All About Process: Dissecting Case Study Portfolios
A portfolio is more than a cache of images, it’s a way to demonstrate design skills and problem solving to clients. We show how to elevate portfolios by explaining the inner workings of a case study.
By Adnan Puzic
Adnan is a UI/UX expert with a bold aesthetic and a passion for designing digital products for startups and corporations.
Designers have portfolios. It’s a precondition of our profession. We all know we need one, so we get to work assembling images and writing project descriptions. Then, we put our work on the web for all to see, tiny shrines to individual talent and creativity.
It’s a familiar process, a rite of passage, but why do we need portfolios in the first place?
If we’re honest, we must admit that most of our portfolio design decisions are influenced by what other designers are doing. That’s not necessarily bad, but if we don’t understand why portfolios look the way they do, we’re merely imitating.
We may produce dazzling imagery, but we also risk a portfolio experience that’s like strolling through an art gallery. “Look at the pretty pictures…”
The number one audience that design portfolios must please? Non-designers.
These are the people who seek our services, the ones working for the businesses and organizations that invest in our problem solving abilities.
Non-designers need more than beauty from a design portfolio; they need clarity and assurance. They need to come away believing in a designer’s expertise, their design process, and ability to solve problems in an efficient manner.
Luckily, it’s not difficult to design a portfolio to meet those needs.
The Advantages of a Case Study
What is a case study?
A case study is a tool that a designer may use to explain his involvement in a design project, whether as a solo designer or part of a team. It is a detailed account, written in the designer’s own voice (first person), that examines the client’s problem, the designer’s role, the problem solving process, and the project’s outcome.
Who can use a case study?
The beauty of the case study framework is that it’s adaptable to multiple design disciplines. It organizes need-to-know information around common categories and questions that are applicable to all kinds of design projects—from UX research to visual identities .
At its core, a case study is a presentation format for communicating the journey from problem to solution. Details within the framework may change, but the momentum is always moving towards clarity and uncovering a project’s most important whats , whys , and hows .
How do case studies benefit designers?
Many clients don’t understand all that goes into the design process. And while they certainly don’t need to know everything , a case study provides a big-picture overview and sets up realistic expectations about what it takes to design an elegant solution.
A case study can also be a handy presentation aide that a designer may use when interviewing a potential client. The format allows a designer to talk about their work and demonstrate their expertise in a natural and logical progression. “Here’s what I did, how it helped, and how I might apply a similar approach with you.”
Are there any drawbacks to using case studies?
Don’t let a case study turn into a ca-a-a-a-a-se study. The whole project should be digestible within 1-2 minutes max. If necessary, provide links to more detailed documents so that interested visitors may explore further.
A lot of design work, especially digital, is created within multidisciplinary teams, so designers need to be clear about their role in a project. Blurring the lines of participation gives clients false expectations.
Many make the mistake of treating portfolios as repositories of all of their past projects, but three to five case studies documenting a designer’s most outstanding work is enough to satisfy the curiosity of most potential clients (who simply don’t have time to mine through everything a designer ever did).
Case studies are professional documents, not tell-all manuscripts, and there are some things that simply shouldn’t be included. Descriptions of difficult working relationships, revelations of company-specific information (i.e., intellectual property), and contentious explanations of rejected ideas ought to be left out.
Crafting a Customer-centric Case Study
It’s one thing to know what a case study is and why it’s valuable. It’s an entirely different and more important thing to know how to craft a customer-centric case study. There are essentials that every case study must include if clients are to make sense of what they’re seeing.
What are the core elements of a case study?
Introduce the client.
Present the design problem.
Recap your role.
Share the solution you designed.
Walk through the steps of your design process.
Describe the results.
Note any key learnings.
Wrap it all up with a short conclusion.
Happily, the core elements also outline a case study presentation format that’s simple, repeatable, and applicable to multiple disciplines. Let’s look closer:
- Who was the client?
- What industry are they in?
- What goods or services do they provide?
- Keep this section brief.
- What was the client’s problem?
- Why was it important that the problem be solved?
- Are there any additional background tidbits that might be helpful or interesting?
- What, specifically, were you hired to do?
- What were the constraints? Time. Budgetary. Technological. Etc.
- Before diving into your process, summarize the solution you designed.
- Make the summary short but powerful.
- Don’t give all the good parts away, and don’t be afraid to use language that makes your audience curious about the rest of the project.
- Go through the various steps of your discipline specific process.
- Again, summarize what you did, but don’t overload. Find a balance between informational and interesting.
- If you can, try to make each step introduce a question that only the following step can answer.
- Use this section to share a more robust description of the results of your design process.
- Be direct, avoid jargon, and don’t get too carried away with the amount of text you include.
- Don’t go overboard here, but if there are interesting things that you learned during the process, include them.
- If they won’t be helpful for the client, leave them out.
- Quickly summarize the project, and invite potential customers to contact you.
- It doesn’t hurt to provide a call to action and a contact link.
*Note: This isn’t the only case study format, just one that works. It’s helpful for people to encounter a predictable framework so they can focus on what they’re looking at as opposed to interpreting an inventive presentation structure.
