As a working design professional, a beginner in the field of UX design or just someone with a penchant for design, you might have wondered how successful designers publish their work in a sequence of events so carefully planned out, it looks almost impossible to recreate them.
Every Design portfolio, especially a UX designer’s, must include certain topics to create a wholesome profile, fit for getting hired or even earn some respect in the community. One of the most important topics among those is the dreaded case studies.
Case studies are nothing but laying out an entire project step by step, to help your readers understand what exactly you did to solve a particular problem, your area of expertise, and who you are as a person.
Why is a case study/portfolio integral in landing your dream job?
According to LinkedIn, UX design followed by UI design and UX Research are the most sought after fields in 2020. With a rise in demand for designers which is estimated to be around 62,000 in 2020 along with multiple channels to get a design education from, there is no doubt that the number of students vying for these jobs will be high and competitive.
So, the process of landing your dream job is not an easy task. You need to make your portfolio stand out, you need to let the recruiter understand your thought process, the way you approach your problems and essentially tell them a story of your problem-solving journeys.
And yes, you need to have a substantial amount of these projects to showcase your technical and soft skill abilities. Case studies are a brilliant way to showcase all these skills under one umbrella.
This exact study and observation is what needs to be the hero in every designer’s portfolio.
Some Skills Case studies highlight:
- Communication Skills – telling a story about your complex thoughts, ideas and problems in an articulate manner.
- Presentation Skills – it is a no brainer that designers need to have strong presentation skills, this can come through from your case study format, use of imagery & infographics.
- Team Player – you can show the recruiters that you are a good leader, follower and collaborator in your team through these studies.
- Design Thinking process – Essentially your case study is also another UX project – where you mould information to suit your target audience, and sell them an idea which translates to the design process.
- Your Personality – Your case studies will portray you in the end. People want to know who you are, your reaction to scenarios, how you handle failures and how humble you are about your victories.
Case Study Structure:
The task of writing a case study might seem daunting to some and highly impossible to others. But, in reality, you are just having those first-time jitters or even the small worry that we all have before starting a project. You just need to treat the case study like any other design project. Do not worry, because we will help show you exactly how it will fall in place in just a few steps. You can always re-order these steps, add a few or omit some based on the topics you are working on.
Now let’s get writing and dive into the sections required to complete your case study:
- Intro & Set the scene
- Problem Statement / Design Overview
- Target Audience
- Your role, tools & team
- The Design Process
- Challenges & Outcomes
- Solution & Testing
- The Impact
1. Intro & Set the scene
Before beginning anything at all, be polite and throw in a welcome to your readers. Introduce yourself the best way you know how through the digital medium. Break the ice, essentially. This automatically eases your readers into your study and makes it easier to convey your thoughts. With the greetings out of the way, you also need to introduce your project. Explain whether it was a client commissioned project or a self-love project, if there is a client, give a small background about their connection with you and their project. If you are working on a niche subject, explain the extra nitty-gritties that come along with it.
Make sure your introduction contains:
- Greetings and ice breaker
- Topic of project
- Client / Self project
- Project context
- Fun facts – if you have any
2. Problem statement & Goals
Every designer exists to solve some kind of a problem. That is what we are – problem solvers. Therefore, it is critical that you explain what problem you are trying to solve or address through your project. This lays the base for your project, creating a story plot which builds the curiosity of the reader.
So, set the context with your problem statement, make it crisp, but convey all the important details of the project through this one line.
Make sure your statement contains:
- Explain the problem in details
- Your client’s motive for solving the problem
- End goal – This is necessary to determine if your solution is successful or not.
We know it might seem slightly overwhelming, so we are going to explain each section with some conceptual examples. This is how the problem statement may look like if you’re designing for these popular brands.
“To redesign the website of HubSpot to introduce a tone of friendliness and to increase conversion rate by 10%”
“Conduct research on the Airbnb website to understand the existing user problems and to propose a more efficient design”
“Travelling the world is the ambition for 78% of Indians. Due to the unavailability of resources and knowledge, they take the help of travel agents to do their work. This presented a good scenario for me to develop a travel guide application to help tourists plan, find and avail discounts of their itinerary spots with easy modifications and flexibility.”
