Mike Curtis
Sep 26, 2018 · 10 min read

Case studies are essential in the UX designer’s world. They allow us to share our ideas, the problems we solved, and give readers and potential employers a glimpse into the way we think.

As a UX instructor and practitioner, I’ve read hundreds of case studies. Some were highly engaging and held my attention while others weren’t so great.

These lackluster case studies needed something more. I couldn’t quite pinpoint it, so I set out to evaluate and break down the ones that captivated me and reverse engineer what made them so good.

My research revealed some tips and tricks which I’d like to share with the design community.

Tip #1: Build off a Design Thinking Foundation

The Interaction Design Foundation defines Design Thinking as follows:

“Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems.”

By using Design Thinking, we concern ourselves primarily with solving problems from a human-centered perspective. No matter the complexity of the problem, when a UX designer employs Design Thinking principles, solutions can be found for just about any problem.

When you set out to write your case study, consider the elements of Design Thinking that contributed to the design.

Image Courtesy of the Interaction Design Foundation

*** However, don’t put constraints on your case study (or your product) by assuming the Design Thinking process must happen in a linear order or contain all the stages. ***

Were you involved in the entire process? Did other teams take on research or visual design? In most scenarios, you likely won’t complete the entire Design Thinking process in a linear fashion, where you do one step and sequentially move forward to the next one. And that is because…

Design is messy.

Have you ever watched a new home being built? In the beginning, it’s only dirt around the property, there are nails and pieces of scrap wood everywhere and all you start with is a foundation and framing. It looks like chaos.

A home in this condition isn’t suitable for a person to live in.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

How many experts contributed to the building of the home? Maybe dozens; maybe one person.

As the home comes together, it starts to take shape and the construction site cleans up. Plumbing and electrical weave their way through the building, walls come up, paint goes on, and the end product is awe-inspiring when you consider where it started.

The art of building a beautiful home, as we see them today, only got to where it is through iterating and experimenting. Architects and builders failed, tested and came up with a process to build an exceptional, long-standing home, that rests on a firm foundation.

What’s Your UX Process?

As you write, discuss the Design Thinking methodologies that went into building your product. Remember, it’s okay if it isn’t some perfect, linear flow.

Your case study will be balanced, have order, and provide the reader with a clear understanding as you walk them through your Design Thinking process.

  • Empathize: Talk about your assumptions, interviews and research; what steps did you take to understand and genuinely empathize with your users?
  • Define: How did you combine your research and compile your findings? How did you ultimately define your persona and articulate their challenges? Where does the real problem exist?
  • Ideate: Don’t be afraid to talk about all the fun, crazy, and “ah-ha!” ideas you had along the way; all ideas are worthy; how did you prioritize them? How did you explore new and creative ideas?
  • Prototype: What mockups did you build to learn from your ideas? How did you iterate on them? How did you represent your ideas in tangible form?
  • Test: Did you roleplay with anyone to test ideas? What worked? What didn’t? What steps did you take to go to your users and test your designs with them? How did you refine and improve?

Crafting your case study with a Design Thinking foundation will be a good start, but there’s much more to it.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Tip #2: Tell a Story

I’d like you to think for a moment about one of your favorite stories from your childhood.

Go ahead… pause for a second.

As a kid, my dad would tell us the story of Jack & the Beanstalk. He would tell it to us every night before bed. He knew the story so well that it wasn’t hard for him to recall the events, words, and plot. He had it all memorized and we gobbled up every word.

Jack & the Beanstalk — CC0 Creative Commons | Pixabay

Where he truly made an impact for us was in his storytelling ability. Because he knew the story, he could pour emotion into making it a memorable, fun experience for his kids. He did the voices of the characters with his own unique cadence, inflection, and tone. We loved it.

Have you thought about it? What is one of your favorite stories? Why?

Writing a good case study involves being able to write and tell a good story, but that can be a daunting task for most people.

To Tell a Story, Find Your Style

Taking this tip a bit further, consider the ingredients of a good story and find your own writing style. It takes practice — lots and lots of practice — so embrace it.

Write your case study answering these questions as you go:

  • Who is your audience?
  • What style & tone should you use?
  • What’s the theme?
  • What is the plot?
  • What was the setting?
  • Who were the characters?
  • What were the conflicts?
  • What were the resolutions?

To Tell a Story, Be Human

It only becomes more obvious that your case study is missing your personal style and tone when I meet you in person and realize the person in front of me doesn’t match the case study you wrote.

Photo by Rock’n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

You’re not a robot… at least not yet… so don’t write like one. If it’s appropriate, have some fun. If you need to get serious, do that too, but inject some human personality into your case study to make it feel genuine.

Tip # 3: Give it Structure

Even the most complex, well-told stories can be broken down into three, very simple parts. Don’t let the structure overwhelm you. At the core of every good case study lies the following basic structure:

  • The beginning
  • The process
  • The conclusion

You won’t always use every UX principle for every UX project, and that’s OK. But always write about the user, their pain points, and how you solved them.

