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Experience My time with HMH

I spent 5 happy years consulting with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) and enjoyed it immensely. My responsibilities shifted and at times were vast. How do I summarise that?

HMH is a great team to work for and I wish them luck further transiting toward a digital paradigm.

Learning Design Lead Platform...then...

I consulted under a number of different job titles in the same general role: Learning Designer Lead Platform, User Interface Designer, User Experience Designer, and even Technical Writer. I worked on-site in Dublin and for two years remotely from my own well-equipped design studio. Teams included colleagues based in the USA, Ireland, Croatia, and India although pretty much every nation seemed to have a representative.

The LMS platforms I worked on most were life-expired by the time I joined their New Features teams. They survived on the strengths of their excellent "back-end" engineering and data handling. Successors struggled to provide the same utility straight out of the box.

During my tenure, the ThinkCentral LMS was accessed by over 1,000,000 unique users each day. The majority are in the USA, but analytics indicate a distribution across the World.

Both legacy platforms suffered decaying 2000's HTML architectures: table layouts, in-line presentation attributes, incoherent form elements, flows based on the task rather than the users' needs, etc. I was able to uplift ThinkCentral, but Holt McDougal Online understandably was off limits.

ThinkCentral LMS Platform

My first role as Learning Designer Lead (Platform) was with the ThinkCentral platform in 2012. There were three or more visual design dialogues in use despite the Creative Designer issuing a comprehensive section-by-section Visual Design Guide. The guide was a response to the architecture using absolute units for scale and spacing with maximum use of image backgrounds, image swapping, and no understanding of the accessibility and usability issues that needed addressing.

I convinced my Project Manager (the indomitable Bob Butler) that I could update the HTML to work from CSS, which would enable "re-skinning" over time. The stakeholders were risk-adverse to updating the visual style due to contractual considerations. I was given 3-months and a succession of off-shore UI Developers to work with: one said, "how can CSS do this?"

The result was:

  • An 80% architectural overhaul of 14 topic areas across 4 user types and over 250 individual and dynamic platform pages to use external cascading style sheets (CSS).
  • Form labels carried, "for" attributes
  • Table layouts were for the main part replaced with a CSS positioning framework, and HTML fieldsets took over from the bluffed table borders of yore
  • Design and implementation of a new navigation and page-name convention

I also replaced the majority of JavaScript Alerts with user-friendly styled dialogues and improved error management in general. There were compromises, but given the constraints of skills and time, the transformation was immense.

Platform User Support

Over the same time under the direction of the Learning Design Team's lead (Barb McDonald), I wrote, compiled, and published over 50,000 words of contextually accessed support documentation for the platform's student, teacher, and administrator users. This was the first Help system using Adobe RoboHelp and itself involved a bespoke CSS backbone and eventually, its own RH landing pages (the illustrated HMO example is now administered by my friend and colleague , Steve Pike).

(David Knowles and I had earlier evaluated and selected RH for its low learning curve: something I later regretted as it is far from the quality of digital production that HMH should promote. It was simply all that was available at that time. ).

There were some new platforms and products that had failed to implement user support at all (following the loss of 13 Learning Design Lead Platform posts). I designed, built, and published a bespoke HTML landing page to which each product could link, and on which our users could semantically search for the learning resource they needed. Over time, and with the Service Content Manager, Beth Wolfe's stewardship, this has grown to become the go-to page for HMH support.

The 'universal' support landing page design
Screen grab of the universal support landing page design

On Beth's invitation, I also designed and built an alternative dynamic instructional overlay to Hopscotch for the bespoke "Reader" product, which became downgraded to a more simple responsive informational overlay, although we ran out of time to push this to production. (Experience the responsive 'RCE' prototype. Click the Help button to get started).

Holt McDougal Online LMS Platform

On return to HMH in 2015, I now designed for ThinkCentral and the Holt McDougal Online (HMO) platform as well as many internal projects. HMO was in a more sorry state than ThinkCentral had been, but there was simply no effort available to update its architecture. The new HMH Ed platform was beginning to take shape and emphasis was on user account security and improved reporting facilities, as well as integrating active services such as the Personal Math Trainer.

What's legacy? In February 2017 I still drew (over 140!) PNG buttons to place in-line into HMO's tabular layouts. That's legacy! But, lets move beyond that, please? I did at the least introduce a new HTML architecture and CSS formula to new pages we created, albeit to the legacy visual dialogue.

Other Platforms and Products

As the main Design Studio became busier wit hthe new HMHOne platform (later HMH Ed), and as my reputation grew, I drew a host of additional UX tasks where teams simply could not access the Design Studio process. Such tasks included:

  • Backend administrative platform updates
  • Internal workplace platform design and update with semantic HTML
  • Learning product UX, interaction, and learning design and input to infographics
  • Providing design and HTML/CSS/jQuery architecture for informational and instructional overlays for a variety of products
  • Updating marketing web pages otherwise created on a "self-help" table-layout template basis
  • Designing and coding HTML email templates
  • Feedback on downloadable PDF product design
  • Fixing external vendor's poor video presentation (an unresponsive UI)
  • Axure and RoboHelp standards and training support
  • Graphic and content design for corporate-level presentations
An example "backend" platform requiring my UX, fluid-responsive UI, and HTML/CSS architecture design
Screen grab of a backend platform lifted from a table layout to a modern fluid responsive design


Working in a legacy environment was perhaps the best role I have taken. The aged platforms challenged the improvement of the User Experience against business constraints by searching for and capitalising on opportunities quickly and efficiently. Wireframing often jumped straight to prototyping and prototypes often went to production before I'd even had a chance to style them!

It was a dynamic environment working across 4 agile teams and allied products while also belonging to the US-based Technical Writing team. I was spoiled with and by great colleagues and given a wide remit and responsibility beyond my contract including UX, UI, IxD, LD, CD, and whatever else was needed while the main Design Studio worked furiously on the new HMH Ed, which borrows many of ThinkCentral's and HMO's UX strategies as they illustrated why semantic HTML and accessibility standards-driven HTML is vital.

The legacy platforms are still live.

I was left alone because I am capable. I also worked with the most capable and supportive product managers, project managers, and business analysts Dublin or the USA has to offer. Together and using an agile scrum methodology, we identified, worked through, and overcame problems. We anchored the reputation of our brand even within the legacy products. We listened, designed, implemented, and delivered continuous improvements to our users. We achieved.

Sadly, my time with HMH could no longer be funded, although I am pleased to move on to share on the learning my incredible journey has given me with you?

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