When you tell a great story through your UX case study, you’ll let hirers imagine what it’s like to work with you, give your case study a satisfying order and engage your hirers. These will increase your chances of getting that first interview. Here, we’ll show you how to use the German playwright Freytag’s 5-part dramatic structure to make your UX case study compelling.
In 1863, Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, observed that dramas contain a 5-part arc. He split a drama’s structure into 5 parts, now known as “Freytag’s pyramid”:
- Exposition: Where you introduce key information and set the stage for the plot.
- Rising action: A series of events that lead towards the climax.
- Climax: The apex of the plot with the height of emotions and excitement in the story.
- Falling action: Where you begin to round up the story. Everything falls into place, and characters start to resolve conflicts.
- Resolution: Where you reveal the final outcome. If you do it right, the resolution will satisfy audiences. This part is also called “dénouement”.
Freytag’s pyramid illustrates the 5 parts of a story’s arc. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
This structure is perfect for UX case studies. You’ll give your project a clear introduction, build up to an exciting climax and reveal the final product and outcomes. This way, you’ll make your UX case studies as engaging as a drama.
Let’s look at how you can apply Freytag’s 5-part dramatic structure to your UX case studies. If you go through this exercise, you’ll end up with an outline of your UX case study which you can then flesh out into the full case study. You can then flesh out your outline into a succinct case study that takes no more than 5 minutes to read.
Read till the end to get a PDF which contains the 5 parts your UX case studies should contain!
1. Set up the Context in Your “Exposition”
First, ease your readers into your project in the exposition. Quickly explain your project and your role in it.
Explain your goal: the main problem you wanted to tackle through design. For example, you might have wanted to “create an app that encourages people to exercise”.
Show what motivated you to take on the project. Perhaps you wanted to create the exercise app because you’re not as healthy as you once were (i.e., you have a personal motivation). If your goal is well-written, it should already contain your motivation. Even if you didn’t have a choice—for instance, if it’s part of your work in a company—you still need to show why the client wanted to create the app and why you cared enough to put it into your UX design portfolio.
Describe your role in the project. Introduce the key people you worked with. This helps hirers know what you did (and didn’t do) so they can better evaluate your skills. It also highlights your team spirit and willingness to give others credit where they deserve it.
Set up your context in the first part of your UX case study. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
2. Explain Your Strategies that Contribute to Your “Rising Action”
Shift your story into action mode in the rising action phase and lead your readers towards the climax.
Outline some of the challenges you faced. These will provide some conflict and make your story interesting. For instance, you could have had a tight budget or timeline to work with.
Explain your design process. If, for example, you used the 5 phases of design thinking—empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test—then briefly explain what you did in each one. Make sure it’s clear what steps you took to reach the final product, as well as why you took them.
Bring your reader through the beginning stages of your design process. In an end-to-end design project, that would usually involve user research. Include some photos, sketches or screenshots of the deliverables you created (e.g., personas, user journey maps).
You should explain your design strategies that lead to the climax in the rising action part of your UX case study. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
3. Let Your “Climax” Shine
This is the “meat” of your UX case study. The rising action phase should lead into 1 or 2 key moments that form the shining climax of your story.
Highlight something about your project that will intrigue your hirer. This serves as the apex of your story, something the hirer will remember afterwards. It could be:
- A tough decision that you / your team had to make;
- An unexpected user insight you uncovered through user research—one that forced you to change the direction of the project;
- A sudden or time-sensitive challenge that you then solved;
- A novel idea or solution to the problem; etc.
Share only the most important bits of your project. Since you need to keep your UX case studies short, you can’t show everything. Therefore, think about what pieces of your plot you need to tell to create a meaningful and impactful story. Every piece needs to drive your story forward, just like in a book or a movie.
Similarly, you should show only key UX deliverables in your UX case studies, rather than all of them. Include diagrams, photos, sketches and notes as long as they help tell your story.
Share intriguing parts of your UX case study in its climax. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
4. Make Your Story Fall into Place in “Falling Action”
By now, your story is about to reach its final conclusion. Your user insights, decisions and ideas should come together to inform the final iterations of your product.
Show how you’ve converted sketches or ideas into wireframes or high-fidelity prototypes. Bring your reader through your user tests and summarize the key feedback you gathered from users. And, of course, show your photos, screenshots or sketches of UX deliverables whenever appropriate.
Wrap up your story and lead towards the resolution in the falling action part of your UX case study. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
5. End with a Thoughtful “Resolution”
Showcase your end results in your conclusion. For an end-to-end design process, this will be your final prototype or product. If you’re a specialist such as a UX researcher, this could be the final report of your research findings. Try to show your end results—for instance, in the form of screenshots of your final app.
Explain how your work has achieved its goal. Link it back to the main problems you’ve outlined in your exposition to give readers a sense of completion.
Include specific business outcomes if possible. Remember, hirers and companies care about the value you provide—so, use business- and revenue-oriented outcomes as much as possible. For instance, if you’ve created an app, how many people have downloaded it and how have they rated it on the app stores? If you’ve improved the usability of a site, has its conversion rate increased?
Finally, include your personal take-away points. Your story is an emotional one, too! Your reflection can include:
- How did you feel about your end product?
- What have you learnt?
- If your project was not as successful as you expected, what were the possible reasons?
- Are there any follow-up actions you’d take, given that design is an iterative process?
Leave a lasting impression when you end your UX case studies with thoughtful reflections. Author / Copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.
You might think that a great UX case study has to end with amazing results, but that’s not true. For one, a great result today might not look so great a few years later—for instance, your design might look outdated because design trends have changed. Furthermore, what’s more important to a recruiter is how you’ve overcome constraints and challenges to produce your results. So, while it’s great if you have incredible results to showcase in your UX case study, don’t be afraid to present your project even if it didn’t achieve success the way you’d hoped. More than anything else, it’s your mind they want to evaluate.
Download Our Freytag Template to Get Started Now
Want a cheatsheet to use Freytag’s 5-part arc on your UX case studies? Well, you’re in luck because we’ve created just that. Download it now:
The Take Away
If you want your UX case studies to be engaging, tell stories. Use Freytag’s 5-part dramatic structure to craft compelling and powerful UX case studies:
- Introduce your project, your role and your goals in the exposition.
- Explain your design process and challenges that led to rising action.
- Highlight key points of interest in your climax as you go through your design process.
- Show how your work, insights and ideas fell into place through falling action.
- End with a meaningful and thoughtful resolution, and highlight business-centric outcomes if possible.
References and Where to Learn More
Freytag’s 5-part dramatic structure was first published in 1863 in German in his book Die Technik des Dramas (“Technique of the Drama”).
Hero image: Author / Copyright holder: David Kennedy. Edited by Teo Yu Siang. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.