Include Relevant Images

Include relevant pictures as appropriate. Show off your deliverables but don’t inundate the case study with imagery. It’s about process and outcomes, so the reader needs a good balance of both.

If a potential employer was to skim over your case study, would they understand what you built? If they took the time to read it, would they get lost in your long paragraphs?

Find ways to break up your case study with relevant images, but don’t overdo it.

Tip #4: Look for “I and We”

If you’re working in industry or going through a UX design school, it’s likely that you’re building products or solving design challenges in a group. These team settings are a great way to learn how to communicate, collaborate together, and learn to give & receive feedback.

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

All too often though, I read case studies that heavily use the term, “we”.

That’s great. Awesome. You did stuff as a team.

But… I also need to know what you did!

What was your role?

How did you contribute to the product and design process? What particular skills or traits did you bring to the design?

Do a quick “CTL+F” (windows) or “Command+F” (mac) in your browser and search your case study for, “we ” and “i ”. Find how many times you use each. Consider areas you can let the reader know what your specific contributions were to the product by saying “I” a whole lot more.

Tip #5: Give Credit Where It’s Due

If you display a logo in your case study but you didn’t design it, talk about that. If your team interviewed a group of people and you were just the notetaker, mention it.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Give credit where it’s due. It instils integrity into your character and helps build trust that what is said in writing is a true representation of your skill-set as a designer.

Tip #6: Check for Errors

Don’t ever send out a case study without first checking it for spelling and grammar. Get “their, there, and they’re” right. Don’t mess up on “your and you’re” and understand the difference between “effect and affect” before you put it in writing.

Online tools like the Hemingway App and browser extensions like Grammarly can help tremendously. Google Docs and Microsoft Word have built-in spellcheckers too, so use them often.

Whatever your tool of choice, check for errors before letting your case study out into the wild.

Then have someone proofread it.

Tip #7: Finish Strong

Conclude your case study by reflecting on the lessons you learned during the design process. The reader made it this far, so what else are you trying to accomplish at this point?

What would you have done differently if given more time on the product?

Do you want them to contact you? Clap? Cheer? You decide how you’re going to finish, but finish strong.

Photo by Victoire Joncheray on Unsplash

Tip #8: Read it Aloud

If all seven tips prior to this fail for you, give this one a shot. Grab a device, like your phone, laptop, or a microphone and record yourself reading your case study out loud. Try it. Seriously.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Play it back and listen to yourself.

You’ll likely find that what you wrote is never how you would say it in person. Ask yourself if what you hear on the recording sounds like you — not just your voice, but the real you.

Reading it aloud and recording yourself will also help when it comes time to interview for your next job. You will have already rehearsed your case study. You’ll feel more comfortable telling the story and be able to deliver it powerfully in an interview setting.

Tip #9: Take Advice from the Pros

Many prominent UX professionals have given their advice on this subject. Jared Spool, one of my favorites, was recently interviewed on the uxfolio blog regarding portfolios and landing design jobs.

In the article, Jared articulates that when he looks to recruit UX candidates, the work starts well before the portfolio is in front of him.

Jared Spool | @jmspool

Here are a few tips I gleaned from his interview:

Jared’s Tip #1: The Portfolio Needs to Match the Job Description

Make sure your portfolio matches the job description to which you’re applying. You may very well have an amazing one, but if it doesn’t match the employer's needs, you could be looked over.

Jared’s Tip #2: Your Portfolio is Only Partial Evidence

Jared explains that portfolios are a way for him to collect evidence about you. But, it’s only partial evidence. Can you do the job that you wrote about? Can you tell the story of the work you did in person?

Jared’s Tip #3: A Portfolio Should Answer these Questions

  • What were the outcomes?
  • What was produced?
  • How did it help the business?
  • Can you give a sense of time and depth?

Jared’s Tip #4: Talk About the Learning

Be careful to not only show finished screens, mockups and final deliverables but to describe and showcase how much you learned and how you learned to do the work.

What’s your learning style? How do you stay on top of trends and UX methodologies? How will a potential employer know that you’ll be able to learn how to do the job they need you to do?

Tip #10: Start Now!

Document everything. When you begin a project, take pictures of whiteboards and sketches, keep notes, and continually record your progress along the way. Don’t wait until the project is done to start writing. You’ll forget about key elements and miss highlights about the project if you wait.

Happy writing! Would love your feedback on this article, along with your own tips and tricks to writing a good case study.

Mike W. Curtis

Portfolio for Mike W. Curtis: Utah-Based UX Designer - For nearly two decades, I've been happily working with people in my career to help them solve their problems. My background in marketing, sales, e-commerce and UX has taught me to make informed & empathetic design decisions.

Mike Curtis

Written by

Dad, husband, UX designer, teacher, and mentor. https://medium.com/mikewcurtis

Mike W. Curtis

Portfolio for Mike W. Curtis: Utah-Based UX Designer - For nearly two decades, I've been happily working with people in my career to help them solve their problems. My background in marketing, sales, e-commerce and UX has taught me to make informed & empathetic design decisions.

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