How to write case study

How to write case study


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What Is a Case Study?

An in-depth study of one person, group, or event

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

how do you write a case study

Cara Lustik is a fact-checker and copywriter.

how do you write a case study

Verywell / Colleen Tighe

Benefits and Limitations

Types of case studies, how to write a case study.

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. Case studies can be used in various fields, including psychology, medicine, education, anthropology, political science, and social work.

The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .  

A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

On the negative side, a case study:

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.

There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.

Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.

Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Where to Find Data

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.

Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

A Word From Verywell

Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Newfangled Marketing Empowerment for Experts

Rethinking the case study.

Before you read this article: This was written in 2013. A newer version exists, called Rethinking the Case Study, Again . Reading both is a great idea, but if you’re pressed for time, read the newer one. — CB

A Confession

We don’t have any great case studies on our site.

I mean that. But we have done great work. So what’s the problem here?

One obvious problem is time. Doing great work takes lots of time, which tends to not leave much left over to fill with writing about it. But everyone has that problem. The bottom line here: if it’s important, you make time. Writing case studies is important, so why haven’t we made the time? Well, it’s tough to make time to do something without having vision for it.

And that’s the other problem: vision. When I say “case study,” I’m sure you have an immediate idea of what I’m talking about. Prestigious client name emblazoned at the top of the page. Big, shiny images of that pretty stuff you made for them. Lovefest text about how cool you think your client is. Testimonial from them about how awesome you are. Followed, of course, by a halfhearted writeup of what you actually did. You were either in such a rush to publish it for publicity’s sake that you didn’t even bother to measure results, or so bored with it that you didn’t bother to frame it for SEO or promote it. Either way, the case study doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

No vision? No point.

Ok, so your vision problem may not be that bad. I know ours isn’t. You do great work. You even stick around to evaluate it, and are honest and humble enough to admit when it didn’t work. You dig in and fix it. But you don’t tell that story, do you?

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of not quite knowing how to make a case study as interesting and compelling as your usual thought leadership content. With that stuff, you can go all out on opinion; in a case study, opinion only matters if it gets results. So you don’t see a lot of that in typical case studies. And because of that, you don’t see many great case studies. You do see plenty of project writeups (like what we’ve got in our “ Featured Projects ” section), which are _ fine _ (read: mediocre) but not great .

I saw something recently — something great — that has inspired me to change that. But more on that in a bit.

First, let’s build a new vision.

What Case Studies Are For

That idea we have of what a case study is — and perhaps I was being a bit harsh earlier — isn’t any good. But that’s not really because we don’t understand the elements of a case study. It’s because we don’t think clearly about why we are writing them in the first place.

Most of the time, we write a case study because we want the world to know that we landed an important account. It’s about the name of the client and what it means that they were willing to work with us. If we made some pretty things, we of course want to show them off too. But in both cases, we’re doing it to create an impression, either by name recognition or aesthetic seduction. And that’s what we think sells.

You might get someone into your store by putting pretty things in the window, but if that impression doesn’t hold up once they’re inside, they’re not going to stick around long enough to buy. Once they’re inside, they need all kinds of reassurance to defeat the voice in their head telling them to hold on to their money: A trust-building connection with you. The chance to hold that thing you’re selling and imagine what it might be like to own it. A good story about that thing that explains where it came from, why it’s one of a kind, and how it’s just as good as it looks. A promise that you’ll make it right if that thing doesn’t hold up.

Seduction is no more stable than a trap door held shut by twine. It’s going to fall out from under your prospect. What can you offer them in the way of a soft landing?

Better yet, why not skip the seduction altogether?

That’s what a good case study is for. It explains how you apply your expertise in the real world to potential customers that can relate to the problems you describe and understand the value of your solutions. It does this in detail — without seduction — covering:

A good case study does all of that because its purpose is to court prospects, not praise past work. It must differentiate you from the other options an informed evaluator is considering. And by the way, sometimes an option is a competitor, sometimes it’s the prospect themselves, sometimes it’s no one. You must make the case that paying you is a better investment than paying a competitor, doing the work in-house, or not doing it at all.

how do you write a case study

What a Great Case Study Looks Like

A great case study is substantial, and it’s going to look that way. Sure, it’s going to have a strong aesthetic component. But the curb appeal your case studies need comes from more than just pretty pictures. It comes from being well organized so that its depth is appealing, not daunting. Long-form content lives and dies by formatting. It either eases a reader in, or is an instant TL;DR .

I’ve long advocated for a predictable problem → solution → outcome format to case studies. I still think that holds up, but with the detail a great case study requires, that format is probably a bit too simple to be applied literally in every case. Instead, this is what I’ve come up with as a structure that covers those three concepts, adequately supports the more subtle goals we’ve been examining, and gradually guides the reader from big picture to granular detail:

Remember, a case study is a sales tool.

