• iOS Development
  • /
  • Product Design
  • /
  • Product Strategy
  • Content Strategy
  • Information Architecture
  • Interaction design
  • Mobile Development
  • User Testing
  • UX Design

The definitive American history app.

Ken Burns is America’s definitive documentarian, and we joined forces to bring his work to the digital realm.

Drawing on his entire 25-film oeuvre, it provides an experience that could only happen on an iPad. Far more than a library of his films, it’s a meticulously curated investigation of the most important themes in American history: Art, Race, War, Innovation, Hard Times and Politics.


Not everyone has time to sit through a 19-hour documentary, so we needed another way for them to enjoy Ken’s work. We set out to provide value to his existing audience, win over new generation of fans and enhance curricula for educators nationwide.

“I really felt it was time to stop and think about [my work] in a new way, and to understand and honor new media. I’ve never had a digital destination that allowed people to see the work in a different way.”—Ken Burns

We also had an internal goal: we wanted to show the rest of the film community how a touch device can deepen an audience’s relationship with a film.

Product Strategy—Finding the white space

Our research showed that while there are no shortage of apps with dense educational and historical information, they felt out of place on the iPad—they didn’t take advantage of the possibilities of the medium. Many were just repositories of content that existed elsewhere. At the same time, there were magnificent apps which provided an experience that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else, but none took an in-depth look at American history from a unique angle. This was our white space.

Audience research—Maintaining a single vision for three audiences

Our research showed potential for the product to deliver value to three distinct audiences while maintaining a singular vision. First, the app is ideal for Ken Burns superfans—those who enjoy the films and are looking for something to enhance the experience. Second, we spoke to teachers to learn how to make the app a perfect supplement for the classroom. Third were the technology early adopters—those who get excited by cutting-edge apps but might not be familiar with The Civil War, Baseball or other Ken Burns films. We mapped the needs of each of these users to help determine the core feature set.

Product design—Setting limits

Next, we defined what content would be included in the app—and what wouldn’t. We knew the exclusive interviews with Ken were a unique selling point, so we made these easy to discover. Then, we limited the length of each playlist to roughly that of a television episode—long enough to deliver an immersive, lean-back experience but short enough to be consumed in one sitting. After briefing Ken’s team on these constraints, they decamped to New Hampshire to select the perfect scenes. Meanwhile, we got to work coding the skeleton of the app.

Interaction design—Dedicated to simplicity

In designing the UI, we minimized menus and let the content itself be the interface to encourage exploration. We explored dozens of options for representing how clips were related to each other and, after extensive user testing, we finally settled on a drag up / drag down gesture for demonstrating thematic relationships. Our various audience segments used gestures like pinch, swipe and tap slightly differently, so we made sure there were no gestural dead-ends for any users.


The app provides multiple ways to navigate the content while remaining ruthlessly simple. The timeline is front and center, showing the broad scope of the app at a glance. Films are clearly labeled and collected along the bottom, while themes reside at the top. This structure allows the flexibility to communicate equally with different audiences. For a user who may have familiarity with Civil War, for example, the films along the bottom would be a familiar starting point. For a teacher doing a unit on Race, the themes would be ideal. For the user with a general interest in history and culture, the timeline is an intuitive way to begin.


At launch, the app included six playlists and about 3-and-a-half hours of video. Ken plans to release one film every year for the next several years, so we built the app to allow for the addition of additional clips into existing playlists or the creation of new playlists.

Prototyping—Testing isn’t a phase, it’s a way of life

For a product as tactile and immersive as Ken Burns, there was no substitute for testing early and often. We loved when people were able to “break” the app—it gave us a clear picture of what we needed to fix. We coded one interaction at a time, beginning with a simple prototype of the timeline. Our aim was to see how many clips could fit on the screen and remain legible and tappable. We didn’t have a fixed testing period—we were always testing.


After verifying that we had perfected one interaction, we moved onto another and another, testing all along. Only then did we style the interface to transform it into the high-fidelity product that’s available in the App Store today.

Launch strategy—Capturing the world’s attention

To launch the app, Ken Burns appeared at the SoHo Apple store to discuss the app with Stephen Colbert (watch the conversation here). We also helped Ken Burns do his first ‘Ask Me Anything’ Q&A on Reddit. The discussion made the front page, which receives 2 million daily unique visitors.

“This app isn’t just notable for dragging Burns into the digital era; it’s also a really nice template for other multimedia offerings to follow suit….The world of video-specific apps is still pretty nascent, and for new video apps to stand out in a Netflix and Hulu era, they would be wise to copy [Ken Burns]‘s incredible focus on curation.”—Ars Technica

The app was an App Store Editor’s Choice and quickly surpassed 150,000 downloads, ensuring Ken Burns’ work will be appreciated by a new generation of fans.


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