The educational sessions of the Joint Annual Meeting of the Council of State Archivists and the Society of American Archivists concluded at the Hilton Riverside in New Orleans, Louisiana on Saturday, August 17th. Before it did, however, we explored user experience.

Archivists are reassessing their online interfaces. The primary question is whether or not the tools meet their target audiences’ needs. The panelists (shown below) presented their recent studies and findings.

  • Sherri Berger, Special Collections Product Manager, California Digital Library
  • Jody DeRidder, Head, Digital Services, University of Alabama
  • Rachel Hu, User Experience Design Manager, University of California Office of the President
  • Roger C. Schonfeld, Program Director, Ithaka S+R, Ithaka S+R
  • Donghee Sin, Assistant Professor, University of Albany

Lessons From the California Digital Library

Berger introduced two sites. The first, the Online Archive of California (OAC), arranges digitized objects into a single interface for users. The content is divided into two groups: the MARC record (think finding aids) and the digitized item. In contrast, Calisphere is a digital object repository only. Launched in 2006 for the K-12 audience, it doesn't host finding aids; objects are listed topically instead.

The design team is painfully aware that their sites haven’t changed significantly since the original publication dates -- but in order to redesign the team must know their audience. They believed it consisted of:

  • the “advanced researcher”, or academics who want to get their hands on the real objects, and
  • archivists interested in reference or processing work (assuming the role of end user).

To educate themselves, the design team created a poll: a simple pop-up dialogue window on each website asked, “how do you best describe yourself?” with pre-populated choices and a write-in option. They utilized sampling; surveying only 1 out of every 1000 views. Running a Bayesian statistical formula, small amounts of data collected every day beginning October 2012.

  • OAC results were unsurprising: 11% academic; 22% archivists/librarians; 33% other. Completely expected.
  • The Calisphere results were very different: the K-12 audience was only 6%. A sizableportion were academic researchers.

Redesigning Calisphere for diversified users was the stronger opportunity of the two. 

Redesigning Calisphere

Hu described the user-centered assessment and the redesign process for Calisphere:

  • Perform market research
  • Determine the audience demo
  • Look at the larger scale of quantitative patterns
  • Design the site
  • Understand at a functional level why they select certain spaces on the page, and
  • Take the narrative and use it as a guide to the design process.

How do users prioritize Calisphere's elements once they've reviewed the site? Are there more current display mechanisms? Complex questions require alternate and varied methodologies: surveys, interviews, literature reviews, comparative analyses and design exercises in Google Draw.

The findings? The team decided to reorient: themed collections for general users who gravitated towards thumbnails. The highest priority elements were the image itself. The primary metadata included: title, description, institutional affiliation, copyright and usage information; the second tier included: how to cite the object more accessible attribution information, high-resolution, more modern zoom tech, related images, and related content (from other sites).

Research on Historians' User Experiences

Schonfeld and colleagues have conducted several projects on the changing research methods and practices of university faculty members in several disciplines. Their research on historians yielded the following observations.

Historians are dedicated users (they particularly value inter-library loans). In other words, they have very different relationship with librarians than archivists.

  • Google is the first port of call. Google Books is of singular importance. It has transformed their practices -- they will sit with a book and search Google Books as they read it -- because the index is better. How can archivists provide this level of access?
  • Overwhelming Access. Tools that permit historians to discover more sources than ever before have increased their anxiety about comprehensiveness. How do you engineer a discovery service to address the need for comprehensiveness rather than just returning best matches?
  • Unbundling Archival Access and Analysis. Historians love digital captures but as a result conduct analysis in archives far less than they once did. Archives have the opportunity to transform discovery by embracing these digital captures, including, when possible, full text discovery. The future is now.
  • Organizing research materials. Practices for achieving intellectual control in the analytical work of historical research have not evolved to address the growth in source materials available to historians. Archivists have an opportunity to develop tools and systems that help historians organize their projects and shape historical narratives.

In summary, archivists have a powerful opportunity to work with historians to transform their work.