A case study is a way of demonstrating how your business’s helped a person or client overcome a particular challenge. It clearly lays out how your products or services were used to solve a problem, and the results. It’s important to note that a case study isn’t a press release or a sales pitch (at least, not directly), it’s about showcasing your work and framing it in the context of helping others. In short, it’s not about you, but your customer.
Case studies can often get overlooked when it comes to producing marketing material. After all, they’re not exactly the most glamorous form of content to produce, and blog posts can seem more appealing. So why invest in case studies at all? Haven’t we moved on to other things? The truth is that case studies are, and continue to be, incredibly effective. They help to attract new customers, cement trust and increase conversions. It’s the storytelling nature of the format that boosts its effectiveness, and that’s what case studies allow you to do – tell a story about your brand and how you’ve helped others. The story you draft paints a picture, stimulates emotions, and gives your business greater selling power. Storytelling, by using your customer’s voice in a data-backed piece, is an invaluable sales tool – and that’s why case studies continue to work so well.
While this may seem like a lot of extra work, you can facilitate the writing process by taking the time to proactively think about how you will document your projects and their successes before you begin working. That way, you’re guaranteed to end the project with strong documentation that reflects your thinking, iterations, and key results as accurately as possible. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the five core elements that should be included in any case study.
Think of your Overview section as the executive summary of your case study. It’s the Cole’s Notes version of the document, and allows your prospects to quickly understand the highlights of your past work without reading the entire thing. This section should include the core takeaways from all other sections including the main problem, an overview of the solution, and key results. While the Overview will be your least detailed part of the case study, it is probably your most important. Only the most meticulous clients will take the time to read through your entire case study; the majority of them will just quickly skim through in order get the gist. Because of this, drafting a complete and well-articulated overview should be top priority.
The second section of your case study — commonly referred to as the Context and the Challenge — is designed to provide your prospective client with a detailed description of the context that led to the creation of the project. If it’s well-written, the reader will leave with a solid understanding of the environmental factors and problems that you were hired to solve as a designer. This section can be distilled into three main elements:
The contextual information for the project including timelines, budgetary constraints, and the overarching purpose of the job.
The “why?” and the focal point for the project. Your case study needs to clearly explain the problem that led to the onset of the project. For example, if you were working on an ecommerce project then your problem could be something similar to: “Interest for company X’s core product was growing internationally at an unprecedented scale. This led to severe logistical and distribution problems that could not be fixed by physical retail solutions alone.”
Every website you work on should have tangible goals and objectives associated with the project’s problem. Are you trying to drive more traffic to the site overall? Optimize product pages for lower bounce rate or higher conversions? Reduce cart abandon rates? No matter what your objectives are, try your best to include any quantifiable metrics that were known at the onset of the project.
The purpose of this section is to elaborate on your design process, creative concept, and insight that led to your design decisions. It’s also an opportunity for you to walk your prospective client through the research, workflow, and iterations of your design work. When writing content for this section, you want to illustrate how you got from The Challenge to The Solution. Make sure the flow of information is logical and that it culminates with a core insight about your client’s audience, business, or industry. These insights can stem from your client’s unique selling properties and key differentiators, or from their audience’s behavioural and consumption habits.
The Solution is where you get to show off your skill and style as a designer. It’s your chance to feature any and all samples of your work — from videos, landing pages, custom integrations, and anything else you created for the project. To really get the most from this section, be sure to include written descriptions about your design work. Take the time to explain in detail your site’s defining features like its UX, navigation structure, content strategy, or unique mobile attributes. If you put the effort into crafting descriptions that complement your visual assets, your readers will feel much more confident in your decisions as a designer.
The Results section will cover the qualitative and quantitative success metrics from your project (and if you've tested your product, such as with a contextual inquiry, you should have great metrics to share!). While the type of metrics you report on can vary from one project to another, they should directly address the objectives you established in The Context and Challenge section. Having these results in hand will allow you to show your prospects that your work had a direct influence on your client meeting their goals. If you can do this, you’ll help them feel more comfortable putting their business (and their money) into your hands.