Technical Discovery: Project Alpha

Matt McGrattan
Dec 18, 2019 · 9 min read

Matt McGrattan, Head of Digital Library Solutions, Digirati.


In this article I will outline the technical discovery work done, since the end of October 2019, for the National Archives Project Alpha.

What is Project Alpha?

The National Archives have an introduction to Project Alpha here.

Working in an archive we have long memories. Taking inspiration from (which led to GOV.UK) we’re aiming to build and test, in public, a prototype of a new website for The National Archives. It will be shaped by user needs, follow service design principles and make the best use of modern technologies.

We’re taking a ‘blank sheet of paper’ approach to Project Alpha, challenging ourselves to look beyond our current technological and cultural limitations, to define what a modern, accessible archive should and could be for all our users.

Digirati are collaborating with the National Archives, as part of an integrated team with National Archives staff, to help with the Discovery process for Alpha, and the building of the Alpha prototypes.

This article covers the initial on-boarding and Discovery phases of the project which run from October 2019 to early January of 2020, with a focus, in this article, on the technical side of Discovery. Ideation and solution design, followed by a rapid phase of prototyping and user testing —the Alpha phase proper, following the GDS Agile Delivery Framework—will follow the Discovery phase in mid January of 2020.

The Problem

Alpha is taking a blank sheet approach to solving some problems that users of archives encounter when they first visit the National Archives website, and websites of similar memory institutions.

Tom Crane, Digirati’s Technology Director, has a series of posts addressing the problems that users Baffled by Archives encounter. These include:

  • Users have a mental model of how websites work and how their information is stored and presented, based on their experience with: search engines like Google; online encyclopaedias like Wikipedia; news media; commercial information providers, or library catalogues.

Alpha is about helping to solve these problems, and others, through innovative user experience and design combined with cutting edge technological solutions.

However, the goal of Alpha is not to produce a finished public facing replacement for the National Archives website. Instead, the goal is to identify innovative and genuinely useful approaches to presenting the National Archives’ collection online through rapidly prototyping, testing, and evaluating solutions to the problems that users face when visiting the National Archives.


From the start, Alpha has been based around identifying the most pressing and important problems to address in prototyping through two complimentary processes:

  • User research and user experience work based on design thinking.

In addition, there is a Technical strand of the Discovery phase focused on articulating and understanding the possibilities and the limitations afforded by the data sources that exist for the National Archives collections.

Technical Discovery is primarily about ensuring that when ideation, solution design, and rapid prototyping begins for Alpha, we have:

  • built a shared understanding of the National Archives’ collection across the team

So that we are ready to begin work immediately, and productively, on design, sketching, and writing code in mid January 2020.

Context for Technical Discovery

Technical Discovery work is not taking place in a vacuum. In advance of the ideation and solution design phase of Alpha, there are still some background goals and assumptions that can help focus technical exploration, without closing off entirely different possibilities that might emerge during solution design.

Goals for Alpha

Workshops at the National Archives (30th and 31st October) identified some key user-research led goals and directions of travel:

How users find us / How users encounter relevant content

(from) Harder — FINDING THINGS IN THE ARCHIVE — (to) Easier

We will help people find The National Archives on the web. Wherever users start their journey, searching for a historical event or an individual, we will connect them with relevant and useful TNA content, providing meaningful context to encourage serendipitous exploration.

How users understand ‘TNA content’


We will help users to make sense of what they have found and empower them to confidently navigate the rest of their journey.

Help users engage with TNA


We will enable users to become an active participant in TNA activities, through contributions and engagement, and the sharing of experience and expertise.

These goals, along with the business goals and the vision of the National Archives will be the key factors used to prioritise and assess areas for prototyping in the Alpha phase of the project, and have helped shape the investigations carried out in the Technical Discovery phase of the project.

Initial suggestions for technical approach

There are a number of suggestions for how solving the problems for Alpha might be approached, which are not set in stone, but which provide useful pointers for further investigation:

  • Adopt as light a tech stack as possible

Existing hypotheses and assumptions

National Archives staff already have a number of hypotheses and assumptions — some well-supported by user testing and other evidence, and some untested at this stage — that might help explain why users struggle, and how they might be helped.

The statements below are loosely paraphrased or adapted from statements made by National Archives staff in the on-boarding workshops.

  • Making the easy things easier, and supporting people better with the hard things, is the key to success.

First thoughts on user journeys

Based on the National Archives’ hypotheses and assumptions, and the user journeys and personas identified by the user experience work in Discovery, there are a number of obvious areas that might be explored in Alpha:

  • Mental model: see Tom Crane’s Baffled by Archives post. Can we make the archival model easier for users to understand and navigate, through innovative information architecture, design, and user experience?

The areas that will actually be explored in Alpha will emerge from ideation workshops in January 2020, so the list above is just initial thoughts to help guide exploration of data sources.

Data Sources

With the goals and assumptions of the Discovery phase in mind, the team began to look at the available sources of data that the National Archives has about their collections. These include:

  • the catalogue

Team members—from the National Archives and from Digirati—were each assigned a service to:

  • Explore and understand the data held by that service

Alongside this service understanding phase of Technical Discovery we also began work on:

  • understanding how we might normalise URLs for these services, so that we can interconnect them via shared identifiers in Alpha

What we have done to date

Since the commencement of the project in October we have:

  • setup and configured dedicated AWS infrastructure for hosting data and for delivering prototypes

Next Steps

The next steps, to begin in January 2020, will be driven by areas for investigation and prototyping that emerge from the ideation workshops and from the National Archives business goals. The Technical Discovery work to date has laid the ground for rapidly building prototypes and deploying them for testing.

As we progress with Project Alpha, we’re looking to test some of the concepts with people new to The National Archives. If that sounds like you, we’d welcome your help! Register your interest here.

The National Archives Digital

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