Schools Hub: learning from portraits

ClientNational Portrait Gallery

ServicesDigital, Strategy, User testing, Project management, Search, Web development, Accessibility

The National Portrait Gallery is a UK cultural landmark. As part of their relaunch they wanted to create a free online learning hub with 150+ specially produced resources and videos, all linked to the National Curriculum. We were appointed following a competitive tendering process to lead the digital development.

Let’s start at the very beginning…

We strongly believe that successful projects begin with thorough preparation. In our discovery phase we broke down the project brief, examined each requirement, and proactively identified challenges or ambiguities. We:

  • Ran remote workshops to explore the ideas and hopes for the project with the team and internal stakeholders
  • Checked existing research and documentation
  • Built user journeys and identified the target audience

We collaborated closely with the NPG Search hub and Digital teams to refine each objective, and ensure that we addressed differing opinions and priorities.

A screenshot of the Schools hub website

Building on strong foundations

Early user research, wireframing and UI design had been done before the project was put to tender, but since that time the NPG had begun rebranding. We adapted and refined the UI to fit with the new branding. We kept a distinct feel for the Schools hub microsite, putting the content front-and-centre and appealing to a younger audience.

Pops of colour and animations were woven in to increase engagement, and an interactive glossary added to explain the meaning of unfamiliar terms.

Careful attention was paid to tuning the search engine so it returns relevant results. With two audiences for the site the vocabulary used for searching was wide, and we added extensive mapping so no matter what you type in you get the results you expect.

Maple have been a stand out partner on this project. Their strong commitment to the specific needs of our target audiences, attention to detail, ability to listen and to be flexible, and their positive focus on problem-solving and offering creative solutions, were all key to the success of this project.

As a result, Schools hub has been designed so that the UI, design and UX all support and enable learning, when so often they can be a barrier.

It has been a genuine pleasure to work with them!

Photo of Eleanor Hilton
Eleanor Hilton
National Portrait Gallery
National Portrait Gallery

User research and testing

With the outline of the site built it was time to test it on teachers. We’re lucky to have an educator and museum studies graduate on staff, who interviewed teachers from across the UK about their needs and observed them as they used a prototype of the site. We compiled our findings into an easy to read traffic light coded report for the NPG, and used them to make a better Schools hub.

Schools hub had to meet or exceed WCAG 2.1 AA accessibility standards. We carried out accessibility audits and screen reader testing to make sure this was met.

Easy content management

Schools hub is built into MODX, the NPG’s content management system (CMS). As the leading MODX development agency in the UK, we were in our element. The digital team at National Portrait Gallery have a lot of responsibilities, so we made the Schools hub admin as easy and time-saving for them as we did for teachers. They’re able to delegate content entry to staff outside their team without opening up access to the whole of the CMS.

We added a drag-and-drop page builder that’s now used site-wide, and integrated the gallery’s Collection Management System into the CMS so staff no longer have to extract & upload copies of each portrait to the website.

Fast for visitors, cost-efficient to run

The National Portrait Gallery has a world-wide audience and ensuring Schools hub loads quickly and is fast in use was central in every decision during development. Tiered caching is built-in for fast responses, and the site including the search can be served from a CDN. The experience is optimised for use on mobile devices.


Schools hub launched in September 2023. It has been featured as an example of best practice and praised for its ease-of-use, and shortlisted in the 2024 Museums + Heritage Awards for Best Use of Digital.

The work was funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and is part of the Inspiring People project at the National Portrait Gallery.

Inspiring People Principal Supporter logos

Results for them,
results for you.

We've worked for organisations on 6 of the world's 7 continents (Antarctica has proved elusive). You next?