Ken Burns in the Classroom

Remaking a digital resource collection to better serve American history teachers

3 minute read

Ken Burns’ documentary series, including The Vietnam War and Baseball, have won acclaim from audiences and praise from classroom history teachers. But by summer 2019, stakeholders felt that neither of two websites focused on the films was really serving educators as well as originally envisioned. As a result, a team with PBS LearningMedia undertook a months-long process to create a re-imagined online experience to be unveiled at a national conference of social studies teachers.

PBS LearningMedia houses a vast array of teaching resources, including videos, image galleries, lesson plans, and interactives, aligned to a variety of state and national curriculum standards for teachers grades K–12, as well as professional development resources.


Redesign the existing site at PBS to:

  • make it easier for teachers to identify relevant film content;
  • organize content to better match how teachers build units and lesson plans; and
  • better address the needs of both novice and master teachers to provide differentiated instruction.


I joined PBS in May. To allow sufficient time for visual interface design, development and QA for a November public launch, I had the challenge of compressing discovery, heuristic analysis, wireframing, stakeholder feedback, and user testing into a very tight window of time, about six weeks, while also adjusting to my role in a large, matrixed cross-functional team and gaining an understanding of external stakeholders.


The PBS LearningMedia collections have a specific data structure; the visual design needed to meet branding requirements and coordinate with the rest of the site.

Diagram of the taxonomy of the Ken Burns Classroom Information Architecture
The taxonomy diagram created by product manager Mary Crocamo provided an overview of the kinds of content to plan for in the redesign.


The work passed through multiple phases:

  1. Discovery, including multiple in-person interviews with local history and social studies teachers, and research on state curriculum standards
  2. Comparative audit of sites with similar goals and audiences
  3. Survey and 30-second gut check with external stakeholders
  4. Heuristic analysis and usability testing of three Ken Burns’ related sites
  5. Multiple rounds of sketching, wireframing, and unmoderated testing of prototypes
  6. Interface design
  7. Post-launch unmoderated testing of live site

Comparative audit and gut check

Screenshots of the websites shown for a 20-second gut test.

Stakeholders took a 20-second gut test of several website home pages with similar goals and audiences.

Heuristic analysis and usability testing

IMAGE: Home pages from 3 Ken Burns-related websites viewed during user testing

As part of a heuristic analysis, users reviewed screens from three Ken Burns-related websites in unmoderated testing sessions.

Early design explorations

Whiteboard idea explorations

The team met for a round of design jams to sketch out ideas for user flows and content organization.


Early home page wireframe

The first round of wireframes for internal review, based on business goals, emphasized themes.

Medium fidelity Home, Era, and Film pages for user testing

Initial user testing and user research led to moving away from organizing the landing page by themes, to organizing by historical era and film, shown above in the final round of clickable prototypes before visual design.

Visual design

Collection landing page, Ken Burns in the Classroom

The collection landing page from the live site (design by Iko Gabay).


  • Bounce rate dropped by 10% after relaunch.
  • Teachers reported finding the redesigned collection easier to use and to hone in on resources closely aligned to their teaching units over the course of the semester.
  • The new approach, organized around eras and themes, instead of by resource type, formed the basis for a new kind of collection structure available to member stations to use.

Lessons Learned

Bringing in external stakeholders early in the design process, through gut checks and surveys, smoothed the path to enthusiastic approvals. Talking to classroom teachers, in conjunction with early usability testing, helped steer us away from a content strategy—focusing on themes—that didn’t align with how teachers look for useful teaching resources.