User Experience Design

User Experience Study for Special Collections @ DU

This project was part of my culminating internship experience for the MLIS program at the University of Denver. Read the full report here.

Aim of the Project
The Special Collections @ DU site is the online digital repository for the University of Denver Archives, including collections relevant to university, Denver, and Colorado history. At the time of the study, the stats for this site were underperforming. Students, faculty, and other stakeholders did not seem to know what the site was, how to access it, and what kinds of information and materials they could find there.

This goal of this study was to set a baseline level of knowledge and provide recommendations for improving the site. The questions I sought to answer were:

“If users are looking for a thing can they:
a. Find it?
b. Get it?
c. If they can’t get it, can they figure out how to get it?”

User Personas
Working together with the Curator of Special Collections and Archives, I developed three personas for different categories of archives users: students, faculty, and community researchers.

Developing a Usability Testing Script
While each of these personas could help us gain insight into reaching different populations and stakeholders for the Special Collections @ DU site, I decided to focus on one – Javier, the student researcher. With this persona in mind, I developed the following usability testing script for individual interviews, adapting information from Emerging Tech in Libraries.

[Introduce self and make small talk to make participant feel comfortable]

[Explain what’s going to happen:] The point of a usability test is to see if a website does all the things we want it to. I’ll be giving you tasks to complete on the “Special Collections @ DU” website, which is a digital repository that contains archival materials. It’s okay if you can’t find the information to complete a task – in fact, it’s helpful, because then we’ll know where the website can be better. It will also be very helpful if you narrate your actions as you do them – for instance, saying Now I’m going to click this link because I think it will take me to a page with photographs, or I’m surprised because this button doesn’t do what I thought it did. As I mentioned in the email, I will be recording the screen and your voice, do I have your permission to do that? Let’s get started.

Tell me a little about yourself… [Open-ended background questions, year, major]

[Initial Impressions]: Now, let’s go to the “Special Collections @ DU” website. I want you to give me your immediate impressions as you look at this page. Feel free to click anything.

[Navigating and Utilizing the Site]: Let’s pretend one of your instructors has given you an assignment to write an exhibit proposal about a specific historical question. The question you’ve chosen is, “What was the campus climate like at DU during the Vietnam War?” Locate three primary source items that help answer this question. Feel free to use other internet sources like Wikipedia at first if you feel unfamiliar with the topic.

Show me how you would find photographs, documents, or records relevant to your research.

Rate the process of researching on this site on a scale of 1 to 5, 1 being very hard and 5 being very easy, and tell me why.

Show me how you would download the items you find to use in your proposal.

How would you find more contextual information on this item?

Possible follow up questions: Were you able to find what you were looking for? Do you think the items you found were interesting or compelling? What could have made your search easier?

[Debriefing]: I have a few debriefing questions before we wrap up. What did you like about using this website for primary source research? What did you not like?

If you could add anything else to the website – a new feature or new information – what would you add?

This is the DU Library homepage. Knowing what you do about the Special Collections @ DU repository, how would you get to it from this page?

Thank you for your time! This has been very helpful for us.

Conducting Usability Testing
One-on-one interviews with students were conducted on May 23, 2017 at the DU University Library. I set up in a room immediately off the entrance and offered students donuts for participating. I was able to recruit four undergraduate students and one graduate student to help test the site.

Overall, the students felt that the site lacked context and had a difficult time locating and using information from it. Additionally, they were unable to find the site from the main DU Special Collections webpage. A full analysis of the testing is available in the report.

Comparative Analysis
I also conducted a comparative analysis of the Special Collections @ DU site by observing other institutional repositories based on the same Islandora software. To get ideas for the site layout I looked at Hagley Digital Archives and PALMM Digital Collections. I identified the Barnard Digital Collection as the most promising example to base our upgrades on, since it had a prominent search bar and tools that could be more easily taught to and accessed by student users.

Based on this research I made the following recommendations:

  1. Rethink the purpose of the site. 
    • Because many of the departmental and non-special collections pages are now redundant, out of date, or just confusing for researchers, consider removing them from the site. 
    • Instead, the site should be focused solely on digital objects from the Special Collections & Archives.
    • If keeping the same layout, make the Special Collections & Archives section of the site the homepage to reduce confusion from clutter, as it is now hidden on the second page of the site.
  2. Develop a different layout for the site.
    • Because participants in the usability study had such a difficult time locating artifacts, making the search bar more prominent (or the main feature) on the page to reduce confusion.
    • Simplify – as it is, the site is cluttered and not intuitive to use. The Barnard Digital Collections is a great example of a simpler, more intuitive layout.
  3. Develop an “Exhibits” function.
    • The part of the Barnard site that has the biggest potential for DU is the Exhibits section, which allows archivists to curate collections of objects for specific purposes. This would be especially useful for instruction and scenarios like the ones developed for the usability test.
    • This functionality could also support future digital humanities projects.
  4. Make the link easier to find.
    • As it stands, the link to this site is a tiny, text-only link hidden in a paragraph of text on a subpage of the Collections & Archives library page. 
    • Making the link more prominent or easier to find will make it more available to students in the future.

My first two recommendations were used to update the site and are visible on the current version.

Further Research
The following questions could be used to pursue further usability research for this site:

  • How can the site be improved to accommodate faculty and community researchers identified in the remaining two personas?
  • How can instruction and learning design, in both the library and classrooms around campus, be improved to help students use this resource more effectively?
  • What virtual exhibits can be developed to illuminate specific materials in the collections?
  • How accessible is this site? What improvements can be made to ensure that all users have success searching this resource?

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