How to Write Great Case Studies for Your UX Design Portfolio

How to Write Great Case Studies for Your UX Design Portfolio

by Yu Siang Teo | | 8 min read
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Well, the answer is really simple: write your UX case studies like stories. You see, when you present your case study as a story, you’ll find it far easier to give it a satisfying structure and captivate your reader. What’s more, you’ll make it easy for recruiters to imagine what it’s like to work with you, as they get to understand how you work. This makes your case study powerful and increases your chances of getting your first interview. Let’s take a closer look at what makes story-based case studies so impactful.

Since your case studies first and foremost serve to help you get an interview in your job application, they should answer the following questions (grouped into three categories, based on you as a person, your skill set and the way you do things):

  1. Who are you? What drives you and what’s your background?
  2. What UX skills do you possess?
  3. How do you approach and solve a problem? How do you work with others?

As it turns out, when you tell a narrative through your case studies, you answer these questions effectively. Here are the 3 main reasons why you should write your UX case studies like stories and how this helps you stand out from other applicants.

Because Stories Allow Recruiters to Imagine What it’s Like to Work with You

“Narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining.”

—Mark Turner, cognitive scientist and author

When a recruiter reads your case study, they want to find out if you’ll be a great addition to their team. They want to know not only if you have the right skills and attitude, but also whether they’d enjoy working with you.

When you tell a story, you make it intuitive for a recruiter to imagine what it’s like to work with you. That’s because we use stories to learn and imagine all the time—in fact, people have since the dawn of human history. Therefore, recruiters will find it easier to look into the future and predict if they’d like to work with you when they read a story-based case study. They’ll find it easier to understand who you are and how you solve a problem.

Since the dawn of human history, we have used stories to imagine and learn about our world. Help recruiters understand you by telling a story about your design process. Author / copyright holder: Mike Erskine. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.

This sentiment is echoed by Sarah Bellrichard, Senior Vice President of Wholesale Internet Solutions & UX at the American bank Wells Fargo. She shared her tip on case studies and interviews:

“My tip would be, tell stories. When designers present a flat portfolio it doesn’t tell me about how they approach the work they do and how they deal with the ebbs and flows of design. Tell me how you navigate from start to end of a project.”

—Sarah Bellrichard, SVP of Wholesale Internet Solutions & UX, Wells Fargo

Because Stories Give Your Case Studies Structure

“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”

—Jean Luc Godard, French-Swiss film director

If you’ve worked on a design project before, then you’re painfully aware of just how messy life can be. Deadlines change, project goals shift, and new findings can fundamentally alter design specifications.

Stories will give your past experiences form and make your case studies better organized. You can re-arrange your experience into a meaningful sequence of events—i.e., progress—towards your results. Otherwise, your case study will likely seem chaotic.

The arc of a story—introduction, middle, conclusion—is the perfect order to tell your messy progress towards a project’s final results. Let’s illustrate:

  • In the introduction:
    • You set up the context of your project, for instance through a design brief.
    • You introduce your team’s main goals and some of the main obstacles you faced
    • In a classic story, this is where we meet the heroes and learn about the venture/goal they’re reaching for and why they’re not satisfied with their current lives.
  • In the middle:
    • You illustrate your approach to solving the problem.
    • You bring your reader through your journey of how you used industry standard practices to tackle the problem. It’s important that you describe what you did and what your team members did, so the recruiter knows what skills and knowledge you possess.
    • In a classic story, this is where we follow our heroes struggling to conquer the beasts, villains and problems as they strive to reach their goals.
  • Finally, in the conclusion:
    • You showcase the final product and the results you and your team achieved.
    • You reflect upon what you’ve learnt and recount any follow-up tweaks you’ve made to the product.
    • In a classic story, this is where the heroes reach their goals―they experience personal growth, reap the rewards of their hard work and live happily ever after.

See how nicely it all fits into a story arc?

