I’ve written and edited hundreds of case studies as a copywriter, project manager, and art director over the years.
Frequently, when I handle content strategy for our web design clients, a large part of the content for a new website is creating compelling case studies. Throughout my personal experiences, I’ve collected reflections on what makes outstanding case studies.
An outstanding case study tells a story
Your case study needs to tell a story of how a project went and your role in it. Why did you get involved in the project? How did it cross your path? Tell the honest tale, and show the real wild ride you went on with the project. What’s the underlying story behind the project? Why should your reader care about this story?
Here are a few pointers to keep your writing in the “story voice” instead of a “dry textbook voice”:
- Focus on the problem. Most projects start with a problem. A reader can’t evaluate your solutions if they don’t understand the initial problem clearly. Clearly explain the pain point, then show how your solution solved the pain.
- Make connections for your audience. If you throw your research findings at the audience then immediately showcase your solution — you’re going to miss some people. Slow it down. How are the research findings connected to your actual solution? You’re very smart, no doubt, but go slow enough to bring your audience along on the journey.
- Use clear images. A screenshot can tell a story more clearly than a paragraph of text. Take your time on your screenshots and try to make them fun. Focus on screenshots that explain the work and the process. Don’t just show shinny screenshots for the sake of showing off beauty. Consider including ideas you trashed along the way. Why did you trash those ideas? Comparing the final ideas to the trashed idea can actually be quite enlightening and show your refinement process.
- Share the messy truth. Truthfully, your project have had moments of disarray and uncertainty. Such is life. Did you take a wrong turn? Did you miss a deadline? Was an aspect of the website a bigger bite than you anticipated? Speak honestly about your estimates, deadlines, and budget constrains. We all work with limited resources, so trust your audience to understand this reality. What did you have to prioritize to make the project launch? Clients and companies both want to hire creative studios that understand the reality of constraints.
- Share your retrospective. Even if the project was less than ideal, what did you learn? what blew up in your face? What will you do different next time? What unexpected victories did you achieve? No project is flawless, but everyone can learn from our experiences. So tell us how you’d fix it.
- Customize your template. Since each case study is an experience you went through, use any case study templates with a grain of salt. If your business does follow a clear path with each project, have your web designer create a template that’s customized to your unique business. Your stories are yours. Your approach will never be identical to other people, so make sure your website reflects this.
Outstanding case studies keep your audience in mind
Your case studies are, essentially, a design project for an audience. So who’s your audience? Your prospective clients? Your prospective employer agencies or companies? Talk to them. What do they need? What kind of time do they have to read this case study? What’s their goal when they read your case study? Can they absorb enough content just scanning it to hire you? Make it easy for them.
Here are some ways to keep that audience in mind:
- Provide a case study summary. What are the highlights? What are you most proud of? What sets your team apart? This content should pop and be easy to see.
- Long enough to engage, short enough to absorb. The story needs to be long enough to prove your value to a potential client, but not too long. You might lose people if it feels like a diary. Petagram does a nice job with their additional information on the case studies they show, you can read the extra content if you’re really interested in digging deep. In general, aim to hit the highlights of the project.
- Use headings to make your case study scannable. This showcases your understanding of typography and hierarchies and makes it much easier to browse.
- Write descriptive headings. Each heading should work to your advantage. Headings like “Research” and “Wireframes” tell the hiring manager that you did the same thing any other designer would do. How can you use that valuable real estate to give extra context? Instead of “Research” try something like, “Discovering how much customers care about privacy.”
An outstanding case study is structured and easy-to-digest
The great case study has a structure that sets up the audience for what’s coming. Consider it like a short story. Set your scene, explain your setting, and help your audience to know what the action is.
Begin with end results
At the outset of a case study give us a look at your final design or completed project. Your audience needs to immediately know how your project looked at the end. Once they love it, they’re willing to keep reading and follow along as you deconstruct your magic. Starting with the end result saves time too, incase your reader decides not to scroll to the bottom. The opening image of the end result also puts your steps and processes into a context. If you show a conference event booth and website, your audience knows you’ll go through a branding breakdown about how the event media was made and how the website was prepared.
Trim the fat
Keep is concise and punchy. What’s the quickest way to explain your project while still grabbing the reader’s attention? Try to describe your own project with the least amount of words, focusing on highly engaging explanation.
Detail your services provided early
Don’t make it hard for your reader to understand your part in this project. Answer big questions early and this will make the case study easy to absorb. It should be stupid easy to understand your specific role in the project. This might mean a bullet list of your services, or perhaps roles you filled and how your team offered insights. Clearly communicate the context of how you helped on the project. This way your reader knows if they hire you to do a similar job, you can handle it.
Try to answer questions like:
- What did you build?
- Which platform did you build it on?
- Was this done entirely by your team, or with another team?
- What was the deadline and budget?
- Did the public see this?
- What was your exact role?
- What was the outcome?
- How successful was it, and how was success defined?
Outstanding case studies answers the “why”
Graphic artists and developers make a lot of cool stuff. Our work might include fabulous sketches, Figma boards, Illustrator files, and lots of UI post-its connecting user flows, user stories, and meeting notes. I know how much work it takes to create a quality website. Trust me, I’ve been refining and redefining my own process for 15 years. However, none of this effort really matters to the audience unless they understand the core why? behind our efforts. Why did you make all those user stories? Did you need an information architecture with 126 page of web content outlined in extreme detail for a specific reason? Why do you write the meta description for every web page before the developer even starts to code out the site?
Your solutions may have incredible value. Your process may be absolutely brilliant. But you need to help your audience chew on and swallow the logic for why.
Try to explain what you actually changed or altered about the end product by going through your process. And if you process isn’t really helping your project evolve, then maybe you need a new process. After all, your end product needs to be the result of research and in-depth understanding to be truly valuable.
Photos of whiteboards and sticky notes show that you did work, but don’t show why that work matters. Instead of a photo of your notebook, show what you learned from that exciting synthesis session and how it changed your project!
Here are some things that can help you tell the story of “why”:
- How interviews with stakeholders or users changed the project direction
- Research data showing we need to shift direction before or during development
- Data from user testing that showed something wasn’t reaching users
- Show how priorities of the client affect (or budget constraints) affected product
Outstanding case studies are a unique journey, with the good and the bad
The human story is a story of growth. So share the journey, the lessons learned, and the painful mistakes along the way. This way, you’ll connect with your audience, and you’ll attract clients who appreciate honest communication. The truth is every agency is making mistakes and growing. So the generous spirit you show in being open about your journey is helping the design community as a whole. A community-focused agency will engender a good reputation in the industry and develop tight bonds with clients and team members.
I look forward to reading your stories and hope this article was helpful. On that note, if you’ve learned something impactful about how to write an outstanding case study along your journey, please share it with me!