Oh, and by the way, I’d recommend using a little editorial savvy here when it comes to titles. Unless your client’s name is so well known that the nature of their problem and your solution could be discerned by the sort of person you want as a client simply by hearing it, go for client-agnostic titles. Something like that describes what you did and the kind of client you did it for. Something like, “Launching a Worldwide Campaign to End Hunger,” rather than “We Worked With UNICEF.” The idea is to make the case study a mirror for your prospect. (If your client is that name-droppable, you probably don’t need to worry about writing case studies to attract prospects who don’t yet know you exist.)

A Practical Plan for Writing Great Case Studies

Writing a great case study sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Even if we’ve got the vision problem worked out, time remains a significant obstruction. So what gives? As I confessed at the beginning of this article, we haven’t mastered this yet either. So, here’s what we’re planning to do:

First, we’re going to produce two types of case study. One will be the sort I’ve described here — I’ll call it the long-form case study — and the other will be a briefer format, similar to the case studies we’ve already published. The goal here is both to represent the depth of what we do, as well as to keep up with our actual productivity. Neither format can handle that alone; we need a combined strategy to best achieve our content goals. Here’s a breakdown of how each type will be produced:

Long-Form Case Study

Short-Form Case Study

That’s our current commitment: Up to ten case studies a year, four of which are of comparable heft to an article like this one, and the remaining six a much lighter effort. Altogether, potentially adding 15,000 words of expertise-focused, buying-cycle-friendly content. It’s ambitious, but we’re going to do our best to make it happen. We’ve got the vision, the plan, and the will to make the time we’ll need to do the work.

About that confession…

I don’t normally write articles like this. It’s risky. I’ve laid out a standard here that we have yet to meet ourselves, which I realize must sound a lot like the Dad who snarls “Don’t smoke!” just as he’s lighting up.

Actually, I wanted to avoid it ending like that. I wanted to end with something like, “Hey, remember that confession? Well, I lied. We do have one good case study on our site now, which I just wrote. Check it out…” That would have been great, but I’d have had to rush finishing the case study I am writing right now. It’s almost there, but not quite ready to accompany this piece. But I promise you, it’s coming soon. I’ve put my time where my mouth is and am hard at work trying to write a case study that comes close to being as good as it should be.

Update (03/10/2014): Since I wrote this, we’ve written three long, detailed case studies:

I mentioned earlier that I’d seen something recently that inspired this new approach. A few weeks ago I stumbled upon the website for Teehan+Lax , a digital agency in Toronto that has truly made an art of the long-form case study. In fact, their site is mostly just a collection of long, detailed, interesting, inspiring — great — case studies. Like this one, and this one, and this one. You should read them. But be warned: in addition to making use of all of the elements I’ve discussed so far, they are beautiful. Really, really beautiful. So beautiful that you might be tempted to think that it’s their design, not their content, that makes them great. You might even be thinking, Chris, after all of that hard talk about seduction, you send me here ?! Well, I won’t deny that the visual presentation of these case studies makes a powerful impression, and certainly helps readers focus their attention enough to stay the course over a long read. But it’s the substance of these case studies that I want you to study. I wouldn’t want you to conclude that this sort of content is impossible for you to do just as well, simply because you can’t match Teehan+Lax’s design. (So you know: I’m intending to publish our case studies using the same template we’re using today, though I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t love to create something just as custom as they have.)

If you’re motivated to make case studies a core platform of your content marketing, I recommend you become a student of their website just as I have.

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How to Write a Case Study: Are You Doing It Right?

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Case studies are one of the most valuable types of content your content marketing team can create. When executed well, they demonstrate your company’s ability to solve real-world problems. That’s a story that no prospect can resist. However, there are parameters and best practices to follow. We’ll review them all and show you how to write a case study for maximum results.

Why Write Case Studies?

Creating a case study is a unique form of content marketing. They are excellent for bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFU) content . At this point, your prospect is aware of their problem and the solutions available. They simply need an illustration of how implementing a product or service will work. Case studies deliver on this.

The biggest challenge in writing a case study is getting your customer to participate. Some companies have restrictions against this for legal reasons. Others may be hesitant to pull back the curtain.

You can assuage their concerns in two ways. First, assure them that you won’t include anything proprietary. Second, offer to create a version for their own use that demonstrates their capabilities.

If you’re looking for more reasons to write case studies, they include:

Now that you know why you should write one, let’s talk about how to do it right.

The Case Study Structure

There are lots of templates for case studies. How you create yours will depend on the context, industry, and goals. Most use a format of:

In addition to these sections, it’s always good to highlight any metrics and specific quotes from the company. Keep in mind that you can do anonymous case studies if that’s your only option, but being able to use the company name is more credible.

How to Write a Case Study in 10 Steps

case study example - how to write a case study

To complete all the areas defined above, you’ll need a content workflow for the project. Here’s a solid process to follow:

Ready to Create Case Studies that Deliver?

Learning how to create case studies is critical for your content team. They require your writers to be great researchers and intuitive interviewers. While they often take longer than a typical informational article or blog post, their value is immense. Keeping all the steps in place can be challenging too, but not with content marketing software like DivvyHQ. You can build out your case study workflow, work your plan, and all tasks remain visible and streamlined with our platform. See how it works today !


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