Here is a different take on providing a gist of your project under different headings to give the readers a clear picture by Vax Liu:
3. Who is your Target Audience / Users?
After a problem has been introduced, it is vital to introduce the main characters of your project – your users. UX design is all about understanding the pains, motivations and desires of your user group to craft a suitable solution.
Sometimes this section can be confusing for those redesigning an existing brand’s website/ application (refer example 1 in the above section). When a brand is in play, they become your client and their end user is your final end user as well. Try to find out who ultimately will be using the product that you design.
Make sure to add:
- Who your end users are
- Some insights about them (can also be covered in personas)
- Any assumptions you may have (which can later get resolved through research)
“The project is targeted towards the primary users of HubSpot – Service businesses, Marketing professions, Sales professions. They are stuck in a monotonous lifestyle of analysing data and numbers, constantly looking at graphs, excel sheets and forms. This project is aimed at providing them a refreshing UI style, to engage them better and keep their work life exciting”
“The users of Airbnb can be grouped into 2 categories – renters and hosts. These 2 types were studied deeply to understand their motives for coming onto the site and the pain points they face while dealing with tasks.”
4. Your role, Team & Tools
Mentioning what role you played in the project is crucial to see if the value added relates to work that was done by you. If you worked with your peers to do the project, mention what tasks were assigned to you and how you completed them. Working with a team is a good way to show you are a great collaborator and can work well with different ideas. At the same time, mentioning your individual contribution is important to know whether you were a dead weight or took your team to success.
“I still see a lot of portfolios where I have to search for that information. It should be obvious to me, as the reader of your portfolio, what you did in a given project, and what kind of team you worked with, if any. If the information isn’t there, or I just can’t find it, I basically can’t give you any credit for the work done in that project.”Christian Jenson, a digital product designer from Copenhagen.
Make sure to add:
- Details of your team members and the respective roles.
- Emphasis on what role you played and to what extent.
- The project duration – was it a tight deadline?, did you take up a pet project and manage your own timeline?
- The major tools you used during the different stages – tools represent your ability to handle software and your experience on it.
“This project was handled by a team of 4, 2 designers and 2 developers. My main role was to produce a design system fit for merging with the standards of HubSpot by analysing user needs and combining them with the brand language of the website. To achieve this, I used Adobe XD, Figma for prototyping and wireframing and Invision for generating interactive mock-ups.”
“The Airbnb user base greatly interested me, which was why I was involved mainly in the research and ideation aspects of the project. Working with a team of 3 gave us room for healthy discussions, debates and order behind “why” we chose certain aspects over another. Since the major task of the project was to analyse problems behind user frustrations, my role was detrimental toward shaping the solution.”
5. The Design Process
Every designer has their own unique design process that explains their reasoning behind making decisions. You might be someone who values research more than the outcomes or vice versa. But your case study should consist of an end to end project – with good visuals and research skills.
As said by Tom Cotterill, “Show you can do the graft and hard work that comes before the pretty pictures.”
In this section give the readers an insight into your thought process:
- Reasoning behind every decision
- Steps taken to reach the solution – User interviews, Insight generation, personas, brainstorming process, validation from 3rd party members.
- Discoveries – tell your readers the contrast between what you assumed and what you discovered or even if they matched your assumptions.
- Testing – how did you conduct tests to ensure your solution matched the goals of the user? Did you have to redo any step multiple times to get it right?. Tell them so they know you are only human.
You could even attempt this section like a project timeline, with nice visuals to take your readers through the sequence of events.
Do not make the following mistake
The most common mistake which designers do is that they include a cliché diagram such as the below one and represent it as their process.
This is fine as long as you do not leave it hanging. You need to support each stage with what exactly you did and the outcomes.
The main subtopics you will find yourself adding to this process are:
- Research – There are various research methods that can be used such as interviews, surveys, contextual inquiry and lots more. Mention what method you chose, the questions you asked, competitor study, market study, insights you found, pain points & motivations of users & personas.
- User Journeys – Mapping out various scenarios, ideation, alternate paths, methodology for choosing ideas (if you have hand done aspects to these topics like ideation in a book – make it presentable and add that too)
- Information Architecture – Information Architecture is how you organise the content in a suitable manner. Most often it’s a flowchart.
- Wireframes – Images, Screenshots and good quality pictures of even your sketches.
