UX designer sitting at a desk, appearing satisfied with her work on her UX case study

How to Craft an Outstanding Case Study for Your UX Portfolio

Jonny Grass

Writing case studies for your UX portfolio can feel opaque and overwhelming. There are so many examples out there, and often the ones that make the rounds are the stunning portfolios of top visual designers. It can be inspiring to see the most beautiful work, but don’t let that distract you from the straightforward format of a good UX case study. 

At the core, a UX case study relies on excellent storytelling with a clear, understandable structure. This article breaks down the anatomy of a UX case study to help you tell a simple and effective story that shows off your skills. We’ll start with some general guidelines and structure, then break it down one piece at a time: 

  1. Before we get started
    UX portfolio overview
    What is a UX case study?
    General guidelines
    How to structure a case study
    How to fill in the details
  2. Anatomy of a UX case study
    Background
    Defining the problem
    Understanding your users
    Early or alternate ideation
    Final design solution
    Next steps and learnings
  3. Final thoughts

1. Before we get started

UX portfolio overview

Before we dive into all the art and science of the case study, here’s a quick refresher on some general guidelines to help you create a job-winning UX portfolio. See what CareerFoundry UX design mentor Tobias has to say about it: 

 

What is a UX case study?

Simply put, a case study is the story of a design project you’ve worked on. The goal, of course, is to showcase the skills you used on the project and help potential employers envision how you’d use those skills if you worked for them. 

A case study is typically written like a highly visual article, with text walking readers through a curated set of images. Curated is an important word here, because it should be short and sweet. It’s a chance to share what you want potential employers to know about your work on this project.

With that in mind, case studies are really a UX designer’s secret weapon in two ways. First, they get you in the door by showing more about your work than a resume and a cover letter ever could. Another benefit is that they’re really handy in job interviews. If someone asks about a past project, you can walk them through the case study you’ve already created (this is sometimes a requirement anyway).

General guidelines

I mentioned that UX case studies are about storytelling. I’d actually say they’re about stories-telling, since they need to tell two intertwined stories

The first is the story of your project. This answers questions like what problem you solved, who your users were, what solutions you explored, and what impact they had. 

The second story is about you as a designer and your process. This is more about which methods you chose to use and why, how you worked within constraints, and how you worked as a member of a team (or without one). 

How to structure a case study

So what are the steps for an effective case study? Well, like most things in design (and life), it depends. Every case study will be different, depending on what stories you’re telling. The six-part outline below, though, should guide you through an effective format for any UX project story. Here’s the outline (we’ll dive into each component in just a minute):

  1. Background
  2. Defining the Problem
  3. Understanding your Users
  4. Early or alternate ideation
  5. Final solution
  6. Next steps and learnings

How to fill in the details

UX designer looking at a whiteboard with rough prototypes

It’s worth it to add a few general notes before we dive into each of the list items above. For each section, include 1-2 short paragraphs and an image of a deliverable that visually tells the story your paragraphs explain. A reader should be able to either just read or just look at the images and roughly get what this moment in the story is communicating. 

When choosing images to include, focus on quality over quantity.  Choose your best deliverables for each stage and briefly relate them back to the larger narrative. It can be tempting to overload the page with everything you created along the way, but these extra details should stay in your back pocket for interviews. 

Lastly, make sure your case study is scannable. In the best of circumstances, people don’t read word for word on the web. Make sure your text is reasonably concise, use headers and strong visual hierarchy, and use bullet points and lists when possible. 

Ok, let’s take a look at each step in a bit more detail.

2. Anatomy of a UX case study

Close-up on UX designer's hands, writing on a stick note over a whiteboard mockup

Background

Like any story, the introduction sets the stage and gives much of the necessary context readers will need to understand your project. This is one section where people actually might take some extra time to read carefully as they try to discern what this case study is about. Make sure they have all the details they need.

