J-PAL North America’s Evaluation Toolkit

Project Summary

J-PAL North America is an economic development research center based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a leader in conducting randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in the social sciences with a goal of promoting rigorous research, J-PAL North America wanted to provide useful training resources and “how-to” documentation for junior researchers conducting randomized evaluations in the North American context.

Tools: Sketch, Adobe Photoshop, Qualtrics
Client: J-PAL North America at MIT
Role: UX researcher, UI designer, project manager


  1. Convert a library of PDFs and Word documents into a public digital hub of resources for researchers.
  2. Prioritize navigation, usability, and accuracy of information.
  3. Maintain consistency with J-PAL’s digital brand, while serving a niche academic audience.



Because this project involved highly complex content and a niche academic audience, it was important to start by ensuring we understood the needs and expectations of stakeholders and the challenges faced by the users of their current resources.

Research Methods:

  • Stakeholder interviews: Several stakeholder interviews with individuals on the research team as well as in the communications department helped us understand the J-PAL’s vision and goals.
  • 1:1 contextual interviews: Interviews with researchers helped us understand the users’ environment, as well as the challenges and opportunities for improvement. For instance, we learned that researchers are working in offices and laptops and find it challenging to keep track of useful resources and are often fighting the clock to find the information they need.
  • Card sort: It was important to understand how stakeholders and users view the relationships between resources. As such, we conducted an open card sort with 10 participants to look for patterns that later helped us define a taxonomy and topic tags.


In the “define” phase, we began to synthesize our research using empathy maps and storyboards. We also wrote a few POVs and How Might We statements to help kick-off our brainstorming sessions.


Next, we brainstormed ways to design a system that would be easily navigable by researchers who were browsing content as well as those who were looking for specific materials.

We also brainstormed ways to deal with specific challenges, such as the length and complexity of content. We needed to find ways to incorporate footnotes, references, and definitions.

Finally, we mapped out a user flow to determine how users would navigate the website.

User flow diagram for J-PAL evaluation toolkit.
User flow


At this stage, we began building desktop and mobile wireframes in Sketch for our landing page and our content pages.

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Production & Testing

We worked closely with external developers as the site was built and simultaneously helped the J-PAL North America team prepare their content for the web. Due to time constraints, most testing took place after the website MVP was developed.

Testing has remained an iterative process as the site evolves. We’re using HotJar to see how users navigate pages and determine where users might still have trouble navigating. We’ve seen that a high percentage of users (more than 60%) use the new fixed anchor link menu.


We developed a number of new website features to address the challenges identified by researchers and stakeholders. We built a glossary and footnotes that appear on hover, created a “sticky” anchor link menu to help users navigate long content pages, designed a collapsible sidebar menu to help with navigation between resources, and built new features into the content editor experience so that elements like code snippets, checklists, and complex tables could be easily displayed.


View the site to see more >