Ah, the dreaded user research case study presentation. It’s a standard part of the interview process where you are meant to show off your wonderful skills in an aesthetically pleasing, concrete, concise, and well-rounded manner—and with a smile on your face no less!
The first time I presented a case study was after my user research internship. I committed some of the most common mistakes:
- Not talking through my thought process
- Too many photos with no explanation
- Too many words crammed into the page
- No reflections or next steps
- Not reporting on the impact the research had
Since then, I have created (and practiced with) many different case studies. But I also became a hiring manager who's observed many case study presentations. With this experience, I have learned the best practices of presenting case studies in a compelling and thought-provoking manner.
What is a user research case study?
Great question! A user research case study is a walk-through or reflection of the work you have completed in the past. It is your way to demonstrate the value you provide to an organization. It’s a story about a project you have accomplished and gives your audience a step-by-step understanding of how you approached it.
Case studies are at the heart of an interview and an integral piece to making it through to the next step during the interview process. If you tell a compelling and clear story of projects, you are more likely to get more interviews and further the interview process. Additionally, you will feel more confident during the interview process and with the next steps.
What to include in a case study
When you write a user research case study, there are areas you should include. However, always use your judgment. If a particular project did not cover one of these topics, you don't have to make something up or force information into it. Use these topics as guidelines.
As a hiring manager, I always look for the following in user research case studies:
- Context. Give a small introduction to yourself of something outside of your resume (e.g. what has changed about you in the past five years, your favorite hobbies). Also, give a short introduction and context to the organization. Finally, briefly introduce the project topic. Keep in mind to not use any jargon from the industry that others may not understand.
- Your role. What was your role in the research project? Who else did you work with, and how did you work with them? Were you a leader of the project? How did you prioritize this project?
- Timeline. What was the overall timeline of the project? Consider breaking down the different parts of the timeline (e.g. recruitment X weeks, research Y weeks, analysis Z weeks).
- Research statement and goals. What is the research problem/question that you were trying to answer? Where did this problem/question come from (e.g. previous research, management)? Did you need to get buy-in for this research? If so, how? What were the goals of the research project?
- Research methodology. What methodologies did you use for the project? Why did you choose these methods? How did you conclude on these methods? Think about combining qualitative and quantitative research methods and how they worked together. Were other stakeholders a part of the research? How long did the interviews last? How many were there?
- Recruitment criteria and process. Who did you recruit for the study? Why did you recruit these particular people? How did you recruit them (e.g. tools)? Did you incentivize them? Why or why not? What are some examples of screener questions?
- Sample questions asked or usability tasks. Show some examples of your questions from a moderation guide or tasks you asked during the usability test. If possible, you can link to the actual moderator's guide.
- Analysis and synthesis process. How did you analyze and synthesize all of the data? What types of techniques and processes did you use? Did you debrief after each of the sessions? Why/why not? Who else was a part of the synthesis process? Include examples and screenshots, even if that means you have to blur out sensitive information!
- Outputs/Deliverables. What were the outputs of the research? What were the deliverables, and why did you choose those? How did you share the research (e.g. reports with videos)? Include examples and screenshots, even if that means you have to blur out sensitive information!
- Impact. What was the impact of your research on the team, the organization, and the business? Who used the insights, and how did they use them? What changed because of your research? What were the business implications of your research (e.g. impacting business metrics/KPIs)?
- Next steps and recommendations. What are the next steps after the research? What is the follow-up? What recommendations did you make to the team and organization? How did the research insights tie to any design or product changes?
- Reflections. Reflect on the research project. What went well? What didn't go as well? What challenges did you face? What would you change/improve for next time?
I always recommend outlining before designing your case study. You can spend hours playing around with fonts, colors, templates, and layouts, but don't let those dictate your project. First, get all of the information down, then you can start putting it into a presentation format.
How to present your case study
Before the presentation
There is some work to do before you even head into the case study interview. Here are a few steps you can take to ensure the best possible outcome:
- Read (and reread) the job profile. It is crucial to be familiar with the job role and the expectations before choosing your case study. In this way, your case study is a little like a cover letter. The projects and skills you choose to highlight during the presentation should be aligned with what would be expected from you in the role you're applying for.
- Research the company. Keep in mind the goals and context of the company. For instance, if you are interviewing for a B2B position, choose to present B2B case studies or case studies that showcase the most relevant skills. Knowing the company's purpose and vision can help you talk about how you have strategically tackled similar concepts in the past.
- Research the team. Like above, and ask much as possible, try to find out information about the team you will be joining. They may have a page where you can see what type of research they do or their vision as a team. If not, this is a great question to ask after your presentation!
- Choose your projects based on the job profile. Choose two projects that match most closely with the job profile. Typically, you can get through two projects within a 90-minute case study interview. Always choose case studies that show off different skills—for instance, one generative or strategic study and one evaluative study. If you are starting out and only have one case study, that is okay! Put as much detail into your case study as possible.
During the presentation
There are some best practices to keep in mind for the actual case study presentation. I typically look for the following during these interviews:
- Explain your process. Likely you will not have written thought or explanation in your case study. With this in mind, please use the case study presentation to explain your process to me. I see many researchers who skip from interviewing to insights, with no explanation of how they arrived at the insights. As a hiring manager, I need to know how you approach problems to project how you might tackle similar issues at the organization you're interviewing for.
- Report on impact. As much as possible, always return to your research's impact on a team or organizational level. Whenever talking through a research project's success, tie it back to the team or organization's vision or purpose--what were some long-lasting benefits of the research? What did it tell people?
- Talk about collaboration and alone time. Researchers are meant to work with others, either on a research team or with stakeholders. However, the truth may be that a lot of work we do is in a vacuum. Ensure to demonstrate both sides of being an independent researcher, but also a collaborator. You want to clarify that you can connect research to other areas of the organization, but you can also work autonomously when necessary.
- Include reflections and challenges/improvements. Like all professions, user researchers aren't perfect. I always find it important when candidates can reflect on the lessons they learned and talk about how they have already made improvements. Have some concrete examples ready for struggles and what you did to overcome them.
- Include activities outside of your day-to-day. Maybe you love democratizing research, or you're an excellent workshop facilitator, or you have tips for managing tough stakeholders; regardless, talk about the activities you do or love that could help benefit the team you'd be joining.
- Make your introduction about yourself. I find this part so important! Talk about yourself and your life outside of work briefly during your introduction. For instance, talk about a hobby you love or a hobby you just started. I always talk about my love for Pokemon and animals. I also chat about writing fiction novels. This portion shows a bit more about your personality outside of work.
After the presentation
I can't stress this enough but have a list of questions you are ready to ask your interviewer. This list will help if you freeze on the spot and cannot come up with any questions. I tend to get wary when interviewees have no questions for me after a presentation. Some great topics to ask about are:
- Struggles the hiring manager has had
- The best part of working at the company
- The hardest part of working at the company
- What the team is like (team culture)
- What the team does to bond outside of work
- Who the hiring manager works with on a daily/weekly basis
Finally, consider sending a follow-up thank you email. You may not have the email of the people you spoke with, but you can send an email to the recruiter you have spoken to with a quick thank you message. Getting a thank you email from a candidate honestly brightens my day, so I highly recommend this!
Nikki Anderson is a qualitative user experience researcher with about 5 years in the field. She loves solving human problems and petting all the dogs. Read more of her work on Medium.