How to Create Effective UX Case Studies with Aristotle’s 7 Elements of Storytelling

by Teo Yu Siang | | 16 min read

So, you want to create case studies for your UX design portfolio. But what kinds of UX case studies should you write? And how do you make them targeted and strong? After all, irrelevant and weak case studies are one of the most common mistakes in UX design portfolios, according to the prototyping tool UXPin. Thankfully, you can use the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s 7 elements of storytelling to craft relevant and compelling UX case studies. Let’s find out how.

In 335 BCE, Aristotle wrote Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory. In it, he laid out 7 elements of storytelling, which he ranked in order of importance:

  1. Plot,

  2. Character,

  3. Theme,

  4. Diction,

  5. Melody,

  6. Décor and

  7. Spectacle.

You should go through these 7 elements before you create your UX case studies. This way, you can define exactly what you want to say. You’ll therefore sharpen the focus of your UX case studies and make your message crystal clear to recruiters who read it.

Let’s go through how each of Aristotle’s 7 elements relates to your UX case studies. For each element, we’ll give you questions you should answer before you write your case studies.

1. Plot: The Story Your UX Case Studies and Portfolio Tell

Aristotle regarded plot as the most important element, and for good reason. Plot is what happens in a drama—for instance, a tragic plot tells the story of a hero’s downfall. A bad plot can spoil an otherwise good drama—and the same is true of UX case studies.

Your UX case studies, and by extension your portfolio, should tell a relevant and compelling plot about yourself. For instance, you can tell the plot of a “self-made UX designer who is passionate about accessibility”. Think about the plot you want to tell through your UX case studies.

You should also tell the same plot throughout all of your UX case studies. This way, your portfolio sends a cohesive message. For example, if you want to become a UX researcher, all your case studies should contain UX research work. Otherwise, you’ll send mixed signals to a recruiter, who will not be able to gauge whether you can perform well in the role you’ve applied for.

Make sure your UX case studies tell a cohesive plot about you as a designer.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Tell the Right Plot: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What plot do you want to tell? What’s your story—from a career perspective?

  • Do your UX case studies tell the same story about yourself, or do they contradict one another? If they contradict one another, then angle them so they don’t or delete the case studies which send mixed signals.

  • Which past projects should you choose to tell the plot you want your recruiters to see?

2. Character: Your Role and How You Work with Others

In a drama, the main character serves the plot with the help of supporting characters. The main character, according to Aristotle, should be good, appropriate and consistent.

In your case study, you are the main character. Like Aristotle’s main character, you should appear in your UX case studies to be:

  • Good: That is, you should showcase your craft in design.

  • Appropriate: You should display a level of expertise that makes sense. For instance, you cannot claim to have led a team of designers when you’re a junior UX designer.

  • Consistent: You should play a consistent design role throughout all UX case studies.

Character is also about how you work with your team-mates. It’s because you’re not the only character in your story. You work with peers, managers and other stakeholders. Show how you work well with others.

Communicate your skills, expertise, design role and ability to work in a team in your UX case studies.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Write the Right Characters: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What role do you play in the design process? In other words, are you a UX generalist who covers the entire design process, or a specialist such as a UI designer?

  • Do you play the same role in all your UX case studies? If not, which case studies can you tweak or remove so that you play a consistent role?

  • How does your “character” interact and work with other “characters”? Is there conflict or harmony?

  • Who else should you include in your case study? Who are the important co-contributors (or even leaders) you should acknowledge?

3. Theme: The Context of Your Project

Theme refers to the setting or context in a Greek drama. Just like in a drama, you have to set the scene in your UX case studies.

Provide readers with your project’s context: your main goals, the obstacles you faced and your motivations that explain why you took on the project. You’ll help your readers understand your project better and create a compelling purpose around your case study.

Explain your goals, obstacles and motivations to set the context of your UX case studies.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Set the Right Theme: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What’s your main goal in the project?

  • What are your main obstacles that you had to overcome?

  • Why did you take on the project? Why are you proud of it?

  • Remember to set the stage early—lay out your theme in the beginning of your UX case studies.

4. Diction: Your Tone of Voice

To Aristotle, diction (or dialogue) was the way the characters speak to each other. Audiences can tell a lot about a character from that person’s tone of voice. Good communicators are characters who get their points across with the right words—and don’t hide behind them or try to outsmart their audience because they love the sound of their own voices.

In the same way, your diction or writing style influences your UX case studies’ reading experience. Master how to write effectively. Use plain English, avoid technical terms and choose a friendly but professional tone of voice to help recruiters appreciate your UX case studies.

