Inquiry: Methods and Models for In-House Case Studies

In my last case studies post, I touched on how in-house creatives could take advantage of Scrum by using retrospectives to look back on what was made, what was in progress, what worked, and what didn’t work. But do you need to go through the trouble of learning Scrum and using its framework if all you need is the postmortem, the retrospective of your past work? If not, then use case studies.

Agencies frequently use case studies for not only internal analysis, but also for new client development. In an agency setting, a case study shows the client (or prospective client) your capabilities by giving a “deep dive” into what you bring to the table, and how you can solve their problem or problems. An agency’s case study might include one project broken down the following ways (to show one project and the many things that project required you to deliver):

  • Public Edition: resides online for anyone to access; publishes “just enough” information about the project, without giving away too much related to intellectual property, budget, reach, etc.
  • Recruitment Edition: used explicitly for recruiting new clients, and may or may not have more detail than the Public version
  • Client Edition: will have more than the two cases above, but may leave out specifics related to agency fees, time on tasks, and other labor; transparency (or a lack thereof) will vary from agency to agency; some are completely transparent, and others are not
  • Internal Edition: contains everything, although in some cases, you may not need to (nor want to) share a project’s complete budget and fees with junior designers or interns

For the in-house creative, you can choose to build your case studies into a complete package, or you can weed it down to just the specifics you need. If you work with third parties, such as hiring an app developer to create an app because you don’t have the personnel to do it in house, you may want to customize your case study to only show information the third-party needs.

What’s Your Purpose? Your Inquiry?

What should a case study include? What should it leave out? These are two questions that in-house creatives will need to establish on their own. Dr. Zucker’s article that I referenced in my last post provides a couple of approaches, among them, one based on R.K. Yin’s methods and another on R.E. Stake’s. Knowing the purpose of your case study is tantamount to success, as it will determine what you collect, catalog and analyze.

Who’s the case study for? Who’s going to use its information? What do you want to get out of the case study? These are some of the questions you’ll have to ask yourself, and your colleagues, before you go down the rabbit hole of gathering project management schedules, critique reports, spreadsheets, audience feedback and financial figures. Consider case study inquiries such as, “Why did this project go smoother than that one?” or “What kind of experience do our users have when interacting with our website?” If you can identify what question you want to answer at the get go, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too, but know that you may be venturing on a long journey through data without a destination in sight. Yes, that can be adventurous. But it could also be a dead end.

Case Study Data Collection, Some Suggestions

  1. Project Purpose, Problem It Solves
  2. Intended Product
  3. Creative Brief
  4. Marketing Plan
  5. Price to Produce
  6. Price for Consumer(s)
  7. Targeted Consumer(s)
  8. Consumer Behavior
  9. Place or Places It’s Used
  10. Timeline, Project Management Schedule
  11. Creative Process, Roughs, Prototypes, Final Products
  12. Focus Group Results
  13. Budget
  14. Creative Input
  15. Amount of Creative Output, Revisions
  16. Final Release, Final Product
  17. Final Product and Its Relationship to the Intended Product
  18. Feedback Accumulated

When building a case study, you can collect all of the suggested data above. Or, if budget is your goal, you could stick to collecting financial data related to the project. Taking a singular path in that manner will help keep you focused – as long as you’re rigorous in collecting material and rigorous in analyzing the material. If you choose to have one singular question in hand at the get go, it should, in theory, make the analysis go quicker. Always remember to ask for help. If you want to investigate budgetary matters, will you be the one crunching the numbers, or will you get one of your colleagues on board who understands Microsoft Excel inside, outside, sideways, upside down and backwards?


In-house_chairs-628; case studies

Photo from Shutterstock

But you could also choose to build a case study for purely exploratory reasons. It may be an adventure, but it could also help you uncover something that you never even dreamed of discovering. Diving into a case study without a goal in mind may reveal things inductively, rather than deductively. An inductive case study would have you collect material, discuss it among your colleagues or analyze it on your own, and identify themes, issues, influences, problems or successes via the material at hand – and without going into the process with a question. It’s more about seeing patterns, relationships and differences on your own, just by paying attention to what you see.

From Broad to Specific

But those kinds of case study adventures aren’t for everyone, and aren’t always the best use of your time. In which case, be sure to have an inquiry from the get go, but be focused. A question such as “Why did this project go smoother than that one?” may be too broad, since “smoother” can be interpreted subjectively, so instead, consider asking questions such as these:

  • “Why did this project go quicker than that one?” which is a question of time, and focuses your time and efforts on time-related and process-related data
  • “Why did this project’s concept get approved quicker than that one?” could focus on time, but it could also push you to look at the actual design itself and the process you used throughout the creative iterations, or you could look at the approval process you and your colleagues went through
  • “Why did this product sell better than that one?” dives into sales, marketing, production expenses, and return on investment, requiring you to look at and analyze the numbers

Another factor to consider is how the project fits into your organization. You could look at the project intrinsically, focusing on that one project alone, separated from other work. Or, you could look at it extrinsically, and investigate it in comparison to other work. An intrinsic case study would focus on the purpose, process, product, price, and reach of that one project, all on its own. And you could go deep into any one of those issues. An extrinsic case study would look at a project related to other projects, and you could look to compare and/or contrast it with other design within your own in-house landscape. Or you could compare it to something outside of your organization, such as your competition.

On the surface, an intrinsic case study makes sense for organizations looking to investigate internal matters, be they related to personnel, budget, teamwork, time or energy. An extrinsic case study can do the same if and when you look at other organizations outside of your own. But you’ll need to get good data from outside your organization.

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll touch on the tangibles and intangibles that go into building your actual case study. In the meantime, read some case studies in the wild.


  • 1910’s Wikipedia redesign is not just a speculative project, it’s also a look into the studio’s process, and as a case study, it shows their knowledge of media
  • Methodologie’s Boeing One brand work gets to the heart of things by focusing on the notion of “one,” and the studio also offers you access to customizable case study reports, downloaded as PDF files
  • smashLAB’s identity work for British Columbia Film (BC Film) walks readers through the needs, process, and end results in a chronological fashion, and the real pay off comes in learning about the job’s scope, key benefits, assets, and feedback, all of which are bulleted-pointed at the case study’s conclusion for quick reading


  • Awwwards: websites that work and impress, with background on how they were made
  • Brand New publishes news about corporate identity and logos, and gives insight into what works and what doesn’t, as well as the opportunity for readers to vote


Want to take “lean” methods to your in-house team? HOW’s Lean In-house Design Teams Expert Guide dives into the “what” and “why” behind lean approaches, and how it can help your team produce more, faster.