Have you ever been told your UX portfolio lacks depth, or what you did is unclear, or that it doesn’t seem like you have enough experience, even though you know you do?
Or maybe you landed an in-person interview, it didn’t go very well because you stumbled through presenting and answering questions about your projects.
These are all symptoms of an underlying problem: your UX case studies are not written well enough.
After doing at least 100 hours of my own research through talking to UX candidates one-on-one, reviewing portfolios, and analyzing survey data, one thing became clear: UX professionals put too much emphasis on learning how to make deliverables, and not enough on articulating their design decisions.
When you can’t articulate your design decisions, it will make your day to day role harder, because you won’t know how to deal with pushback. And it will also limit your career options because your ability to write a strong case study is the foundation for creating a strong portfolio and doing well in interviews.
We’re going to go into:
- The role of case studies in your portfolio
- The anatomy of a case study
- The steps to writing a thorough, readable case study
Case studies are the UX application differentiator
It’s no longer enough to just show your work. According to the Center Centre, the job growth of UX designers is expected to rise 22% over the next 10 years. UX is a hot field, and there’s a lot of competition.
Your portfolio, therefore, can’t simply be a curation of sexy-looking deliverables. Recruiters and hiring managers need you to articulate your process and design decisions. A key skill for UX professionals is the ability to communicate; in any UX role, you’ll find yourself not just doing UX, but explaining it over and over.
If you don’t have well-written UX case studies, then how can recruiters and hiring managers trust that you’ll be able to communicate what you did and why you did it if they hire you?
Writing is a skill that we know is important, but as designers rarely practice or study enough. When it comes to UX case studies, though, the quality of your writing is one of the most important variables in the success of your portfolio.
Let’s be real, writing about your UX projects is not an easy task. However, the good news is that by following the steps that follow, you will clearly understand how to write more clearly.
Anatomy of a UX case study
When approaching your UX portfolio and case studies, my advice is to think like a lawyer. Because how do lawyers win legal cases? With strong communication, and even stronger evidence.
The projects inside your portfolio are like evidence in a legal case. And that’s why you must choose the projects for your portfolio very carefully.
Here’s what I recommend including in your UX case study:
- Problem statement
- Users and audience
- Roles and responsibilities
- Scope and constraints
- Process and what you did
- Outcomes and lessons
How to write your UX case study
As you write your case studies, don’t worry about length. Once you get it all on paper you can decide what to put into your portfolio. As you transition your written case studies to something more visual, you will edit them down and also consider how some of the text can be communicated visually.
Step 1. Give your project a title
The big mistake that people make is not giving the project title enough detail when a strong title can give context for the project.
Good: Home Depot user research for mobile app checkout
So-so: Home Depot user research
Bad: Home Depot
Step 2. Write an outline
Lay out your thoughts before you start giving up the details. An outline’s purpose is to help you understand the “big picture” of your project, so you can decide how to structure your case study or if the project is big enough to merit more than one case study.
Start your outline with the seven sections listed above, and start filling in bullet points under each section. Don’t worry about sentence structure; just write and get it out of your head. If you’ve been documenting your projects as you work on them, then you may have some of this already written.
Step 3. Fill in the details
Now that you have an outline and you see the big picture, you can start filling in details.
Give the “Process and what you did” section the bulk of your effort. This is where you’ll document the steps you took, just like documenting science experiments in high school.
You should be answering these questions:
- What did you do? For example, what research method did you use?
- Why did you do it? For example, why did you choose that research method?
- What was the result? For example, did you achieve your research goals?
- What did you learn? For example, what would you do differently next time?
Continuing with our (completely fictional) Home Depot example:
BAD: “We did usability testing on the checkout of the Home Depot mobile app.”
Why is this weak? Because it only tells the reader what you did. It doesn’t address why you did it, what happened, and what you learned.
GOOD: To evaluate the new checkout on the Home Depot mobile app, we relied on usage metrics in conjunction with 8 usability tests. This allowed us to gain deeper understanding through combining both qualitative and quantitative information. Although users were able to get through the checkout more quickly, they continued to struggle with the shipping section. Discussions with users discussion revealed that often times, products in one order have different shipping addresses, which was possible, but difficult in the current checkout.
