How to bring your UX work to life with compelling case studies
8 minutes read
“Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever”
Ed Sabol (Filmmaker)
In a lot of ways putting together a case study, the story of a project or piece of work can often feel like dreaded homework; an unnecessary burden once you’ve bust a gut to do the work in the first place. You know that creating a really good case study will be painful, but deep down you also know that you, your team or your organisation won’t get the credit you deserve unless you show your workings. You’re tempted to simply throw in some screen shots of the final design, put a bit of text here and there and be done with it, but that’s like only showing the last 5 minutes of a movie. Sure, the audience will find out how the movie ends, but they won’t get to experience and connect with the full story.
Whether you like it or not, the craft of creating compelling and engaging case studies is an important part of being a UXer. Perhaps you’re applying for a new role and need to outline the work you’ve undertaken on previous projects. Perhaps you need to create case studies to help sell UX within your organisation, or to sell your UX services as an agency or freelancer. A portfolio of case studies is the standard barometer used to judge the quality of a UX professional, and of a UX team. There’s no better way to show what you can do, than by showing what you’ve previously done, but if you can’t bring that work to life through compelling case studies, you’re not going to be able to show what you, or your team can bring to the table. A set of fantastic case studies can help you to land that much sought after job, or that great project you’ve been pitching for. A set of so-so case studies can leave you continually being placed in the ‘rejected’ tray. This is what I’ve learnt from putting together countless UX case studies over the years.
Planning your case studies
Consider your goals and audience
Before you even think about writing any of your case studies, consider what you are trying to achieve, and who they will be aimed at. Are you creating case studies to get a new job, or to get a new contract as a freelancer? If so, showcasing your skills and input into a project will be very important. Are you aiming at managers and executives? If so, you might want to focus on metrics, and return on investment, you know, the sort of stuff that gets business people all hot under the collar. By considering your goals and audience upfront, you can think about key messaging, and about what is most likely to resonate with your audience.
Think about next steps
Along with your goals and audience, you should also identify what you want someone to do having read one of your case studies. Do you want them to contact you? Do you want them to find out more about the UX team behind the work, or to view a related case study? It’s always a good idea to have a clear call to action within your case studies, so it’s important to identify what you want that action to be, and how you’re going to nudge people into carrying out that action.
Focus on quality over quantity
When it comes to case studies you should always focus on quality over quantity. One really strong case study beats 3 or 4 so so case studies hands down every time. Find the best examples of work and unless you can create a compelling story, forget about out the mediocre projects where you can’t really talk about tangible results, or where the project was canned half way through (we’ve all been there).
Provide a variety of formats
It’s always a good idea to provide a variety of formats for case studies, both in terms of length and in terms of digital or even physical format. I’d generally recommend an online case study, with a PDF version available for printing and storing locally. It can also be a good idea to provide a 1 pager summary version, and a longer form version for those that want to delve a bit more into the details.
Case studies should ideally be self-explanatory, which is why I’m personally not a fan of slide based case studies. A slide deck usually only make sense as part of a presentation, so unless you’re going to record a webinar style presentation to accompany a written case study, I’d keep well away from PowerPoint and Keynote.
Utilise your UX design skills
If you’re looking to showcase your UX work then it’s a good chance that you’re either a UX designer, or at least have some UX design skills (or know someone in your team who does). Now is an excellent time to utilise those wicked UX skills to plan the UX design of your case studies. Sketch out some layouts. Perhaps run a co-design workshop within your team to rapidly create some concepts, or go out and speak to a few friends and colleagues about the sort of case studies they find most useful.
Borrow from best practice case studies
It’s always useful to see how others have tackled a particular problem. With your critic’s hat on, seek out some examples of other similar case studies and see what good things you can borrow. The following are a great place to start:
- Webcredible case studies – A UK based customer experience consultancy
- ClearLeft case studies – A UK based digital agency
- CXPartners case studies – A UK based UX design consultancy
- Case studies from Foolproof – A UK based UX design agency
Use a consistent framework
A case study framework can help you to plan your content, and ensures that case studies have some consistency. Don’t feel that you have to rigidly stick to a framework, but if every case study is a free for all, then it can be a little disorientating for readers. A framework that I’ve found works well in the past is:
- Overview – An executive summary for the case study
- Challenge – A section introducing the challenge and outlining the context for the work
- Approach – A section outlining the approach taken and journey to the solution
- Solution – A look at the final solution, be it design, or research recommendations
- Results – A section outlining the delivered results, including the return on investment
You could alternatively use a framework based around the stages of a project. For example:
- Discovery – A section outlining research and insights gathering
- Design – A section outlining the concept and design work
- Delivery – A section outlining the delivery and results
Writing your case studies
Tell a good story, from start to finish
A good case study should make for a good story. It should have a clear start, middle and end, and should include enough details to bring the story to life. Try to be as specific as possible, so if you can name companies and roles involved, do so. Think about how you would tell the story of the project to a colleague and what you can do to make the story more compelling and engaging for your audience.
Show your workings
Too many case studies simply show the finished article, without showing the journey that it took to get to that solution. When it comes to UX work, the journey is just as important as the destination, so you should always show the progression of the work, and outline the activities undertaken. For example, you might show a design as it progresses from sketches, to low fidelity prototype and then to the finished high fidelity design. This is why it’s a great idea to fanatically log every step of the project. Take lots of photos, ensure that early prototypes and concepts are saved and even consider keeping a project log of all the key decisions and work carried out. Believe, you’ll be glad for it when you come to put the case study together.
