Writing More Effective Case Studies in 2017

22 December 2016 | Productivity

Darian Rosebrook

7 min read

Writing case studies is a difficult task for many beginners. Some people claim that a case study doesn’t have to contain a lot of info and that you only need to show what you did, add a paragraph and call it good. Some people say you don’t even need to write case studies for everything, that you should use a dribbble.com account, or a Behance account and post you work there. While those are great ways to market your visual design or animation design skills, the most important skill of all is hidden behind the visuals.

What problem are you trying to solve using design?

There is a secret behind all great designers and designers that continue to thrive based on their work. It’s their ability to recognize and address the underlying problem of a project as well as the overlaying goals before they start to design and make decisions. 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 surgery because even a basic process will elevate and automate your projects allowing for a more efficient solution. My process is rudimentary at best, but during the next year, I will be fine-tuning how I handle the valuable information about the project to better serve my clients and employer.

Where in the process do you write the case study?

This is a trick question, you should be documenting as you go. Throughout your design process, you have certain stages, and they usually fall under a few sections: Meeting the client; Discovering Goals; Starting the Research; Sketching and Iterating; Prototyping and Conceptualizing; Presentation; and Delivery. 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.

What are the ingredients of a good 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, as well as full of great bites of informative explanations. A case study is best served with:

  1. Background on the project and client
  2. The scope of the project and your role in it
  3. A defined challenge or opportunity to improve
  4. Clearly define what the outcome was
  5. 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.

Automate your writing process

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.

Be honest

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. 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.

Don’t forget to ask for the results and a testimonial.

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.

I think giving some credit to those who contribute is a great opportunity as well.

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