One of the benefits of using Scrum for your in-house projects includes conducting a retrospective: you look at the problem you had to solve, what you created, what results you had, and what feedback you got, as well as any items remaining to be done. You identify what worked well or not so well, and find ways to improve.
One of my recent HOWdesign.com posts looked at how to use a modified Scrum for your in-house projects. There are plenty of other resources at HOW for learning more about Scrum, including my expert guide, Becoming an Agile Designer.
But you don’t need Scrum to conduct a retrospective or build a postmortem. Case studies are a perfect alternative, and this is the first in a multi-part series that looks at case studies by identifying what makes them both unique and valuable in other fields. Subsequent posts will push case studies closer to design, cite case study models of practice, and establish some guidelines for building your own case studies.
Case studies have been used in social sciences to research a specific area in order to learn more, to dig deeper. They can help you find patterns, and analyze why something happened or didn’t happen. Case studies have also been used with great success in medicine, and Dr. Donna M. Zucker’s methodology is a worthwhile overview. Her 2009 version of the article positions case studies within nursing, and is intended to be used as a teaching tool, making it not only a good overview, but also a good way to explore how you can put it to use for yourself.
photo from Shutterstock
The Case Study, One Definition
So what exactly is a case study? Within the sciences, D.B. Bromley’s 1990 article “Academic contributions to psychological counseling: I. A philosophy of science for the study of individual cases” is often cited when defining the case study as a “systematic inquiry into an event or a set of related events which aims to describe and explain the phenomenon of interest.” Case studies help you consider and identify what worked and what didn’t in your design. Or by going back to your early concepts, and identifying which ones survived and which ones were left on the cutting room floor, you can learn more about your own process, as well as what you did right in terms of research and execution. Other questions you may be able to answer include:
- Why did your colleagues select the final design concept that you showed them?
- What did they find interesting, or more importantly, what did they find valuable? Or find useful?
- If you used a focus group, or got feedback from an external audience, the same holds true: Why did they like (or dislike) the design.
With Dr. Zucker’s definition and examples, case studies get framed within a context that may resonate more immediately with designers: “Case studies of individuals in health care research (to take one example) often involve in-depth interviews with participants and key informants, review of the medical records, observation, and excerpts from patients’ personal writings and diaries. Case studies in nursing, for example, have a practical function in that they can be immediately applicable to the participant’s diagnosis or treatment.” Interviews and observations are as valuable in nursing as they are in graphic design. But the problem is that few designers, especially those in-house, may take the time to do that.
HOW’s comprehensive Expert Guide, Becoming an Agile Designer, explores how project management systems and tools can enable you to release work more rapidly and more often.
In terms of documentation, as Zucker references with diaries, if you are keeping a journal in-house, to monitor your progress and your output, then good for you. If not, you should get started. What about “diagnosis” and “treatment”? Case studies are an excellent way to: identify what worked well or not well in your design (diagnosis) in order to repeat that success. Or if something went wrong, you need to identify it, so you can nurse a fledgling project back to health (treatment). Other take aways you get from a case study could help you produce something that works well (and works appropriately) much quicker from the get go, so you can save time.
Data, Information, and Expectations
What designers will realize after reading Dr. Zucker’s documentation and methodology, is the way that models are used in order to map subject matter, experience, perspective, meaning, and chronology. In a nutshell, it’s using information design in order to review a design project (kind of “meta” if you think about it). If you’re able to identify what you want out of the case study upfront and when you begin, then great. But, here’s the reality: you may not be able to, and instead, you may only come to a conclusion at the end of your mapping and assessment.
In her conclusion, Dr. Zucker suggests that case studies, when used in nursing, can provide value in their findings. The key word there is “findings.” Ultimately, you want to be able to address the “how” and “why” with respect to what worked and what didn’t in order to help you perform better next time. Being able to identify this “how” and “why” are tantamount to success, and Dr. Zucker points this out in her article, where she cites Dr. Robert Yin. If you want to go deep, and learn everything there is to know about case study research, consider Dr. Yin’s book a must read.
For in-house designers, marketing managers, creative directors, and brand strategists, it’s important to recognize that when you conduct a case study, you can collect all of your notes, demographic information, marketing reach, marketing penetration, Google Analytics, budget numbers, and return on investment, but if all you have is a folder (paper or digital) full of stuff, then that’s all you’re going to have: a lot of stuff. You’ve got to dig deep into it, make comparisons, find differences, analyze issues, influences, results, and feedback. And you’ll likely have to ask questions and get answers. It’s a lot of work. And it’s called case studies for a reason: you’ve got to do some studying, some investigating.
Check back to read my follow-up post where I discuss models of practice, and share recommendations for building your own case studies.
In the meantime, here’s some recommended reading:
- Graphic Design Process: From Problem to Solution 20 Case Studies by Nancy Skolos and Tom Wedell
- Just Design: Socially Conscious Design for Critical Causes by Christopher Simmons — You can order this one from MyDesignShop for 77% off.
- Marketing with Social Media by Linda Coles
- Case Study Research: Design and Methods by Robert K. Yin
For many, doing good work that also does good in the world is part of the ethos of design practice. Just Design: Socially Conscious Design for Critical Causes by Christopher Simmons celebrates and explores how design ignites change by compiling and displaying a vast array of inspiring people, projects and causes. Inside Just Design you’ll find:
- Over 140 brilliant design solutions from many of the world’s top designers & brand new work from emerging designers and undiscovered talent
- The fascinating stories behind these projects—plus 10 in depth case studies.
- Essays by Alissa Walker, Kate Andrews, Aaris Sherin, Alice Bybee, Cinthia Wen and Brian Collins.
- Inspirational profiles and interviews with designers such as Emily Pilloton, Michael Osborne and Randy J. Hunt, and unique perspectives from Kalle Lasn, Brian Dougherty and Ric Grefe.
Just Design is the first book to go so in depth on this increasingly important topic. You’ll get to see how the brilliant minds in this industry have used their skills and talents to make a real difference in the world, and hopefully it can inspire you to do the same. Get it here.