Anatomy of a Case Study

by Tiffani Jones Brown

How do you condense a full project, complete with technical details, into a few paragraphs? Even trickier: How do you affect the right tone and make it enjoyable to read? Writing case studies is hard.


Judging by what I’ve seen around the tubes, there are two polarizing approaches to the task: You either take the entertaining, marketing-happy approach or you take conservative, technical-thorough one. Neither tack seems particularly satisfying.

Really, the case study regularly comes off like a boring “we-had-to” addition to the design showcase. But is it?

What’s the Point?

I think it’s important to consider the purpose of the case study. Its most basic function is to add depth and meaning to your portfolio, by literally describing what you did: design, copywriting, XHTML/CSS templates, project management, whatever.

Its other (and arguably more important) job is to distill out the essence and meaning of your work, in relation to the client. To illustrate, in short form, how what you’ve delivered is more unique, efficient, or profitable than what came before.

The Basics.

The tone and content of your writing will likely vary from project-to-project, and according to your business and audience. Still, I think it’s safe to say that most case studies should be:

  • As brief as possible, without omitting essentials. Long case studies are a pain to read, no matter how engrossed your readers are. If you’ve got something truly unique and attractive to customers that requires more exposition, go ahead and write that gigantic case study. If not, keep it concise.
  • Understandable to humans, not robots. I think this goes without saying. It’s important that your writing be sensical and accessible, perhaps conversational, even if you’re writing to techie insiders who really get the mechanics what you do.
  • Low on adjectives, high on metaphor. I make this mistake all the time. There’s a big difference between jamming adjectives in your sentences and in using metaphor, which is far more productive. Adjectives add bulk and obscure meaning when overused; metaphors rely on story-telling and ingenuity to create more meaning. Metaphors help you say things better, with less words.
  • Themed, but straightforward. Framing your case studies thematically (“The Sparkly Summer Day-like Project”) is fine, as long as they make sense. In the end, you still have to communicate the actual details of what you did.

They do matter.

Not everyone will dive deep enough into your site to read your case studies, but many of your potential customers will. When they do, they should get a clear and immediate sense of what each of your projects entailed, the kinds of services you offer, and—most importantly—how what you did positively impacted the client.

Use that as your bottom line, and you’re set (even if you aren’t the king of metaphors).


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We packed up shop in early 2011 to work at Facebook. Tiffani now works at Pinterest and Matt is working on secret projects. To keep up with us, check out the Brown Blog or follow @brownthings and @ticjones!