- High fidelity prototypes – You can embed a screen recorded video of yourself navigating the mockup, or a GIF. If both these options are not possible, then you go with embedding the prototype and adding images can be the last option.
Sketches like these serve as a testament to your work and emphasise the process you follow even more.
6. Challenge Outcome Sets
After running through your entire process, it is good to highlight some of the challenges that you faced and how you dealt with them. It is not necessary for you to always deal with a problem with the right solution that works.
Sometimes your ideas will fail, but mentioning these relatable incidents with a future scope will portray you as someone that can deal with failures who is willing to try again.
The users of Hubspot were all over the world, belonging to different professions
Setting up online questionnaire forms to collect their data that can drive the study. But we ended up combining the derived data as just user data without much bifurcation.
Not every renter wanted to give me the time of the day by answering my questions since they were all busy with their lifestyle. Sometimes the language barrier also played a part in hindering research.
It was hard, but I created a database of users who were apprehensive and devised a plan to get their attention by collaborating with Airbnb to give them a small discount if they participated in the survey process.
7. Solution & Testing
In the end, you need to draw a conclusion to your design-led process. A critically thought out solution that you arrived at to counter your problems. Solutions will work differently for different projects.
For example, a web-design project will have a UI based solution with beautiful screens, design system and a brand language.
On the other hand, a UX problem will have solutions related to change in user behaviour, increased traffic on a site, greater use of a button which was previously not noticeable etc.
Make sure to include
- UI – visually appealing screens, icon sets, animations and mico interactions, any interactive prototypes you might have
- Videos – if you captured any of your users using your finished solution
- Why did this particular solution work out? What & why other options did not?
- Insights, strategies etc using which you finalised this solution.
The Hubspot example would ideally end in screens that are slightly more colorful and breaks the monotony of B2B websites as well as a design system to showcase your skills. But it does not stop with just aesthetically pleasing screens.
You need to give an appropriate description to your solution. Your solution (UI Screens) might look beautiful but in the end you need to show the impact that it had with your users and to get there you might have applied 2 or more strategies – highlight those, the why behind your final designs which brings in a lot more depth to you as a problem solver.
8. Impact of your solution
A subsection or the next highlight after your solution should be – how did your idea / solution impact the design problem and the client’s expectations and most importantly the users. This is exactly why testing your project becomes crucial.
The numbers you showcase will definitely add value to your entire project in the eyes of recruiters and believe it or not, you will feel great knowing that you achieved it.
In this first problem statement for Hubspot, (point 1) the goal was to make the UI more friendly, calming and create a shift from monotonous data sites. So, your impact should lie here – 56% of the daily users felt refreshed after using the new interface OR we recorded a 12% increase in engagement with action items previously ignored or not used. This clearly points to the fact that your research and idea help create this conversion.
The problem statement for airbnb talks about understanding the different segments of users – and solving their problems to make the experience better. A good impact factor for this would be – increase in trust between the host and the renter, Number of users who converted and booked a stay using the website, increase in the number of postings by hosts.
9. Learnings from the project
As a final touch, add some relatable incidents which proved to be a great learning experience to you. Any designer would have gone through incidents where the exact opposite of what they imagined happened. This gives a good climax to your story as well.
Make sure to include:
- Shortcomings that you faced and how you dealt with them
- If you worked on any new aspects such as – a live client, new software, a new process, collaborating with developers – add your experience
- Add what more you would do, in the future with the learnings you had.
You could say something like this – “Working on a real time CRM marketing tool to understand user behaviour and emotions was testing new waters. I was unsure about how to gather all the data required for research from clients who would be extremely busy and wrapped in a tight schedule.
It was also a new feat, in terms of working with a developer and guiding them to implement my designs. There sure was a lot of back and forth between us, but hey, at least I understood what they meant by fighting for your designs!”
A few final tips:
Now that you have a fairly good idea about what goes into your case study, and the importance behind adding these elements, let us give you a few last tips to fully shape your portfolio to the finesse what the industry requires:
- Always make sure that you are telling a story – be human, real and let the readers see even the hardships and mishaps you encountered.
- Add Value – whatever information, visuals, and anecdotes you add to your study, make sure they translate into something that adds value to your project. For example, after your talk with users and understanding them, add what insight you gained and are taking forward into the project.
