How To Write An Effective Case Study

By | April 29, 2016

Case studies can be a useful way to explore a topic, give an example of work you have done, or show what might be possible if a particular approach was taken. This post shows how you can write an effective case study using a technique more commonly used for job interviews and applications.

An effective case study is quite like a good answer to an interview question. In both cases you need to:

  • quickly bring the reader/interviewer up to speed on a particular situation,
  • clarify what the problem was that needed to be solved,
  • show exactly what you did,
  • explain what the result of your actions was

In an interview you are trying to pursuade the interviewer that you are the right person for the job. In a case study you are often trying to persuade the audience or reader to come to a particular conclusion – perhaps to fund your project, buy your products, or reach a particular conclusion.

The above approach is often brought together as a mnemonic “STAR” which means:

  • Situation
  • Task (or problem)
  • Action (what you did)
  • Result

In case studies (and perhaps in interview too) it can be useful to add two more categories “Summary” and “Reflection” to this mnemonic to make SSTARR:

  • Summary
  • Situation
  • Task (or problem)
  • Action
  • Result
  • Reflection

Let’s go through each one of those sections in turn.

1. Summary

Someone reading your case study may well have very limited time and inclination to reach the conclusion you want them to. They may also have only a limited understanding and appreciation of the problem that you have solved.

The summary is your opportunity to make the reader want to read further and should be a compressed version of the entire case study: what is the problem, what have you done about it, and what was the result of your intervention.

2. Situation

It’s at this stage that we can lay out in more detail the background of the situation. Think about who the key players are – this is likely to include you (or your organisation) and your client/customer, along with any other ‘supporting roles’. This is an opportunity to flesh out the perspectives, points of view and relationships of the different relevant people in your case study.

3. Task (or Problem)

In “STAR” terminology this stage is referred to as the “Task” – where you should explain what exactly you were trying to do, and what the problem was (or is). This is an opportunity to make use of your ability to structure and identify problems in complex situations.

4. Solution

Here is your opportunity to say what you have done (or what you propose to do). This can include the detail of your process and approach, your strategic vision, as well as your technical ability and skill. You may also want to highlight the style of your approach, and how well you, your team, or organisation worked.

5. Result

This is where you you should be as specific as possible about the benefits you brought (or expect to bring) with your solution. Did you improve efficiency? Reach a wider audience? Achieve something which no one else had? Strengthen an existing relationship?

Think about all the ways your actions had a positive impact. Be specific as specific as you can about the impact of your contribution, and give numbers and figures when you can.

6. Reflection

Having gone through stages 1 – 5 to show how clever, proficient and capable you are the final stage is to show how you know that you could have done better. This is an opportunity to show that you have reflected on feedback and experiences as you solved the problem and have thought about questions such as:

  • What worked?
  • What would you have done differently next time?
  • Were there any surprises?
  • What did you learn?