This version is much stronger because it goes beyond just talking about what was done. Providing this depth is what will set you apart; articulating your design decisions and process will help position you as a more mature and thoughtful professional.
Step 4. Write headlines
At this point, you’re probably thinking something like “Who would ever read this novel?” Which is a good point. That’s why the next step will help you start to distill everything down so that you are focusing on the key highlights of the story.
The best way to do this is to pretend that you have to write your case study only in tweets. It sounds crazy, but it works.
For each section of the outline we’re working with, write a single headline or sentence—except for the Process section, where you’ll be focusing your energies. For the Process section, you’ll want to have a headline for each step. Using our previous fictitious Home Depot user research example, some of the headlines for the Process section might be:
- Step: What type of research you did and why you did it. Example: Analytics revealed customers struggled, and sometimes abandoned, checkout at the shipping section. To understand why, we conducted eight usability tests.
- Step: Findings from the research. Usability tests revealed that business customers, versus residential, had different shipping needs, which were not being addressed in the current checkout experience.
- Step: Impact of research on product development. We prototyped two new versions of the checkout, allowing customers to choose shipping address on a per-product basis.
By sticking to a 140 character limit, you’ll force yourself to identify the most important points of the case study—which will then become headlines when you create your actual portfolio.
A good way to test whether or not you have strong headlines is to ask yourself if someone would understand the main points of your project by skimming the headlines. If not, then re-write your headlines—because if you want the users of your UX portfolio to quickly understand your project, those are the most important points.
Step 5. Distill the text from your case study into your actual portfolio
Regardless of the format you choose for your portfolio, your writing needs to be clear and succinct.
It won’t happen in one edit! Let’s say you’re working in Keynote with slides, your process will look like this:
- Take the headlines you wrote and place one headline per slide in Keynote.
- Consider that you might merge some bits of information into one slide. For example, you might combine your overview and problem statement. It’s subjective, so you decide!
- Now, you need to go back and start to pull the most important and relevant details from your case study and put them on each slide, as supporting details or evidence.
Examples in action
Simon Pan’s UX portfolio website went viral because he had awesome case studies. Yes, he’s also a visual designer so it looks beautiful. But what you need to focus on is the content. His Uber case study is an excellent example, let’s take a look at why it works:
- Clear problem and framing of the project. Simon’s case study clearly states the problem and frames the project. So even if I’d never heard of Uber before, I’d have enough context to understand the project.
- Explanation of the process. Simon does this with a story. It’s easy to read and keeps my attention. It feels like a cool article that’s well thought out … not to mention the visual design helps draw key points out. In the screenshot below, he is explaining part of the Discovery process. It sounds like I’m reading an article, therefore it keeps my attention. And the use of a user research quote helps bring the story to life even more.
- Thoughtful conclusions and reflection. At the end, Simon concludes the case study with some results, reflections, and insights. People don’t just want to know what you did, they want to know the impact of what you did.
What comes next?
If you follow all these steps, you will have a longform case study edited down into something that’s more readable and scannable for the user of your UX portfolio.
And remember, the UX case studies you write serve many purposes. Of course, they are the foundation of your portfolio, but they also can feed into your resume, LinkedIn, cover letters, and what you say in an interview.
Want to read more by Sarah Doody?
by Sarah Doody
Sarah Doody is a User Experience Designer, Entrepreneur, and Educator. She helps companies assess product ideas, understand customers, and design and optimize the experience. She created the popular weekly newsletter, The UX Notebook. Sarah is a contributing author to InVision, UX Magazine, UX Mastery, UX Matters, and has been published in the New York Times. Sarah is committed to helping people learn to think like a designer. She does this through online and in-person UX education programs on topics including user research, storyboarding, rapid prototyping, and creating a UX portfolio. In 2011, she created the curriculum for and taught General Assembly’s first 12-week UX immersive, the genesis of their popular UX programs which are now taught worldwide.