as in-depth as possible, sharing only the things that matter.
This is an exercise of how you think, how you are able to solve a problem, and lastly how you’re able to present it in one neat little package. It won’t be perfect, just like your brain.
A brain is like a sponge that continuously absorbs everything in the name of innovation. Quite frankly, It is really hard not to think about user experience after all of this.
This article is a part of the accidental series called “Design Literacy: How-To’s Edition”. In an effort to increase the visibility of UX and Design to any one who needs it, I started formalizing my notes and insights. I believe in the power of design through education. We learn better together. Writing is a great medium for this.
Thank you to my trusted colleagues and friends in the industry, Jeffrey Coleman and Mark Richman for all help with editing and additional input on this topic. Your critiques and suggestions make my writing a lot better.
About the author
Nikki is a Sr. UX Designer working for a data company in New Jersey. In the last 2 years, she has helped design & build a holographic platform, contracted for a research team inside Fidelity Investments, worked in the Design Operations side of an e-commerce company, mentored brilliant design students/career-changers, advocated for UX best practices at RookieUp, have co-taught UX courses at General Assembly and have also contributed directly to the growth of the Mentorship program on UXPA-New York. Designing for a better world is her life. She also runs her own newsletter, working title, about her thoughts on the future and more.