Remembering Lincoln Progress Report: User Experience Front and Center

Our Remembering Lincoln digital project has now reached an important milestone: the Product Definition Document. The process of creating this document proved invaluable in teaching us about our audiences and their needs for what will become our Remembering Lincoln web platform in early 2015. We are sharing our experiences here in hopes they will be valuable to other cultural institutions undertaking digital public history projects.

A Product Definition Document, or PDD for short, is at its base a checklist of specifications for the developer who will build a website (which, in this case, is the main end product for Remembering Lincoln). It’s laid out as “user stories,” which keep the website’s audiences at the center. A user story says, “As a ____, I want to ____ so that I can ____.” An example for Remembering Lincoln is: “As a teacher/scholar, I want to browse the collection by subject so that I can discover new ideas for teaching and research.” This not only lays out just what a range of users may wish to do, but it provides justifications for each proposed use.

How does one go about creating a Product Definition Document? Does one just come up with these user stories out of thin air? Not quite.

In our case, creating the Product Definition Document began with a great deal of research into the needs and wants of our target audiences (or users). At our project planning meeting in November, we specified four target audiences for Remembering Lincoln: Teachers, students, scholars and enthusiasts (broadly defined as those who are interested in history but don’t do it for a living).

These are not the only people who can or will use Remembering Lincoln, of course, but the groups that we have made the conscious design to target. We then worked with our audience evaluator, Conny Graft, to learn more about those audience groupings.

In March, we held focus groups of teachers and history enthusiasts. Our Teacher Representatives, recruited from around the country, joined us via video conference. The next night, a group of enthusiasts, recruited from different historical organizations around the Washington area, joined us in person at Ford’s.

We learned a great deal about the sorts of materials our potential users seek out online, how they find that material, how they use it, and generally what they might be looking for in a website of this nature. A couple of examples: The enthusiasts brought up that many of them start with search engines, rather than going to a particular site’s homepage, when looking for material. (This is something that applies broadly, and which, too often,many of us forget.) Teacher Representatives, meanwhile, brought up that their students glean insight from stories of people their age, so we should make a conscious effort to have the stories of young people’s responses to the assassination represented. The teachers also told us how they might use such a website in the classroom.

Outside the Petersen House. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

Armed with the information from these two in-depth discussions, we then worked with Conny to develop surveys of teachers, scholars and enthusiasts. We relied on various means of outreach:

Civil War Roundtables, Lincoln Groups and similar organizations to reach enthusiasts. Dave Taylor of BoothieBarn.com posted a link on his blog, which yielded dozens of responses. Our advisors’ networks, as well as professional organizations like the National Council on Public History, to reach scholars. Our Teacher Representatives’ networks and social media to reach teachers.

In the end, 111 history enthusiasts, 60 teachers and 52 scholars took the surveys. They helped us refine our understanding of how our audiences would use Remembering Lincoln.

Then our digital strategist Gwydion Suilebhan took over in creating the Product Definition Document. We spent a productive four hours in late April meeting with him, Conny and project advisor Jennifer Rosenfeld from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. In this session, we took the data from the surveys and focus groups and came up with user stories. We wrote these down and put them on the walls of our fifth-floor classroom. Then we sorted these into “must have,” “nice-to-have” and “want” categories, in order to prioritize these user stories.

Gwydion then took those post-its and created a Product Definition Document from it. We’ve since refined it by working with Gwydion and our advisors, partners and Teacher Representatives. Once we begin the process of developing the final website (which will come after a decision on a grant application), this will serve as a checklist of what functions the site should have.

For those doing similar projects, it’s important to keep in mind is that this process is helping to define how your final product (be it a website, an exhibition, even an educational program) functions, rather than what its content is. This process has certainly helped us learn what people are looking for content-wise, but most importantly, it’s told us—concretely—how our audiences will find and interact with the content of the Remembering Lincoln digital collection.

Modern exterior of Ford's Theatre. Photo by Gary Erskine.

The process of audience research and creating the Product Definition Document has been meticulous and even contentious at times, but in the end very worthwhile. Ultimately, the success or failure of the Remembering Lincoln website will rest with its users.

We strongly recommend this process to other cultural institutions and would be glad to answer any questions! Please don’t hesitate to contact me.

This project, Remembering Lincoln, was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, grant number MA-10-13-0274-13.

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager at Ford’s Theatre, coordinating the Remembering Lincoln digital collection. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.