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Redesigning a university's digital archives

The archives of Teachers College have the distinct honor of preserving hundreds of years of history in education, psychology, and health sciences. This project aims to increase the accessibility and findability of these precious resources and secure the legacy of a remarkable educational institution.


PocketKnowledge (PK) holds thousands of digital primary resources from the 1600s to current day and is accessible to everyone within the Teachers College community and beyond. These resources include articles, photos, dissertations, and historically significant letters and correspondence. Though the content within PK is priceless and rare, its outdated and difficult-to-navigate digital home obscured this value. 


June 2018 - November 2018


Led all UX research efforts and synthesized findings for the product, design, and development teams as well as library management.


Literature reviews, usability tests, stakeholder interviews, data analysis, market research, participatory design event


Teachers College Columbia University (TC for short) was established in 1887 with the progressive mission to provide authentic learning environments that were relevant to students' cultural contexts. With a history as rich as TC's, it would follow that its archives be full of invaluable resources, and it is! Curriculum from the turn of the century, lectures from the 1600s, and photographs of bygone classes like, "Laundry and the Household Arts" are some of the treasures found in the archives. In the early 2000s, the TC Library began the arduous task of digitizing the hundreds of thousands of materials that had been collected over the years. 

In 2006, the archives of TC were rebranded as PocketKnowledge (PK). PK serves two purposes: it is both an archive for TC-related materials as well as an institutional repository. The latter part means that anyone with a TC affiliation can preserve their own materials in the archives. 

Due to the sheer number of TC archival materials (informally given the nickname TCana, like Americana) being uploaded by staff each day, it is no surprise that this rate trumps that of contributions by individuals. Still, PK is envisioned to preserve all intellectual output of the College, including that of its staff, faculty, and students. It is with this specific attention to our TC community members that we began our redesign project. 


1. What are general feelings towards institutional repositories -- what leads people to contribute or not? 

2. What is the rate of contribution to PK from the TC community? 

3. How are people using PK? (i.e., what are the use cases)

3. What are the top most accessed files on PK?

4. What are major issues users have with PK? 

5. Who are the top contributors to PK? 


Participatory design event: Rethinking the TC Archives

I like kicking off projects with a design thinking workshop. It's an efficient way to get buy in from the team and brainstorm different possibilities. They're also a fun way to blow off some creative steam! 

I led the development of the PK design event and was assisted in the facilitation by two of my UX colleagues. 

In general, the design thinking events I've worked on borrow from the same structure but each have had their own flavor. They normally last 3 hours (or up to 8!) and are primarily organized around small group activities. The usual elements are

  1. An introduction 

  2. An icebreaker

  3. A knowledge share

  4. Brainstorming

  5. Prototyping

  6. A share-out 

Design events start from the same place as all of my research projects: first I figure out what I want to learn from people, then I design the activities that will get me close to those answers. As a game design hobbyist and former tutor, this aspect is thrilling to me; that is, how can I design an activity that participants will find fun and engaging and I will find useful and informative? 

If you'd like to hear how I designed the PK event down to the last detail, get in touch! I'd love to swap learning design stories. 

One group's brainstorm of ideal features for the next-gen archival system of Teachers College

Groups hard at work during the prototype phase of the event 

Literature reviews

I love writing literature reviews. There is an immense satisfaction I derive from digging so deep into a subject that, for as long as this newly found information stays in my head, has made me an amateur expert in something I knew nothing about mere hours before. Not to mention the kick I get out of condensing that information down into digestible pieces for my teammates, who benefit from the meta-analysis in a fraction of the time.


There were three areas pertaining to the PK project that I and the team felt undereducated about and so dug further into:

  1. The PK origin story (that is, what were the decisions behind the website's layout and content structure? Why in the world was it called PocketKnowledge?)

  2. Academics' opinions on and relationships with institutional repositories

  3. Metadata creation practices 

In general, my process for lit reviews is I write pages of longform notes (upwards to 30) and then condense them down to 1-2 pages that include sections like 

  1. a brief background of the topic,

  2. facts and statistics drawn from the landscape/market, and

  3. the implications these findings have on our work. 

Doing this foundational research helped me write a one-pager of PK benefits, a resource we handed out when promoting the launch of the new website to the TC community. 

 The handout I made to encourage people to contribute their work to the archives. It's downloadable on PK. 

My colleague Cinthia (left) and I promoting PK to the community. Apple cider and doughnuts helped reel 'em in! 

Discovery interviews

I conducted semi-structured interviews with internal stakeholders to get a sense of why they thought this project was important to do (both the original project and now the redesign), and for whom they believed we were building this site. This information helped the team define what success would look like for the project. Insights I gathered from these conversations included

  • Project vision

  • Shared pain points while using PK

  • Use cases

  • Hesitations and concerns moving forward with the project

Data analysis

Learning how people are using PK is a crucial step in understanding what's important to users, and how we might be able to make their experience better. Some metrics I collected, using our web traffic and server log software, were

  • Most downloaded file

  • Most active contributors

  • Most active readers (non-contributors) 

  • Top visited pages

  • Referral sources

  • Commenting behavior (i.e. how many people left comments on archive items)

  • Logged in vs logged out usage

  • Percentage of material published before [X] year

  • Popular search terms

    • Searches by category type​

  • Browsing behavior

  • Traffic patterns across dates 

Market research

In conducting the lit reviews on institutional repositories, I learned that there were two main types of solutions: hosted and proprietary software. Of the hosted solutions, there were 4 vendors that were popular with higher education institutions. I compiled a list of exemplars for each type as well as less traditional archive systems that exist outside of higher ed, noting trends, deviations, innovations, and other observations. These findings helped our UX designer create a mood board of inspiration. This material was also used in the design thinking event mentioned above.

Benchmark usability testing

I conducted benchmark usability tests before and after the redesign project. 

Pre-redesign, I wanted to get a sense of where people struggled, how people moved through the site, and how efficiently they could perform specific tasks (like searching for a particular item). 

Post-redesign, I used the same task scenarios as before (modified slightly) to see if there were improvements in navigation and general impressions. (Spoiler: there were!)

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