Beyond the Linear Process: Tips for Creating Impactful Case Studies

Raluca Angelescu
March 27, 2023
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As someone who has been in the design industry for a while, you may feel overwhelmed when it comes to creating case studies that truly showcase your skills and expertise. In this article, I will share some of the insights and lessons I have learned over time, even as a practicing designer.

We'll talk about how to leverage storytelling and visuals to maximize the impact of your case study, how not to get stuck in showcasing a linear process, and how to make it personal. Let's get started.

Be a creative director.

We all love those beautifully curated websites and brands, where every element is perfectly in place. The typeface matches the tone of voice, and every small interaction delights us and makes us want to see more, or even buy the product on the spot. Let's talk about why it's essential to think of your case study as your artwork and product, not just a report or document you need to write.

When you approach a case study, you should decide what you want to show and when, but also consider how to make everything consistent. It's like designing a website for an expensive cosmetics brand - you need to provide clear and truthful information, but how can you delight your users and make them feel like they're part of a story?

Let's see how we can achieve that. To begin with, instead of simply listing everything and providing too many details, try to create a story out of your case study. As a creative director, you want to take your readers on a journey and immerse them in your brand's world. Think about how you can make your case study more than just a list of facts and figures. What story can you tell that will engage your audience and make them want to learn more?

In addition to creating a narrative with your case study and using visuals, it's important to be selective with the screens you showcase. While it may be tempting to include every screen you've designed, it's important to remember that less can be more.

A common trap I've fallen into is to show birds-eye views of my work, how impressive the number of screens is, and how thoroughly I worked. Showing this may seem impressive, but it's not always the best way to showcase your skills. Instead, focus on the screens that you are most proud of or those that had the most significant impact on the project or users. It's better to show two excellent screens that capture the essence of the project than to include 30 screens that don't tell the story effectively.

When selecting which screens to showcase, consider the details and the impact they had on the project. Choose screens that highlight the key features; user flows, or interactions that make your work stand out. Don't be afraid to provide context around your designs and explain why you made specific decisions. And don't be afraid of showing the BIG.

You don't work in an assembly line.

Despite advice against strictly following a recipe, many designers (not just junior ones) often rely on a set process when documenting their work. This process typically involves starting with the problem, conducting research, creating user personas, testing, and building mock-ups.

This approach is popular because it is the way aspiring designers are taught to work. It provides a clear structure that is easy to understand and gives them a solid foundation to build upon. However, building a product is not a one-size-fits-all process. Every situation requires a different set of tools, and just because you have learned to use a specific set of tools in a particular sequence doesn't mean that it's the only way to work.

Some recent analogies I ran into compared UX designers to master carpenters or Michelin-star chefs. A novice carpenter might only know how to cut wood using a hand saw, which can only produce 90-degree cuts. However, a master carpenter would know when to use a jigsaw, miter saw, table saw, lathe, planer, router, and so on. All of these tools cut wood, but they achieve different outcomes based on the project's needs.

Likewise, anyone can follow a recipe and produce a dish, but a true chef would know what to do if they suddenly run out of a seasoning while cooking in a restaurant with hungry customers eagerly waiting for their meal.

To become a better designer, you need to look at each problem and choose the right tool for the job, not necessarily the first tool in the process. By doing so, you can develop your skills and become more versatile and effective.

Include a personal story.

As professionals, we often focus solely on the positive outcomes we've achieved, like impressive numbers, successful user experiences, and happy clients. But as we are all human, mistakes and challenges are an inevitable part of the process.

So why not include those in a case study? Sharing your struggles can actually work in your favor and show that you have the experience and skills to adapt and overcome difficulties.

Acknowledge the holes you had to poke in your own logic and show how data points helped adjust your thinking or even helped you gain more conviction.

A way to do this is to share your assumptions, even if they turned out to be incorrect. By explaining why and how you reached a conclusion, you can provide valuable insights that others can learn from. Plus, being transparent about your assumptions and how they may have influenced your decisions can make for a great story.

If you find it difficult to articulate your thought process, try showing different versions of your design and explaining how and why they evolved. Everyone likes a good "before and after". This will demonstrate intentionality and highlight the effort you put into your work.

As a designer, I've learned that creating an impactful case study is about more than just showcasing your work. It's about crafting a compelling narrative, using visuals to immerse your audience in your brand's world and creating a consistent and delightful product, not a sheer enumeration of facts. It's about breaking free from a linear process and choosing the right tools for the job, even if they don't follow the traditional design process. And it's about sharing your personal story, including the struggles and challenges you faced along the way.

By following these tips, you can create case studies that showcase your skills and expertise and leave a lasting impression. So, go ahead and start telling your story – we're all ears.

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