Build Better Products by Creating Better Case Studies

Case studies are one of the most useful items in the product management toolkit. To build effective ones, you need to follow a simple but vital set of guidelines.
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 14, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021
Headshot of author Adam Thomas
Adam Thomas
Expert Columnist
June 14, 2021
Updated: September 9, 2021

Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, first released in 1984,  popularized the concept of social proof. This phenomenon consists of individuals copying the actions of others around them in order to acclimate to a system. People are subconsciously influenced by the behavior of other people within a given environment. Although this idea is simple, Cialdini’s book radically changed my mind with respect to how I interacted with the content that my product team and I produced.

Why was this theory so profound? Well, the book helped me understand why people were ignoring almost everything that we gave them. As it turned out, everything that we wrote was focused on ourselves and not on our customers. 

We weren’t influencing. Instead, we were just talking. 

Cialdini’s work gave a conceptual framework to something that the best marketers already subconsciously knew: Nothing sells better than reflecting the customer’s own actions back at them. 

For example, say you want to buy a shirt.  Which of these pitches is more likely to make you buy?

Option A: This shirt is made of polyester, washes well and makes you look professional.

Option B: This shirt is built for the product manager on the go. When you’re sweating the details and pacifying the battle between sales and engineering, you’ll want a shirt that stays tucked in as you rush from meeting to meeting. 

Option B draws on social proof to reflect actions that you’ve experienced back at you. 

Product management (PdM) is about helping the team improve decision fitness. That includes how we influence our customers to use our products, especially if we’re confident that our product is the right one for them. Social proof helps us accomplish this goal. 

Before we can use social proof, however, we need a way to get the information that we want to reflect back to the customer. In other words, how do we come to see the world as our customers see it? How might we put ourselves in their headspace?

Sure, you can scan different websites, browse social media, or even look at your competitors to see what they’re doing. With any of these strategies, however, you’re only getting part of the picture. Like almost anything dealing with product development, talking to your customer directly is going to get the best results.  

So, for PdMs to get the data they need to gather social proof and understand how customers see the world, we can rely on case studies. Let’s talk about what exactly these are and how you can use them to help you influence your customers and help other teams, like product marketing and sales, make better decisions.

3 Key Steps To Building a Product Case Study

  1. Make an outline.
  2. Ask the right questions.
  3. Analyze carefully.

More Product Advice From Adam ThomasHow To Improve Your Product Research

 

What Is a Case Study?

For our purposes, a case study is an in-depth conversation aimed at understanding how a customer uses our product. We want to get to know who they are, why they use our product, and the context in which they use it.

This technique is how you get inside of your customer’s head. When you have multiple, deep customer conversations over a period of time, you’ll get a better understanding of what drives them. You’ll also be able to target your marketing so that it makes sense to them.

 

How Do You Build Case Studies?

Building case studies is no different than doing any other interviewWhen conducting a proactive conversion with customers, you need to understand what you want, use open-ended questions, and analyze everything carefully.

Make an Outline

You can go in a bunch of different directions when you talk to your customers. In fact, if you’re like most PdMs, this is an easy trap to fall into. Everything that the customer says may seem like gold, and it’s easy to follow any string in hopes of chasing down an insight. 

So, how do you avoid that trap? You’ll need to write an outline to keep yourself on track. A case study outline is simple and has three components. 

  1. Hypothesis. You need a clear hypothesis whenever you talk to a customer. What question are you trying to answer by talking to the customer? Why are they important? Note this information upfront, and derive the questions from the hypothesis. Consider it your anchor.

  2. Goal. What type of assets are you planning to create from this interview? Who wants this information? Having this in the form of an aligning statement, something that helps the team know what you are looking for and what you want to build, will help with analysis. Do it now so you won’t have to think about it later.

  3. Questions. These are based on both the hypothesis and the goal. 

Those three components will help you avoid the trap of letting the interviews meander. Now, let’s talk a little bit more about those questions. 

Ask the Right Questions

Your question set should be short, with no more than five max.

You want to follow up on your initial questions to get as many stories as possible. If you have more than five, you risk letting the interview get rigid since you’ll feel pressured to get to as many questions as possible. Further, asking fewer questions will make sure you have some uniformity to the answers.

Even though you’re just asking a few questions, you’ll want to keep them open-ended.  An open-ended question like “Walk me through your shirt purchase. What drove this decision?” is better than “Did you like our service?” The latter could too easily elicit just a yes or no response while the former invites the customer to provide more detail.

You want to have a free-flowing conversation, which means focusing on the customer. Conversations are going to give you the information you need to build that social proof. Once you’ve acquired that information, you can analyze the material and create the case study. 

Analyze Carefully

Before conducting an analysis, make sure you sit with these conversations for a while. 

Take the time to find good quotations that are interesting and align with your values by transcribing the interviews. Check to see if the language in your marketing materials matches how your customers talk. The closer your work matches their worldview, the more they will trust the product.

This process may seem simple at first. As you start to put this plan into action, however, you’ll see how much data you can collect and how closely you can tailor your product to match the mental model of your customers.

You’ll eventually be able to see if the plan is working when you make changes and hear from the customer again. The next time you talk to them, you want to hear something along the lines of, “Your [page/feature/tool] described my issue exactly, and that’s why I bought the product.”

 

 

Build Artifacts To Put Case Studies to Work

When you have the data from the interviews, you’ll be able to build artifacts that match your customer’s mental model.

What are some artifacts that can come from doing a case study?

  • Testimonials. These are short-form statements, usually a paragraph or less, that come directly from the customer and attest to the value of your product or service. During the interview, the customer may offer a bite-sized anecdote that sums up a feature or your product in a helpful way. These statements are great to use on a sales or product page to give your work more credibility.

  • Articles. These interviews create the kernel of an article for your writers. If your team has a blog, use it to underscore the high points that customers report or spotlight a particularly well-liked feature. Writing an article based on the case study conversation can help customers see, in a more relaxed context, how your product will work for them.

  • White Papers. A white paper is a one-page selling document highlighting the technical side of a product. For more technical products, you must give potential custoemrs a look at how the product functions in a more structured, quasi-academic format. Your case studies will allow your team to write a white paper by giving you anchor points led by the customer. 

Customers want to tell their stories. When your product is great, rest assured they are doing it anyway. Most of the time, they are happy to spend time with you and your team and give you good feedback. More importantly, you’ll get the social proof you need to stand above the rest of the marketplace.

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