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Last updated on 5/20/20

Integrate case studies

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As we dig deeper into what makes an outstanding portfolio, it's important to consider how you can integrate case studies to go more in-depth and contextualize the projects you've worked on. Case studies provide a good look at projects beyond just showing a single image in a portfolio. They allow you to tell a story around a project from who the users are to how you implemented changes. You're able to share insights, challenges, and breakthroughs that one would never know from looking at the end result.

Create a template

There's no one way to approach case studies. They're also not something that is set in stone. Once you create your own template, you may find that you want to update and adapt it over time. Still, it helps to have a jumping off point. To do this, take out your sketchbook and jot down some preliminary ideas of what you'd like to include. Then, look around to see how other people have approached presenting case studies.

Consider how you can create a template which will serve as a model for all of the work you want to present. While not every project is the same or has the same perimeters, consider your case study template as your first step, and then adapt as needed.

Another way to approach creating a template is to think about two very different projects you want to include. Look at the spectrum of information you'll need to incorporate. Then consider the challenges you may face from presenting information in one way versus another. These "extremes" are often considered "edge cases" in the field of UX. Often designing for the most "difficult" situations can make the rest of the work you do easier because you've considered these variations early on, and integrated them into your solution.

The benefit of working with a template is that it can help ensure you feature the key points and elements you want to show. It can be tempting to want to reveal everything, but you need to think like an editor, explain what's essential, and keep your audience in mind.

Delineate each project clearly, so the viewer doesn't get confused by what they're looking at. While you are very close to your projects, this will likely be the first time the viewer is coming into contact with them. In your template, you'll want to use a clear, consistent hierarchy of typography, color, or icons to help separate each project. Organize different types of information by aligning content using thin lines or boxes. Create a template for a project, and then apply it to other projects.

First impressions matter, so if you put something together that captures someone's eye, you'll be more likely to be called in for an interview. The more impressed that person is by your portfolio, the better your chance at landing the job.

Determine what to include

After you've spent months, or even years, working on a project, it can be hard to determine what's interesting, or essential to the viewer. One way to go about this is just to talk it out. Call up a friend, former colleague, or fellow freelancer and ask if they're willing to listen. As you talk out loud, you can start to hear what's most interesting. You can also ask for their opinion. It can be refreshing to have an outside perspective so that you can figure out what's essential, and to help ensure that you've connected all the dots.

Here are some elements you want to include for any case study:

  • Title: This not only helps identify each project, but it helps the viewer differentiate what they're looking at. (Some case studies will be one page, while others may be multiple. Consider if you should put the title on each page, or graphically denote each one that is part of the same project to help guide the viewer and minimize any confusion.)

  • Brief description: This could be framed as a problem statement, challenge, or overview. You don't want long wordy paragraphs. Keep your sentences clear, direct, and to the point. Consider bullet points when it helps with clarity. The description should help provide context and set up the project so the viewer can easily understand what they're looking at. You could also integrate questions that you asked.

  • Methodologies: Don't assume the viewer knows what went into the work you did. Spell it out. If it's a technique you've developed, that may need additional explanation. (You're more likely to share methodologies for a UX portfolio than for UI, but you could always reference a style guide as one alternative.)

  • Your role: If you worked with other people on a project, don't try to hide that. They want people who can collaborate and are a team player. Think of it as an asset to show how you've worked with others.

  • Photos, screenshots, or other visuals: Seeing is believing. Visuals are a great way to help tell a story. Use captions to communicate what they're showing.

As we've established, every project is different, but it can be valuable to integrate creative constraints that you encountered. This could be anything from a limited timeline, a particular challenge the user base presented (break it down for the viewer), or particular business goal you were working towards that limited the direction you took. In the "real world" designers are regularly faced with various challenges, so it's beneficial to present them along with your work.

Failure is also a reality of work. Everything you do doesn't always go as planned. Case studies are a good place to address the challenges you encountered. Failure is an opportunity to learn. No designer is perfect and gets everything right the first time. Consider which insights surprised you or unexpected things you learned while working on the project which is interesting to share. (Warning: these insights are often mundane, but they also will highlight you as a keen observer.)

The tweet below from UX expert Jared Spool points out key phrases that are typically missing from case studies in portfolios. 

Key phrases, missing from practically every portfolio case study I read:  • The challenge we ran into was… • I realized we didn’t understand… • Our first attempt to address this challenge was… • We learned these critical things we never kn
Tweet from Jared Spool (@jmspool).

If you click the link to the thread, he goes on to point out that "Portfolio case studies that portray the project as proceeding perfectly as planned are: a) Not realistic b) Not interesting c) Not showing the most important facet of your skillset: Your capacity to learn and adapt."

Remember, from each challenge, roadblock, or failure along the way, there are lessons to be learned in any project. Showing the process will reflect the real-life factors that influenced the choices you made.

Metrics are useful to share when you have data that helped inform your design decisions. You could show A/B tests in a visual form, as well as the results. As you present the case study, it becomes a learning moment for everyone. You can break down how you conducted the test, as well as factors you took into account. Perhaps you were inspired to test a particular aspect of a website flow inspired by usability test you observed. If this was the case, make that clear in your case study. Numbers are a good way to help get your point across. A case study which integrates metrics is also good to show stakeholders on a future project if you're trying to convince them to do something similar; you can pull from your past work to help drive your point home.

When putting together your portfolio, don't wait until it's perfect to get feedback. Talking through your work with someone else—both inside and outside of the industry—can be a valuable way to make sure you've included all the key information to communicate the stories you want to tell. Like any project, your portfolio and case studies will get stronger with each iteration.

Company hiring challenges

Companies are regularly looking for ways they can help ensure you're the right hire for their team. Your portfolio has impressed them, it gets you to the interview round where they felt like you were a good fit for the company culture, and for the last phase, it's a "test" to ensure you will be able to apply your skills and know-how to a scenario more directly related to the company.

For a take-home test you are often given a challenge and will be asked to complete it within a certain time period (often not more than a couple days). They may provide you with a scenario (or three) with various tasks to complete, screenshots, and information about the problem they are trying to solve. You may be asked how you will approach a certain project, or how you'd go about making a project plan given the information you are presented.

In your challenge response, you may want to consider how you can break it down into different steps to clearly denote your priorities. You also could create some simple visuals or sketches to help explain some concepts. If you don't have all the information you need, frame your responses to prioritize which information you would need to find out before proceeding.

Take-home tests will vary depending on the role you're applying for. For a UX researcher, you may be presented with a scenario and be asked what how you would plan the research, or how you would advise a team to move ahead, as well as what additional questions you'd ask. A take-home test for a UI designer will likely be related directly to the branding of the company you're working for. They may provide you with some files and a style guide, as well as guidelines for what you need to do.

Let's recap!

  • Case studies are a way to go deeper into your projects and highlight your process.

  • Creating a template for your case studies will help create consistency across your work, as well as saving you time. They can be adapted for any future projects you may want to add.

  • Show your best work in your portfolio, rather than trying to show it all. Use your case studies to think like a storyteller where you can teach the viewer something new along the way.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement