Writing more effective case studies
A few tactics to make sure your case studies are actionable and clear.
by Darian Rosebrook
December 26, 2016
Writing case studies is a difficult task for many designers. One of the last things we want to do after having spent weeks on a design is to write a document about it. You could argue that just putting a paragraph of what it was on your site would work. Maybe just forgo the writing and put this on your Dribbble or Behance account and let the like button do it’s magic.
Better than that, you should explain your process and how you came to the final result. Though it feels like a secret, there’s one skill that truly helps a designer outshine their peers. That skill is their ability to recognize and address the opportunity around an existing problem and how to solve for it.
A designer must trust in the design process to do the heavy lifting regarding how design decisions are handled throughout this project. It’s not rocket science because even a basic process will elevate and automate your projects allowing for a more efficient solution. The person that is going to view your case study isn’t only there for how awesome your design may be, they want to know what worked, how you came to your solution, and whether you have the skills to come up with a solution for them.
This is a trick question, you should be documenting as you go. So, of course it all starts with writing. Throughout your design process, you have certain stages, and they usually fall under a few sections:
Meeting the client;
Starting the Research;
Sketching and Iterating;
Prototyping and Conceptualizing;
Starting to document throughout this process is a crucial thing to writing clear and effective case studies. This is information you can distill and hand to the client AND refine for presentation on the web as your case study.
Like a good recipe, a case study is filled with many different sections. It needs to be digestible and appealing to the new and prospective clients. If you are going to show work, it should be a great representation of what you can do and how you can help someone achieve similar results.
A case study is best served with:
Background on the project and client
The scope of the project and your role in it
A defined challenge or opportunity to improve
Clearly define what the outcome was
Clear examples of pre-work and finished work
Numbers drive a lot of trust as well. A client wants to be able to trust that your work can satisfy their goals. It speaks to the level of quality that your work produces and it satiates the hungry-for-ever-improving-metrics monster that lives inside most entrepreneurs and large businesses.
Writing needs to be part of your workflow. It doesn’t have to start as large articles every morning, but what would make writing easier is to start with small snippets. Grab yourself a cheap notebook to write in that when you start your work for the day, it will be nearby. When a decision comes along, jot down specifically why you are changing, creating, or keeping a part of the project. The notes can be a bulleted list:
Changed the size of our header to reduce vertical space on tablets
Switched our alternate color from #f2f2f2 to #4cd653 because I’m a slime-green loving masochist and that color better fits the brand’s goal of being more edgy and fun
Worked on replacing the headings font from rounded slab-serif to a thin sans-serif, but kept it due to conflicting visual patterns.
Your notes do not have to be paragraphs in length, but even if you only document the biggest decisions like this, you’ll have a large list of decisions to reference when presenting the result to the client.
This is, without a doubt, my cruddy handwriting.
After each stage of your design process, you should put time into writing a short summary of the phase and the decisions made throughout. Questions like: “What went well during this phase?”; “What could be improved upon when going through this phase next time?”; “What major decisions have started to shape the solution?”; and “What challenges did you overcome during this phase?”; can all affect how effective your message is when presenting the case study.
A client’s trust is the reason that you will get that call or email about starting new projects. Showing the client what went well and what challenges had to be overcome are real ways of earning that trust before the brief. If you’re planning to entice clients, too much rough stuff without a clear outcome of overcoming might not be best. But lying about how you achieved a certain area against what actually happened won’t put you in a good position with the client that you worked with.
If there are areas where you did an iteration that wasn’t working, be upfront about it and explain why you went in a different direction. If there was a tool or process that wasn’t working, put how you overcame that in writing. A lot of designers look for great case studies to learn from and yours might just help them avoid that same mistake. Showing this whole process is great for when your goal is to get hired or work with other designers and agencies.
Speak about what you loved most about the work and the parts that went well.
Your client is also on the ride with you. You are taking them along to reach the solution that was outlined during the goals and opportunities phase of your process. After the project, it is entirely fair to ask the client about their experience working with you, how designing their project went, and what the end results were. If everything goes through without major issues, a client probably is not looking to tarnish or damage your reputation. The result should be pushing the client towards their goals and achieving them after the work is finished. Ask the client to provide a few sentences to a paragraph of how their experience was when working with you, and if they are willing, what the results of the project were. These results can be in the form of revenue from the redesign, follower growth, decreasing amount of complaints, and satisfaction and decrease in bounce rates.
Outline the best in your case study.
If you have the habit of writing in place when working on projects, you should be able to grow your practice and attract higher quality clients who are looking for the results that you provide. Writing case studies is not an easy task, but with practice and iteration, your case studies will become just as natural as creating the best solutions for your clients.
I want to thank the people contributing to this article:
Justin Jackson who hosts Product People and Megamaker, Pavel Ispravnikov a communications designer, Eric Hoekendorf who co-founded foyyay, and others who subscribed to the newsletter to get early access and editing rights..
June 27, 2018
by Darian Rosebrook
We have to make decisions for every element we design, and based on how much of the color in our design is built from having a set process, we may be making these decisions repeatedly and to no end.
October 05, 2018
by Darian Rosebrook
As a piece of your arsenal, your portfolio is a tool to use in your marketing game as a designer . You’ve got to make sure that what you put in your portfolio is purposeful and relevant to what you want to get out of using it. And if you’re not going through and auditing your own work, you may be missing opportunities to make your presence online as effective as it can be.
June 22, 2018
by Darian Rosebrook
One thing I am passionate about is quality design feedback. I’ll mention in a future post that it’s sometimes best to get other eyes on your projects, but having objective, quality design feedback is something that a designer needs to be able to move forward with their design skills.