The Value of Overlooked Details
Want to create a case study with a top notch user experience? Don’t underestimate the value of design details. Design projects are more than problem-meets-solution. They’re deeply human endeavors, and it makes a difference to clients when they see that a designer goes above and beyond in their work.
Share client feedback.
How did the client feel about your working relationship and the solution you provided? When you deliver top-notch work and nurture trust, get client feedback and include it in the case study as a testimonial.
If something you designed blew your client away, weave a testimonial into the case study (along with an image of what you made). This combo is proof positive to potential customers that you can deliver.
Explain positive metrics.
Not all design work has direct metrics that prove its success, but if your work does, and the results are impressive, include them. Just make sure that you don’t mislead (easy to do with statistics), and be careful that the metrics make sense to your audience.
Show unselected work.
Sometimes, amazing work from the design process doesn’t make it through to the finished product. These unused artifacts are helpful because they show an ability to explore a range of concepts.
Highlight unglamorous design features.
Not every aspect of design is glamorous. Like a pinky finger, small details may seem insignificant but they’re actually indispensable. Highlight these and recap why they matter.
Link to live projects.
It can be highly persuasive for a client to experience your work doing it’s thing out in the real world. Don’t hesitate to include links to live projects. Just make sure that your role in the project is clear, especially when you didn’t design everything you’re linking to.
Win Clients and Advance Careers with Case Study Portfolios
Designers need clients. We need their problems, their insights, their feedback, and their investments in the solutions we provide.
Since clients are so important, we ought to think about them often and strive to make entering into partnership with us as easy and painless as possible. Design portfolios are a first impression, an opportunity to put potential clients at ease and show that we understand their needs.
Case studies push our design portfolios past aesthetic allure to a level where our skills, communication abilities, and creativity instill trust and inspire confidence. Even better, they take clients out of a passive, browsing mindset to a place where “That looks cool,” becomes “That’s someone I’d like to work with.”
Further Reading on the Toptal Blog:
- UX Portfolio Tips and Best Practices
- Ditch MVPs, Adopt Minimum Viable Prototypes (MVPrs)
- Breaking Down the Design Thinking Process
- Influence with Design – A Guide to Color and Emotions
- The Best UX Designer Portfolios: Inspiring Case Studies and Examples
Understanding the basics
How do i create a design portfolio.
Nowadays, it’s best to create a design portfolio online. Options vary: Some designers use a service like Behance or a WYSIWYG website builder like Squarespace, while others build custom sites with CSS. It’s also important that online design portfolios be responsive for multiple screen sizes.
How do I create an online portfolio for free?
Websites like Behance and Dribbble (among others) are free options for designers to publish online portfolios. Some designers have opted to forgo traditional web portfolios and instead document their work on social platforms like Instagram and Facebook. Free sites also take care of design portfolio layout.
How do you organize a design portfolio?
A designer ought to organize his portfolio according to his strengths. This means highlighting his best and most relevant work. Remember that design portfolios should be made with potential clients in mind. Avoid overly technical project descriptions, images without context, and excessively long case studies.
What is the purpose of a case study?
Many design portfolios consist of short project summaries and process images, but case studies are a way for designers to show their problem-solving skills to clients in greater detail. This is achieved by defining the client’s problem and the designer’s role, along with an overview of the designer’s process.
What are the advantages of a case study?
Case studies combine descriptive text and images and allow designers to demonstrate the details of their design processes to potential clients. They are also a great way for designers to highlight problem solving and small, but powerful, design features that may otherwise be overlooked.
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5 Key Parts of a Great Design Case Study
Here are five of the most important areas that go beyond the basics of case study writing and get into the more challenging parts that can provide a far greater reward.
When done right, case studies are seriously complex and represent hundreds of hours of design work. At their start, they can feel like a disorganized, overwhelming mess.
Step by step, they transform into a piece of work a designer can truly be proud of because it tells the story of their growth over the project. Being able to effectively communicate and illustrate that unique story is key to a designer’s success in the interview process, and a way for them to stand out from competitors.
I’ve lost track of how many case studies I’ve reviewed in my time at Designation — it’s probably somewhere close to 1,000 by now — and in all that time, I’ve seen many important parts of case study writing come into focus.
Below are five of the most important areas that go beyond the basics of case study writing and get into the more challenging parts that can provide a far greater reward. Together, they can turn good designers into great design storytellers—and set them up for greater success later on as professionals.
Show your process assets purposefully.
Assets are your opportunity to show rather than tell—explain a big chunk of the process in a visual form. Assets can take many forms, and the more diversity in them, the more engaging for readers.
They include photographs, which can backup descriptions of on-site research, interviews, and teamwork; screenshots of in-progress work and art boards; sketches showing rough ideas that were fleshed out later; Post-it notes and affinity diagrams; wireframes, sometimes with color added for extra clarity for the reader; animated gifs showing microinteractions and user flows through the product; charts and tables; and so many others.
When focusing on a design or visual case study image like this shows a surprising amount of information and process—how creatively messy it can be to sketch, sorting to find ideas worthy of development, fleshing the strong ones out, and applying design elements and patterns to them.
