XII.4 July + August 2005
Page: 80
Digital Citation

The case for case studies

Jonathan Arnowitz, Elizabeth Dykstra-Erickson

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Google it, we dare you. We tried several different search terms relating to case studies and design, and what consistently came up was AIGA's Case Study Archive and the CHI 2004 and CHI 2005 Design Expo.

We even found a promising guide to writing case studies at: http://businessmajors.about.com/cs/casestudyhelp/a/HowToWriteCase.htm.

At CHI this year, we asked a few people why they didn't submit case studies to the conference. The answer sort of surprised us: There are better places to submit them that value the work more. We are able to find lots of case studies from the perspective of project management. We can find design case studies for architecture, IT infrastructure, and individual case studies used by design firms to advertise their services and processes. There are some educational institution Web sites that promote case studies for student work, and some interesting case studies on instructional design. But, we ask, where are the design case studies?

We're pleased that a simple search within the ACM Digital Library for "case study" returns more than 200 case studies from SIGSOFT and Software Engineering Notes, Communications of the ACM, SIGCPR (Computer Personnel Research, now merged with SIGMIS), SIGSCE (Computer Science Education), and the CHI conference. "Design case study" returns a whopping 100 entries, not all of which are Design Expo case studies, but very nearly all of them of interest to practitioners involved in creating software. Evidently the concept of a case study—a story from beginning to end, one that involves people in context and their activities—has some traction in the research community.

The AIGA Web site (www.aiga.org) hosts 38 case studies from CHI 2002's FORUM and DUX 2003, cross referenced in the ACM Digital Library. (A nod to AIGA—It's much, much easier to find them there!)

Case studies are important; they're readable, they're engaging, they reflect on the same issues you do, and sometimes they present an approach that is so gloriously and confoundedly obvious you'll wonder why you didn't think of that. They also emphasize best practices. But don't take our word for it. Nancy Frishberg, one of the DUX 2005 program chairs said recently about case studies:

"The case study format encourages more interplay between the images and words, because of the extended length (compared with some other conferences including CHI). It also helps remind practitioners that learnings from projects are worth recording and sharing whether they count those projects as unvarnished successes or not."

Why is it important to write up your work? Why is it important to be a mentor, to lead rather than follow? Why get dressed in the morning? Well, if you don't have to, it's less of a bother to not do these things. But if you'd like to see community standards develop, and if you appreciate sharing your best practices and hearing usable advice from others who occupy the same perilous seats in the life boat of practice that you do, then you need to seriously reflect on what you would write and what you would hold back.

The good news is there is an excellent conference where practitioners share best practices: DUX 2005 (ww.dux2005.org). We encourage all practitioners to consider attending DUX 2005 at Fort Mason in San Francisco this November. The program consists of Design Case Studies, Design Practice Studies (less focus on evidence, more on process), Design Research Studies (evidence through research that provide design guidance or prediction of results), and Sketches (work in progress).

Share the good news. And don't forget to report some of the bad—who knows, you could save a lot of folks from the pains you went through! Undoubtedly your learnings will profit an extremely large audience through the Digital Library. The sayings are true: While misery loves company, one good turn does deserve another.

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©2005 ACM  1072-5220/05/0700  $5.00

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