Humanities Commons: UX/UI Case Study


Tasks: UX/UI Design, Logo Design, User Interviews, User Testing, Card Sorting

Deliverables: Personas, Interview and Testing Synthesis and Conclusions, Visual Assets (including logos and buttons)

Timeframe: January 2015 – November 2016 



Background: Building an Online Research Community

Humanities Commons (HC) is a social network where humanities scholars can create profiles, share and discover research, and connect with colleagues. The Modern Language Association (MLA) received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2015 to build this platform by expanding upon a WordPress-powered social network they had already created for their members. The MLA worked closely with three partner organizations to launch this online community designed to meet the specific needs of humanities scholars and researchers. Each partner society has its own space, so there are essentially 4 networks within one larger network.

Humanities Commons Help Site 

Humanities Commons Help Site 

My Role

While this case study focuses on my UX contributions to Humanities Commons, I performed many other tasks as a member of our small and dynamic production team. As the project’s coordinator, I managed deadlines and communications between various stakeholders. I also trained staff members at our partner organizations in administering the platform, and in using WordPress more generally. After its official launch, I worked as an ambassador for the product and its users – presenting it at conferences and workshops, responding to user feedback, and creating/maintaining our support website and help documentation.

User Interviews & Personas

As the first step in my UX research process, I interviewed humanities scholars in order to understand what digital tools they currently used in their research process, how they found and shared scholarship, and what they would need in a platform like ours. I learned that researchers were looking for the following:

  •  A social network that combined Facebook’s ability to connect with academic rigor and non-profit values
  • Conversations on two levels: about a specific discipline and about issues that affect the humanities at large
  • A place where they could find out about events in their region
  •  A repository where they could store and find the kinds of “non-traditional” forms of scholarly communication that don’t make it into academic journals: conference proceedings, interviews, photographs, syllabi, etc.

Based on my interviews, I developed three principle personas that would guide our development and design process.

Card Sorting

I invited members of the humanities community to participate in a card-sorting exercise based on the kinds of features interviewees expressed interested in. Card sorting was conducted online through Optimal Workshop. This helped our team make feature-priority and UI design decisions.

Visual & UI Design

As our team’s developers adapted our current MLA Commons platforms into the larger multi-network Humanities Commons, I developed visual and UI components for the site. The team also kept user insights gained from my research in mind while writing copy and additional content that hadn’t been incorporated in the previous MLA-specific site.

User Testing: Insights & Changes

Introduction to form filled out by researchers to take part in user testing

In October, we launched a private beta version of the platform – accessible only to our partner organizations and to scholars who had volunteered to be “interviewees”. I utilized personal networks, discipline-specific ListServs, and social media platforms to find these volunteers and ended up conducting user testing with 25 people across a wide range of ages, areas of expertise and institutional affiliations. I interviewed NYC-based scholars in-person and others through screen sharing on Skype. I also recruited about 25 more people to be “testers” – they gained access to the site in exchange for filling out a brief survey.

Below are a few examples of the insights I gathered through testing, and the corresponding changes made by the HC team:

  • Users had difficulty understanding why similar actions (like creating or joining groups) operated differently on each site. For example: “why can’t I join an MLA group that’s listed on the hub site if I’m an MLA member?” In response, we created an "introduction to groups" content block at the top of group directory pages. 
  • The transition from being ‘logged in’ on one part of the site (like MLA Commons) to being ‘logged out’ on another (likeAJS Commons) is jarring. Users wondered if they needed to “join” and wondered where their profile/avatar links in the toolbar had gone. We included clearer messaging for logged out users. For example, if a non-AJS member accessed the AJS Commons page we informed them that they couldn't participate fully in that part of the site unless they were AJS members.
  • Some users had difficulty editing and saving their changes while on the profile. The buttons for these two actions were hard for them to find. We increased the size of these buttons and displayed them in a more prominent area of the screen.