Case study writing

A tidy box full of memories

Every significant project you work on will have details that are scrubbed away by time — unless you take a moment to document them.

Updated November 27, 2019

Every interview, meetup discussion, and view of your portfolio is an opportunity to showcase what you've learned and how you've grown. How you talk about your work will likely shift over time, which is why documentation each project is vital.

The case study often is labeled as a long-winded exercise that few people will ever read in its entirety. I agree, but I would argue that no one should read the entire case study that you are about to write.

This exercise is really for your benefit alone.

A case study is the detailed script that will act as an external hard drive of information that, once recorded, never slips away. It will be the backbone of the presentation you give in interviews. You'll edit a version of it for your portfolio. It won't be uncommon to reference your case study to prepare for impromptu conversations that happen at conferences or other social events where designers gather.

As you can see, it's entirely plausible that no one will read your entire case study, because your complete case study is for your reference only.

So rather than worry about where your case study will appear, as those are presentational considerations, let's focus on what should be in this UX case study.

Anatomy of a case study

While working on a UX project, you utilized several methods of research and discovery that powered your decision making. You also likely ran into some dead ends and learned a lot along the way. It's important to document all of it in your case study.

Your initial draft will feel quite long. Just remember that the goal at this stage is documentation. You can and will edit this source material into many different forms later.

The style

Most case studies are long, to the point that it's easy to find commentary online that questions the need for them at all. That said, while some case studies are far too long for the content they contain, others appear to breeze by because of how the information is structured.

While the majority of your case study will be in chronological order, you'll leverage lessons from journalism to ensure maximum reader impact.

Read any publication, and you are likely to find stories that deliver information using the inverted pyramid.

The inverted pyramid is a style of storytelling that frontloads a story with critical information before becoming more granular in detail. The format is a staple of journalism, where stories compete for the attention of a reader. The goal of the inverted pyramid is to deliver essential information to the reader as quickly as possible. If a reader leaves early, they still get value out of the time they invested.

Inverted-Pyramid-Example Source: newpragmatic.com

Your first case study will be a draft intended for editing into different forms later. Still, it's essential to begin organizing your thoughts in a manner that highlights your work, so people get the information they are seeking quickly.

The structure

Seasoned writers can easily apply the inverted pyramid style to their writing without following a strict format, aside from mentioning the most important details first. Unfortunately, most new designers are not seasoned writers, so following a specific structure will help you surface vital project information.

Case studies should contain an overview section that documents the following features:

  • Convey what the product or service does (one-to-two sentences)
  • Identify the main problems
  • Outline the final solution
  • The role you played on the team (and who was on the team)
  • The design artifacts that you produced

This list is specific to a UX-focused project. If you have visual or frontend elements to your work, there could be other items added here (final designs, working prototypes).

Overview-process Source: newpragmatic.com

The process section of your case study will provide insight into how you tackle problems and bounce back from issues that occurred during the project. Your process section will likely include, but is not limited to, the following:

  • How you researched the project
  • Target user information
  • Initial prototypes
  • Analysis of testing
  • Detail of personal growth throughout the project

With each step in your process, include links to the artifacts you produced. You may or may not choose to display these as visual elements in your case study later. However, accounting for the artifacts will ensure that you will have the ability to make that decision then — which is impossible if you can't locate your work.

Editing

The editing process at this stage should be very high level. The main goal is to document the process without trimming too much away as the final usage of this information will be determined later. Rather than worry about length, focus all attention on clarity and the elimination of errors.

Grammarly and Hemingwayare two fantastic editors that will help you elevate your writing while also catching pesky errors. Each tool has a desktop and online version, which is excellent for reading over the full case study on the way to a meetup or interview.

I also prefer to write and keep my case study in a dedicated writing app like those described above. Tools like Google Docs and Dropbox Paper can be overcrowded, leaving apps like Grammarly and Hemingway as the refuge that my writing seeks.

Deployment

Making your work available for others to consume is an important task — especially when looking for a job. This version of your case study isn't meant for a broader audience — yet. With further editing, this work will find a home in your portfolio, but you'll still need a portfolio for the refined case study to live in.

If you have a portfolio, that's great! Detour over to case study writing for portfolios, where I talk about writing for a specific audience.

For everyone else, you can still post your case study and begin generating feedback from industry peers by simply posting it to Medium. When you deploy your work to Medium, you jettison the need to determine a style, brand, etc. You post the work and share it with others for feedback.

When you begin to post your work, you will discover holes in the presentation. These will undoubtedly be visual, but as you haven't tackled the visual aspects of the course, yet this is to be expected.

Final note, when you post your work, be sure to make your edits away from the original case study you constructed. The original is your source material that other versions will sprout from, so you don't want to tailor it to a specific platform.

Exercise

Length: Four-to-six hours to complete

As described above, there is a specific style and structure that your case study should adhere to. While this case study is less about brevity and more about the documentation of the work performed, it should also be error-free.

Your case study should provide an overview of your work on this project while also detailing the steps you took along the way. Links to the artifacts created should be included, as well.

Once you have completed an edit of your work, upload your case study to Medium and update your Program Journal with a link to the published case study.

Post a link to your Journal in the #Feedback-Loop channel for review.

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