- Design Process – Make sure to highlight your design process which lets the readers know you are knowledgeable in your domain
- Add your personality – your portfolio should reflect who you are, your witty self, your flare for all things colourful, it could be anything.
- Finally, always get your case study reviewed by some experts – your mentor, professor or even your friends. They will definitely point out some obvious mistakes you ignored.
- Visual Design – Make sure you have eye-catchy visual designs, a great portfolio cover page – to grab attention, and adding the right colours to convey your visions.
Common confusions/questions which UX Designers have while creating Case studies:
1) I have no work experience and have never worked with a client before. So how can I create a UX Case study?
Having very little to no experience with real clients is sometimes a boon because you get to work on your pet projects – topics that ignite your interest and issues you faced and wanted a change. You also get to showcase how you managed your own timeline, collaborated with other industries if you had to and received feedback to keep yourself in check.
On the other hand, there are several platforms which put out design challenges regularly like https://sharpen.design/, & https://fakeclients.com/ux, a call for designers with a problem statement to work on and not to forget several design competitions like the Red dot design awards, Adobe design awards.
2) All the projects I’ve worked for are restricted by strict NDA rules which means I can’t display it outside. Now what should I do?
Designers are often bound with NDA’s or non disclosure agreements which prevents you from sharing a part of the work done for your client. But this does not always mean you cannot share your work online. One solution to this would be, simply ask your client – you worked with them so you had a working relationship with them.
Tell them you wish to publish the work, and give some pointers as to how that would benefit their brand as well. Another solution is to change your client’s name and make it an anonymous project in which case, nothing about the client will be revealed. Make sure you remove your client’s brand names and other images before you upload your work. Workaround your NDA, and see which items can be added and which cannot.
3) Should I create my own website or can I publish my study in Medium?
You might have great portfolio content, but you might be confused about which platform to use as a publicity tool for yourself. Some factors to consider while thinking about this question would be your budget (since website hosting will cost you), time – do you have the time and knowledge to create your own website, and even some other factors like lack of tools, resources and such. Most recruiters prefer to see your work on your personal website – which brings out your unique personality and flare.
The thing is you need not stick to one tool/space to publish your work. We are in the digital era, maximising your online presence is never a wrong idea. One of the best spaces to do this would be at Thrilla Design, where the best of all case studies will be published to get you the necessary exposure from a recruiter and the design community.
4) Should I focus on the UI / visual elements designed or the process which led me there?
This is something that most beginners find themselves asking – UI or UX – which needs more attention. The answer is pretty simple – it is both, form follows function.
A design project does not exist without understanding its user needs and insights – the process of discovering solutions – iterating the solutions – and arriving at the final outcome. Simply highlighting your final screens, deliverables/solutions will get you nowhere. At the same time, a well thought out design process without visually pleasing elements will just not catch the eye of your readers. So do justice to both.
5) What kind of topics makes for a good case study?
Any of your projects can be converted into a case study. Let’s say you worked on an UI project for an idea you had. You simply have to make sure you covered all the steps mentioned above for the UI to make sense – research your users, test the UI with them and even showcase how you altered elements to suit them.
Highlighting the UX Design process is what will contribute towards making a great portfolio.
Expert opinions from the top designers in the field
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.Sarah Bellrichard, SVP of Wholesale Internet Solutions & UX at Wells Fargo
Having tailored examples of the job you’re going for, so if you’re going for a UX role which focuses on apps, having clear examples and processes of your previous app work will be great!Tim Cotterill, UX recruiter at Source LF
The core piece of UX is the ability to let the “why” inform the “what.”Melissa Perri, Product Manager, UX Designer, speaker, and coach at Produx Labs
Create a definitive list of goals you are trying to achieve – user goals, client goals, business goals
Explaining how user testing fits within the UX Design process, how it can help to improve the overall user experience using specific examples is a must for User Researchers.Sally Graham, Head of UX Research, WhatUsersDo Ltd
Storytelling is important. The interviewer wants to understand your process, your contribution to the team, and how your mind works.”Rebecca Levi, UX/UI/Product Design Recruiting Manager, The Joanne Weaver Group
We at Thrilla Design, hope you picked up some good tips from our comprehensive guide. We believe designers at any level should get access to quality help and guidance to advance their design careers.
You can write your case study now and send it to us for review.