Include the why, not just the what
It’s important within a case study to not just outline what was done, but why as well. Why was a particular approach taken? Why was one concept chosen over another? Outline some of the design rationale so that the reader can appreciate not just the design, but the thinking that went into the design.
Be honest, don’t take the credit for others work
It’s important to be honest within a case study. Projects don’t always run smoothly, and results are not always as stellar as you’d hope they would be. Of course you want a good news story, but a case study should be a work of fact, not fiction. Don’t try to take credit for other people’s work, or at least make it unclear in the mind of the reader as to who did what. Acknowledge what others did and make it clear what role you, or your team played in the work.
Case studies should be simple and easy to read. Avoid jargon, and either steer clear of, or at least explain terms that non-UXers might not understand, such as wireframes, personas and KPIs (key performance indicators).
Support skim reading
It’s likely that a lot of your audience will be skim reading your case studies. I’m sure it’s nothing personal, it’s just that we’ve all become a little bit lazy, especially online. It’s therefore important to support skim reading. Use descriptive, and eye catching headings. Call out quotes and key insights. Use lots of visuals. Provide an executive summary and generally keep text short and to the point.
Provide real numbers when possible
Where possible always include real numbers to back up claims of grandiose success. For example, changes to key performance indicators (KPIs) such as conversion, or an increase in product sales, number of users, or user satisfaction. It’s one thing saying that a piece of design work had a positive impact, but it’s quite another being able to evidence it with cold hard facts and numbers.
Include lots of pictures and videos
As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures and videos are a great way to bring a case study to life. You might include photos of workshops, sketches, scenario maps, affinity maps, or even research work such as interviews and observation. You could include screenshots of early prototypes, and mock-ups that show the progression of the design. Whenever you carry out some work, try to record it for prosperity. This way you have a visual history of the work carried out and lots of imagery that you can potentially use for a case study, for presenting your work back to the team or client, or even for regaling friends and family on that upcoming camping trip.
Along with pictures, videos are also a fantastic way to demo designs and prototypes. It’s very easy to quickly create a walkthrough video of a website or application using something like Techsmith Camtasia, and even PowerPoint now has an in-built recording function. You can also screen record on your mobile using something like DU Recorder, or AZ screen recorder on Android and QuickTime player to record a connected iPhone or iPad. Try to keep videos relatively short and sweet, certainly no more than 2 or 3 minutes, and resist the urge to add a thumping techno beat soundtrack.
Include quotes where possible
Quotes and testimonials are great for case studies as they can help to add authority, build trust and provide authenticity. You could include quotes from happy users, quotes from happy clients or stakeholders and quotes from team members. Keep quotes relatively short and make sure that you double check with the person being quoted that they’re happy for you to use their quote.
User test your case studies
You test your concepts and designs out with users right. Well why not test your case studies as well? Not only is it always good to ask some friendly faces for feedback, but you can also run some quick user tests with your case studies. Ask some of your target audience to take a look and tell you what they think. Is there enough information? Is there too much information? What would make it a more compelling case study? What key details would they need to know?
You could run these sessions face-to-face (it shouldn’t take more than about 10 mins per case study), or even remotely using something like Skype or Webex. Heck, you could even use something like usertesting.com or whatsuersdo to quickly harvest some feedback by setting up some quick unmoderated user testing sessions and sitting back whilst the session videos roll in.
Using case studies
Make case studies available online
Don’t keep your case studies to yourself – get out there and make them available. You can do so much more with an online case study, as opposed to a PDF or Word doc, so if you can, make your case studies available online. Sure, you might have a PDF or PowerPoint version that can be downloaded, but first and foremost your case studies should be in the form of webpages, and of course should work equally well on desktop, tablet or mobile.
If you or your team have your own blog or website then great, otherwise you can use portfolio sites such as Behance and Dribbble, or blogging sites such as Medium and WordPress.com. LinkedIn can also be useful for hosting your case studies, and of course ties in nicely with your professional profile.
Track the performance of case studies
Assuming that your case studies are available online, then hopefully you’re able to collect a wealth of performance data. Which are the most popular? Which result in the most enquiries? Which have the highest bounce rate? (users coming to a page and leaving straight away). By tracking the performance of case studies, you can better understand how they are performing, and importantly how to improve the performance.
Sure, planning, writing and then actively marketing case studies can be a pain in the arse, but it’s damn important if you want to be able to showcase the UX work that you, your team or even your organisation has carried out. Follow these hints and tips and not only will you be able to bring your UX work to life, but hopefully land that coveted next job or project. Besides, as Thomas Edison once said…
“A genius is just a talented person who does his homework.”
So if you have aspirations for being considered somewhat of a UX genius, you’d better get started on your case study homework.
- Designing Case Studies: Showcasing A Human-Centered Design Process (Smashing Magazine)
- How Experts Write Case Studies that Convert, Not Bore (Zapier)
- How to Write a Case Study: The Ultimate Guide & Template (HubSpot)
- How to Write a Web Design Case Study that Lands New Clients (Shopify)
- Designing case studies that attract more clients (InVision)
- 8 Tips For Creating a Great Case Study (Kissmetrics)