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Open Knowledge

A study in holistic change management and human-centered design

How might we create a networked, public, scalable platform for academic use in HBS classes and beyond?

My Role

Unless otherwise noted, I created and delivered all aspects of this project. Web development was outsourced to an amazing company that I can't recommend enough, Reaktiv Studios.

My duties included:

  • UX Research

  • Visual Design

  • UX Design

  • Presentation Design

  • New Client Acquisiton

  • User Onboarding

  • Training Development

  • User Support

  • Project/Product Management



The academic schedule became our greatest nemesis. If the initial MVP wasn’t up by the start of class, we would miss our window to launch and be forced to wait until the spring semester. When user testing, we had to take into account school breaks and major testing times. Usually we were left with a couple days every two months that we could meet with people in-person, so we had to make the most of them.

Faculty–our primary users–were also time poor, meaning that the system needed to be quick to establish and learn. Student tech literacy was below-average, so considerations needed to be made to accommodate.

As the project became more known, IT became more interested, and with it all the institutional cruft that accompanies one of the oldest schools in the country. Building social capital then became one of my biggest commitments.


Budget was another major limitation. Though HBS and Harvard are well-endowed and well-known institutions, I worked within a small research team within a small department. Our budget had to accommodate conferences, trips, and other programs. Additionally, we were never meant to be a software team, and thus were not allocated the kind of budget needed for software projects.


Harvard values exclusivity and proprietary information, which runs counter a public platform. Administration was also concerned with how student data would be handled, and how this all related to the bogeyman of the education world, FERPA. Open Knowledge needed to provide bulletproof rationale for all its choices in order to keep running in the long term.

Below are some excerpts from the sales dek I used when pitching the project to other departments

Using Data

 Open Knowledge feels modern, relevant, current unlike everything else that’s centered around dogma, ‘this is the way we’ve been doing things for 107 years.’

– HBS Student


Or, What Does Success Look Like?

10,000 page views per month

2–3 links from outside sources

50% positive survey responses

First page Google results for relevant business topics

Students use the platform outside of class

50% penetration into student population


The Many Stages of Open Knowledge

Open Knowledge shifted the pedagogy at HBS, but it was only through a concerted, multi-prong effort, starting with the users and the platform.

As it stood as of my leaving
Thinking Through Users
Open Knowledge User Personas
Sketching Student Experience
Open Knowledge Version 1
Instructor Tools
Due Dates
Moderation Made Faster
Data and Reporting
Parent/Child Blog IA
Whiteboarding our UX tree
Evolving Design
Posting Page
Archiving: Two Birds, One Stone

Branding and Identity Development

The existing HBS marketing guidelines alleviated some of the visual design pressure. Color palettes, typefaces, and many layout guidelines already existed. But due to differences in CMS and in use case, adaptations had to be made. I also had to take some creative license when building class lockups, but used the school’s guidelines on clubs and societies as a guardrail.

Open Knowledge Class Logo

Cultural Buy-In

The digital experience was only one piece of the puzzle. I had to develop multiple avenues of support and on-boarding to ensure that users would feel empowered, rather than intimidated, by the project.

An online/offline pedagogical model had never been used at HBS. The faculty needed guidance on how to most successfully integrate OK posts into classroom discussions. But I was also not a subject-matter expert. I worked with the internal Teaching and Learning department to develop materials and events centered on this new pedagogy We then convened institutional administrators, current and new OK faculty users to discuss their concerns and learnings in various round table sessions.

In the Classroom

Faculty and Students discuss the platform

Lessons Learned

Put the “minimum” in “minimum viable product”

We launched the pilot sites within eight weeks. It was essentially a Hollywood movie set. But this strategy allowed us to continue development of features while professors had something to show students on the first day of class.

Watch our dev lead and me talk about this process at Wordcamp 2016 Josh Eaton and Adrienne Debigare: Getting Classroom Blogging Up and Running in Higher-Education |

Meet metrics…and evolve

The project was more successful than anyone had really anticipated. We hit many of our metrics within the first year. Even more surprising, we had built a tool that changed the pedagogy at HBS.

Become a bureaucratic chameleon

Navigating the complex relationships of Harvard was one of my proudest accomplishments, and most wide-ranging lessons learned during my time with HBS. When we first began building Open Knowledge, no one outside our initiative and our pilot users cared about what we were doing. It was a small project, and limited to a few classes. Though we tried to enlist help from the IT department’s education technology group, they had a backlog six months long.

As Open Knowledge gained popularity and notoriety, more departments started to become interested in or concerned with our presence. Thus I spent several months on (what I lovingly refer to as) the “Open Knowledge Roadshow.”

"Students’ blogging helped me to uncover new areas of research that I hadn’t considered or known about."

– HBS Faculty Member

How can I help you evolve?

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