When you arrange your case study in a story arc, your journey becomes more ordered and meaningful. Author / copyright holder: Teo Yu Siang and the Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

There’s more! You’ll also find it easier to write your case study when you arrange it like a story. You see, the introduction-middle-conclusion structure of a story forms a skeleton for you to fill in the “meat” of your journey. On top of that, recruiters who read your case study will also find the familiar arc of a story satisfying. Talk about a win-win situation!

Because Stories Captivate

“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”

—Native American proverb

Okay, your case study will most likely not live in your recruiter’s heart forever, but your story-based case study will definitely stand out from other purely fact-based case studies, as your story will engage and captivate your recruiter. You see, a narrative is more engaging and provides a better reading experience than a dry, factual account ever could. It naturally makes the reader feel involved in the story and weaves a common thread throughout the case study.

UX recruiters are incredibly busy. They’ll typically spend only 5 minutes scanning your case studies because they have so many applicants to process. Given that, you have a much better chance if you can capture your reader’s attention for the whole 5 minutes.

And there’s no better way to captivate someone than through a story.

Let’s demonstrate that in an ultra-brief case study―yours should be more detailed and in-depth. Below, you’ll find the same journey told in two ways: first in a factual manner, then in a narrative fashion. See which version you find more engaging.

Factual: User interviews were conducted with 12 people to evaluate the effectiveness of the prototype. The main finding was that the assumption that users shopped based on their weekly nutritional needs was invalid. This finding was used to create a new iteration of the product, which was tested and found to be 50% more successful than the previous version.

Narrative: We conducted interviews with 12 people to evaluate if our prototype was effective. Our finding threw a giant spanner in the works. We realized our assumption—that users shopped based on their weekly nutritional needs—was dead wrong. Undefeated, we scrambled to create a new iteration, and ran another round of tests. This time, it worked—the success rate shot up by a whopping 50%!

You probably find the narrative version way more interesting—and so will your recruiters.

Notice in the factual version how flat and lifeless the account is? Sure, the figures are there, but it looks as if you’re reporting on what someone else did. This tells a recruiter that you’re distant and non-engaged—that you didn’t take ownership in what you’re talking about.

So, embrace the liberating and captivating format of a story. Go ahead and describe how your finding proved you dead wrong and how you scrambled upon meeting a temporary setback.

Best practice:

  • Convey your emotions and write in an active, engaging tone of voice.
  • Include the team’s frustrations, problems you faced and new insights you learnt.
  • Include people: write “we”, “I” and “our team”.

This way, you’ll give your case studies flavor. Furthermore, you’ll reveal who you are and how you work―and your recruiters will come back for more.

Stories naturally captivate us—use that power to captivate your recruiters, too. Author / copyright holder: Prasanna Kumar. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.

Turn Your Case Studies into Stories

Of course, we’re not saying that you should write a novel to explain what happened in your project. Your case studies should still be short and sweet, but they also should be punchy and engaging.

In fact, when we sat down with Stephen Gay, Design Lead at Google’s AdWords, to ask him about the importance of a portfolio, he explained that he sees UX case studies as stories about the applicants.

To a recruiter like Stephen Gay, case studies are stories that tell him about the applicants. Author / copyright holder: The Interaction Design Foundation. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

As Stephen astutely pointed out, we UX designers regularly use the power of stories in our work. So, use this same storytelling approach in your case studies, too!

The Take Away

The best way to write a case study is to tell it like a story. This way, your case studies become a vessel through which recruiters can imagine a future working with you, since they get to experience and understand exactly how you solve a design problem. Your recruiters will also enjoy the familiarity and structure of a story arc, and they’ll find the reading experience much more engaging. So, go ahead—inject humanity, color and passion into your case studies. Be a storyteller.

References and Where to Learn More

You can find Sarah Bellrichard’s tip on case studies in this article by Justinmind, which gathers a series of tips and insights on how to do well in interviews: https://www.justinmind.com/blog/how-to-impress-in-a-ux-job-interview-recruiters-ux-managers-reveal-their-top-tips/

Hero image: Author / Copyright holder: Rawpixel. Copyright terms and license: Unsplash License.

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