Some key questions to answer are:

  • What is your company and/or product?
  • What user problem did you try to solve?
  • What was your role?
  • What tools and methods did you use?
  • What are the major insights, impacts, or metrics related to the project

Defining the problem

After introducing the project, dive more deeply into the problem you tackled. You touched upon this in the introduction, but this section is an opportunity to make a strong case for why this project exists. Did a competitor analysis or market research demand a new product? Was there past user research in your company that suggests a needed redesign of the product? 

Remember that you’ll want to create a through line in the narrative, so try to lay out the problem in a way that frames your design work as a solution. 

Deliverables that work really well for this section would be:

  • Analytics or usage data
  • Market research of internal business metrics
  • Survey results or interview highlights

Understanding your users

After explaining the problem, show how it impacts your users and their interaction with your product. If you did original user research or you’re seeking user research-oriented jobs, sharing interview scripts, affinity maps, and spreadsheets can be useful in showing your process. 

However, this section shouldn’t be only about your process. A key goal of this section is articulating who your users are and what their needs are. These findings should set up your design work that follows, so try to set up that connection. 

A few types of the deliverables you might share here are:

  • User personas
  • Mental models
  • Journey maps or customer experience maps

Keep in mind you want to communicate users’ key motivations and challenges, as well as any more specific user groups you identified. 

Early or alternate ideation

Close-up on a UX designer's hands, working on a set of paper prototypes

This section can really scale up or down depending on what you have to show. Research shows that hiring managers don’t just want the final product, so it’s clear that showing some of your process is helpful. Especially for students or designers without a fully built product to show, this can be a moment for you to shine. 

Don’t worry about the low fidelity of these documents, but the rougher they are, the more you’ll need to guide readers through them. Everything you show here should teach the reader something new about your process and/or your users.

Artifacts you might include are:

  • Diagrams
  • Pen and paper or low fidelity digital wireframes
  • Site maps

If you did early testing or faced constraints that determined your future design work, be sure to include them here, too.

Final design solution

This section should include the most final work you did on the project (e.g. wireframe flows or color mockups) and any final product it led to (if you have it). Be clear, though, about which work is yours and which isn’t.

Explain any key decisions or constraints that changed the design from the earlier stages. If you incorporated findings from usability testing, that’s great. If not, try to call out some best practices to help you explain your decisions. Referring to Material Design, WCAG, or Human Interface Guidelines can show the why behind your design.

If you’re able to show the impact of your work, this can take a good case study and make it outstanding. If your project has already been built and made available to users, have a look at any analytics, satisfaction data, or other metrics. See what you could highlight  in your case study to show how your design improved the user experience or achieved business goals. Ideally, you can refer back to your original problem statement and business goals from the introduction. 

If you don’t have any way of showing the impact of your project, lay out how you would measure the impact. Showing you know how to measure success demonstrates you could do this on future projects.

Next steps and learnings

Lastly, conclude your case study by sharing either your next design steps and/or some key insights you learned from the project. This isn’t just fluff! No project is perfect or final. Showing next steps is a great way to demonstrate your thinking iterative approach (without having to do the work!). 

Also, many companies do (or should do) retrospectives after each project to identify challenges and improve future processes. Use this process and the insights you gain from it to inform your case study. Letting employers know you’re capable of reflection shows humility, self-awareness, and the value you can bring to a team.

3. Final thoughts

Since each case study is a unique story you’re telling about your project, it’s a little art and a little science. But starting with the structure laid out in this article will show who you are as a designer and how you solved a problem. And those are two stories companies want to hear! 

If you’d like to learn more about how to craft a great UX portfolio, check out these articles:

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Jonny Grass

Jonny Grass

Contributer to the CareerFoundry Blog

Jonny Grass is a freelance researcher and designer who’s been tutoring students in CareerFoundry’s UX design courses since February 2017. He spends way too much time riding bikes, cooking, traveling, and drawing silly comics you can see at www.jonnygrass.com/comics. He plans to spend more way-too-much-time on each of these in the future.