The MBS UX Practicum Experience: Design in Action with the Edison Papers Project

By: Alexis Polanco

"The easy part of innovation is the idea. The hard part is delivering it, making it successful, because in the end it’s a systems problem." Don Norman

The Practicum Experience

Each year, students in the UX Design concentration participate in a practicum—an opportunity to work on a real-world design problem: a partnership among design students, instructors and a client.  Students work in a team based context and apply their design skills to improve a business or organization.  This is a culmination of an experience of learning how to apply design thinking to create innovative solutions and products.

The 2016 Practicum Experience

The Edison Papers Design Project represented a challenge of designing an experience around a large information set: over 100 thousand scanned images of original research notes, personal letters and other business documents of Thomas Alva Edison. These papers represent unbounded themes, variations and processes of invention and innovation, and have the potential to become an important educational resource for students and citizens. This potentiality has to framed within a designed experience, and students were tasked with revising and defining this experience.  One problem had to do with information architecture, as the collection is so extensive. Information can result in potential and possibility, however, students discovered the Edison Papers were within a digital space that made discovery difficult. The students saw there needed to be intentionality in how the information was presented: highlighting aspects of the collection that would be of most interest as a way to get initial audience engagement; presenting information as a resource for K-12 education; and having a collection that was accessible and useful in findability and presentation.

The current site lacks branding and cohesive design; the uniqueness and vibrant nature of the collection is being obscured.

Interactive experiences depend on brand awareness and identity. The students discovered that the Edison Papers needed a stronger brand identity: the Edison Papers as both an important institutional project within Rutgers and a resource for researchers and citizens of the larger world. To achieve this, The Edison Papers needed a marketing strategy, and a presence on social media that was intentional.


Students Applied a Design Process that Linked Business Problems to Defined Design Solutions

The students linked the problems with user experience and brand awareness with the challenges the Edison Papers face: in an economic environment in which funding is essential, in which volunteers are relied upon, and competition both internally and externally can diminish both, design and marketing are key differentiators. Brand awareness coupled with good design would lead to the Edison Papers being a known brand with a memorable user experience that entices users to routinely use the site for research and inspiration.

Students thought of design solutions that aligned to user expectations and business strategy. 

This defined the problem as redesigning the eco-system in which the Edison papers reside; the students recognized that innovation is as much a systems problem as it is generating ideas.

The Student Designers and Faculty Advisers

Student Designers Chirag Arora, Mary Leriche and Sage Lichtenwalner brought different perspectives and skills to the problem; with faculty advisers David Ogunrinde and Alexis (AJ) Polanco providing senior-level design and strategy experience to guide students.

Chirag Arora, Student, a User Experience Researcher with experience in Product Management and Software Development

Mary Leriche, Student, a User Experience Designer with a background in Graphic Design and Web Development

Sage Lichtenwalner, Student, a Research Programmer and Product Manager

Faculty Advisors

David Ogunrinde, Principal Creative Director at INKRoots, with experience in marketing and web strategy
Alexis (AJ) Polanco, Senior User Experience Designer with experience in digital marketing

Design Research

Research began with benchmarking current site metrics; these metrics allowed students to build design hypotheses and questions to ask during the user research phase. What the students discovered is that while site visits per month were, on average, very high (60,000 visits, 30,000 sessions), the time spent on the site was quite short (with only approximately 2 pages visited per session, with an average time spent on the site of under 2 minutes). With the majority of users coming from organic search, fewer coming from social channels, and a majority being new users, it was clear the Edison Papers project was having difficulty building a brand and engaging users to interact with site content when they discovered the site.  Looking at search terms gave the students insight into what the users were interested in; a mix of needs that encompassed Thomas Edison as inventor and his invented devices as products. This indicated users were seeing this resource as both biographical and object-specific.

Analytics Revealed User Activities on the Site, When They Were Visiting and Their Actions During Their Visit.

As the focus of the Edison Papers is as an educational resource, students focused initial research efforts on educators. They mentioned Edison is not normally within the curriculum, but exploring the current site allowed them to make connections between educational goals and the resources within the Edison Papers: themes like entrepreneurship, the ideas of failure and persistence, invention, and connections of Edison to New Jersey history resonated.  This revealed that the content with the Edison Papers project was dynamic and vital.  The users also echoed noted the lack of context (diagrams that may be difficult to interpret without explanation) and difficulties in information architecture, content strategy, and findability were barriers to access: that students expected a user experience that would allow them to find relevant and insightful information quickly, or they would use another resource.  Lack of hierarchy on text-heavy portions of the site did not allow for skimming text, a practice many users do when reading on a screen.  Context of content would also allow for building a curriculum or educational assignments around the Edison Papers, something the educators felt was essential for it to be successfully used within the classroom.

This research led to design solutions, targeting the business goals of engagement, user retention, marketing and brand strategy, funding and new customer acquisition.

Designing a New Experience

UX Design students at Rutgers learn to design in iterations, and to sketch out design solutions.  These sketches of the design showed states as well as transitions, to better illustrate the user experience.

Early Sketches Defined Not Just Layout But Also Began the Process of Mapping the User Flow

These sketches evolved into higher fidelity designs and final prototypes: designs that re-imagine the Edison Papers as an interactive space, introducing concepts of content strategy and curation.

These designs reveal the Edison Papers Project as a dynamic, exciting project, one that generates ideas.  This is emphasized in one donation page:

Revised donation pages; these pages emphasize donation strategies, including the concept of donations to support specific projects, mirroring sites like Kickstarter

The inventions page is re-imagined as an exploratory canvas, which allows users to discover new inventions and find specific ones. This relates the central person to the site (Edison the inventor) to the site content (a space of ideas and imagination).
redesign, in which users are asked to support specific projects.  

The inventions page is re-imagined as an exploratory canvas, which allows users to discover new inventions and find specific ones.   

Testing the Experience

User testing revealed the new design provided the Edison Papers with a greater sense of purpose.  Users saw the site as a place for interaction and exploration.  This desire of users to explore the prototype revealed that users would be likely to stay on the site longer, engage with content, and find the experience memorable.  The concept of content strategy and curation meant that users were engaged with content that reflected their interests. This design concept could allow the Edison Papers to be dynamically driven, and provides a sustainable metaphor to  for future content development.

Social Media Strategy

In addition to the design, students prepared a social media strategy.  Like the design phase of the the project, the use of social media was defined in relation to users and organizational ecosystem.  The strategy introduced the concept of unity of message across social medial channels, a unified design identity on these channels, and the concept of crafting social media as a purposeful act, with an intended user behavior in mind (for example, to get users interested in an event followers would be interested in; visit the donations page).  This places social media as like a publishing act: curated content that promotes a brand.


The goal of the practicum is provide students with a real-world design experience; the students in the 2016 practicum brought design, strategy and analytical skills to an immense project.  Implementing these designs, and future development iteratively, will allow the Edison Papers to show their innovation, and be a sustainable space as the organizations grows and develops.  This act of design and collaboration showed that UX Design can be a catalyst for organizational change and discussion of future organizational goals.  

For more information about the Rutgers Master's of Business and Science UX Design concentration visit, User Experience Design (UXD)