A case study without showing assets is incomplete, but one that shows assets without explaining them is almost worse, because a designer always needs to explain their importance to the process.
The best way to do that is to use captions for each asset. But captions must always be a part of the overall story; they shouldn’t only repeat information that the asset already shows. They must provide a unique insight, and further the story for the reader. By doing this, it activates the caption and justifies its existence and the work it takes to write them by the designer.
This designer used two forms of captions to illustrate their screens: Annotations that point out specific areas of concern from testers who looked at them, and a caption below that collected and synthesized them for easier comprehension.
Provide a competitive benchmark for the study.
Designers often like to downplay the research and analysis of competitors that happens near the beginning of a project because it doesn’t directly focus on the work they created. This is an unfortunate mistake because it’s a huge part of the story and it often leads directly to designers making research or design decisions later in the process.
Furthermore, designers should show off that they have a deep understanding of the competition whenever they work on a product; that they know what’s happening in the landscape and how their product fits in. Showing logos or only mentioning names of competitors isn’t anywhere near enough; designers need to discuss in detail what competitors do well, and analyze the areas in which they need improvement. Designers can provide screenshots of competitors’ products, but they need to go further and annotate or comment on them, to show a more detailed analysis.
They can’t ignore out-of-category competitors too, because that research often leads to innovative ideas that can catapult their product over in-category competitors’.
This designer looked at three competitors and called out unique areas of strength and weakness from each one, especially as they led the designer to make design decisions later in the process.
Finally, all that analysis requires synthesis, which means explaining the opportunities the designer saw for their own product after looking at the competition. This helps the designer more formally describe the end of the competitive research phase of a project and how that helped them refocus on their own product.
The designer analyzed competitors’ images in the center of this screen, but the text at the bottom presents what they did with that analysis: They derived an important design principle from it, which heavily impacted the next phase of their work.
Be team-centered in user experience design.
Almost every project done at Designation is done as part of a team because almost every project done as a professional designer is done as part of a team. It’s crucial for designers to reflect that in their case studies. Designers must write “we” when talking about group actions, and “I” when talking about personal design decisions or insights. In other words, we encourage designers to use “I” when they talk about where they led their team, and “we” when they supported another team member leading their team.
This is a great example of team-centered writing, where the designer discusses how the team worked together to generate concepts. She then switches to individual writing to indicate which concept she took charge of. Both extremes of this spectrum are bad in a case study—ones that only say “we” look like the designer didn’t think for themselves, and ones that only say “I” look like the designer isn’t a team player. So that balance has to always be found. Employers look for teamwork skills as much as they look for hard design skills, and a case study can be an excellent place to find records of them.
This is a big one. A lot of designers fall into the trap of explaining a basic element of the design process or design deliverables to the reader. You might be asking yourself: Why is this problematic? It’s because the intended readership of a designer’s case study is a hiring manager, design director, or someone else looking for evidence the designer will make a good fit for their team.
That means the designer needs to make an educated assumption that the reader is already familiar with design—and write their case study with that in mind. Unless it’s a part of their design process that was extremely unusual or the designer came up with it themselves, a designer has to assume the reader’s already familiar with it. If they don’t, they risk looking like the case study condescends to the reader, and that’s not purposeful writing.
One easy way to avoid this is for a designer to always avoid second-person writing —using “you” and “your”—which is a little too conversational for a case study anyway. They keep the focus on themselves and their work, and tell a stronger story in doing so.
Get the details right.
It might be cheating a little to clump a bunch of little steps together like this, but it’s important at the end of the case study writing process to micro-edit and make sure every detail is taken care of.
That’s why designers utilize tools like Figma to to tell their story in a professional way.
That’s making sure every word is spelled right, every publication title is italicized, and every piece of software is properly capitalized. But it’s also doing tasks like using contractions as often as possible throughout the text, removing extra spaces from between words or in front of paragraphs, knowing when to use a semicolon or an em dash, and making sure all dumb quotes are taken care of. And using writing tools like Hemingway, Grammarly, and GradeProof are a huge gift to anyone who needs a little help to take care of tricky grammar and get rid of run-on sentences.
Though tedious and time-consuming, the best way to take care of these details is to go through the complete draft and look to make one editing change at a time. Trying to edit for multiple needs causes the designer’s attention to be split in many directions—and makes them much less effective as self-editors.
Digital Designer Case Studies Conclusion
Writing effective, powerful case studies is a craft, and like all crafts, it rarely comes naturally to people. It takes skill and work, and staying in practice. The tools, resources, feedback, and processes we give every designer at Designation are able to be used for years and decades to come, so a designer can turn any work they produce into a case study anytime during their long career.
Remember: Hiring managers don’t look for designers with superpowers; they look for designers who are committed to designing better and better for as long as they practice design. And case studies are the absolute best metric for a designer to see how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned, from tool to tool, project to project, and job to job.
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is current as of 26 February 2020. Current policies, offerings, procedures, and programs may differ. For up-to-date information visit FlatironSchool.com .
Posted by Flatiron School / February 26, 2020
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