Use plain English in your case study to provide a pleasant reading experience.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Use the Right Diction: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • What is your tone of voice, and is it appropriate for a case study?

  • Can you avoid technical terms? If you need to include them in your case study, can you explain them?

  • Have you learnt how to write in plain English?

  • Which parts of your case study can you convert into bulleted or numbered lists?

  • Remember to triple-check your case study for spelling and grammatical errors (tip: read it aloud)!

5. Melody: Rouse the Emotions of Your Reader

Actors often perform musical choruses in a Greek play. These choruses—or the melody—reflect the average person’s emotional response to the characters’ actions.

In your UX case studies, melody relates to how you stir up the emotions of the reader. Your case study is not a factual report, but a story to get a recruiter interested enough to meet you.

Don’t be afraid to let your emotions shine through in your UX case studies. Show your passion. Melody can reinforce your case studies’ theme—your project goals and obstacles should be charged with emotion, just like in real life. Remember to keep it appropriate and professional, though. There’s a fine line between maximizing the dramatic potential in your story and blustering like someone who sounds too over the top to work with.

Spend a little time to make sure your case studies tell your emotional journey, too.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Sing the Right Melody: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • How do you show not only your technical expertise but also your passion in design?

  • Can you insert a hook to your UX case studies to draw the reader in?

  • Remember to show your emotional journey throughout your projects, too.

6. Décor: The Look and Feel of Your UX Case Studies

In plays, décor refers to stage design. In your UX case studies, it refers to the visual design.

Your portfolio is a designed product, so it should look and feel good. Use images of your works in progress to tell your story. Make sure your portfolio has readable text. Your portfolio should be usable, effective and pleasant.

Your recruiters expect your portfolio to look polished and professional.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Apply the Right Décor: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Did you remember to take lots of photos and screenshots of your works in progress, so you can use them in your UX case studies? If not, perhaps you can easily reconstruct some of the processes. In future, remember to take photos and screenshots of your work processes.

  • Do your projects contain sensitive information? If so, you should get clearance to use them in your UX case studies. You can also show only non-sensitive parts of your project.

  • How can you make your UX case studies and portfolio look consistent with your own visual style?

7. Spectacle: The Wow Factor

To Aristotle, the spectacle of a drama was least important. A story’s talking point, wow factor or plot twist will let audiences remember it, but it alone will not make a good play.

Incorporate spectacle into your UX case studies if possible, but never do this at the expense of the six other elements of your story. You can create a spectacle through an unexpected user insight, a massively successful outcome or a thoughtful lesson learnt.

It’s great if you can wow your recruiter, but don’t try to do it at the expense of your overall story.

© Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Create the Right Spectacle: Checklist of Questions to Ask Yourself

  • Does your project contain any unexpected “plot twists” that forced you to change direction? You could use this to create a sense of spectacle.

  • Did you achieve an impressive result? If you won an award, achieved commercial success or generated great reviews, highlight it in your case study.

  • Did your project end in a relative failure or lukewarm response? If so, turn it into a learning point. Earnest reflection can be a spectacle, too.

  • Do your elements of spectacle interfere with your story? For instance, will you withhold key information just to deliver a “plot twist”? If so, remove the spectacle to deliver your story well.

Plan Your Case Study Well to Maximize its Impact

Now it’s your turn to answer the questions we’ve posted for each element. Failing to plan is planning to fail! Spend time to plan your UX case studies to save time (and career opportunities!) in the future. And remember, please make sure your UX case study is short and sweet, since recruiters will usually spend no more than 5 minutes reading it.

To help you, we’ve created a template you can download, which contains the 7 elements of a case study as well as the key questions you should answer.

Get your free template for “Create a Compelling UX Case Study with Aristotle’s 7 Elements of Storytelling”
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The Take Away

Your UX case studies need to tell stories that are targeted and that send the right message. To achieve this, make sure you cover all 7 of Aristotle’s elements of storytelling.

Each of your UX case studies should contain (in order of importance):

  1. A compelling plot that is consistent throughout all UX case studies;

  2. A good, appropriate and consistent main character (i.e., you), as well as supporting characters;

  3. A theme which sets the context of your project and propels you forward;

  4. Pleasant, friendly and professional diction;

  5. An emotional and/or passionate melody;

  6. Effective and attractive décor such as images; and

  7. A spectacle that makes your story memorable.

References and Where to Learn More

Jerry Cao from UXPin shares the most common mistakes in UX design portfolios here.

Aristotle’s 7 elements of storytelling came from his treatise Poetics, which you can read in full.

If you struggle to decide whether to be a generalist or specialist designer, our article can help you.

Hero image: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

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