Leading users towards user-led developments

After all of the fun pictures that Paddy has been posting as part of the Big Draw, its time to get back to the ‘serious’ (though never dusty) issues! I have been pondering what I think is a very engaging issue…of engaging with our audience. We are always keen, of course, to ensure that the Hub develops in line with what users want. For us the core audience is researchers in higher and further education, because we are funded for that purpose, but of course, we want the Hub to be useful and valuable to all researchers, and we hope that it fulfils that function reasonably well.

So, we are currently thinking about user testing in order to more directly engage with users’ requirements. We are in the early stages of putting together a plan for how to approach this. It seems to me that so often we (service providers) talk about the importance of developing services in line with user requirements, but don’t necessarily fully engage users in this process. Having said that, we’ll need to actually find willing users to give up an hour or so of their time – so we’ll have to see how that goes. I wonder how many other online archive services have successfully engaged users in this way and how they went about it?

When we had consultants employed to carry out a summative evaluation of the Hub (see ‘Evaluation Reports’ section) it was hoped to get 100 respondents, but the take-up was rather lower, with only 18 taking part in a phone survey and 15 in an online survey. The results were still useful and valid, but it does illustrate the problem of getting users to actually give constructive feedback. I’m just about to go through the National Archives Network User Research Group (NANURG) user evaluation that took place in 2001-2002. This evaluation was successful in involving sixth form students, family historians, librarians, professional researchers and a number of other users, but it took place before I joined the Hub so I’ll be interested to read the report.

One of the findings of the evaluation was that some users are hindered by ‘their limited understanding of the function of archives, catalogue descriptions, and the language used’. The recommendations included more work on design, use of colour and graphics and interactive pages.

On a related note, the HATII project, Multidimensional Visualisation of Archival Finding Aids, aims to address some of the issues surrounding the structuring and visualisation of finding aids, particularly those that are using EAD. The Hub team will be interested to see how this project progresses and what the outcomes are. For this project, the content of a finding aid is structured into cells which are linked together to form dimensions. For example, the Records of the Marketing Department are a cell, and they relate to Minutes, Agendas and Related Papers and also specifically to Academic Board minutes as well as to Publications, which link to Prospectuses. So, each cell relates to several other cells in different ways and relationships can be built up in visual ways that allow the researcher to see different contexts and follow different connections. I’m not sure how we’d implement something like this in practice for a service like the Hub, but it clearly addresses the importance to researchers of different relationships within archives other than the standard drill-down collection-series- sub-series- item type relationship. I found the system architecture and mapping diagrams rather hard to get my head round, but the first demo is good – it provides a clear visual representation of the principle.

A small gripe about the HATII visualisation of finding aids project website is that the project start and end dates don’t appear to be provided. There is a page last updated date, so that does give some help. It brings to mind a note I recently saw displayed in a shop window, ‘back in 15 minutes’…but was the note put up 5 minutes ago or 5 days ago?

Image ‘Autofocus test’ taken from sigsegv’s photos on Flickr (Creative Commons)