Drawing on recent experiences of the Letters 1916-1923 team in re-designing their project website, this paper will elaborate how changing user expectations, academic standards and special requirements of source material can be reconciled in the creation of database-driven interfaces designed for public humanities projects. Studies in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and usability, which first flourished in the 1990s (cf. Laurel, 1993; Johnson, 1997), have been a major concern of the digital humanities for the past decade (e.g. Drucker, 2013). Digital Humanities scholars agree that interfaces are “part of the design” (Drucker, 2013) and need to visually tell the project’s story. But despite extensive theoretical discourse on “user-centered designs” (Gibbs and Owens, 2012; Boukhelifa, Giannisakis, Dimara, Willett, Fekete, 2015; Shneiderman and Plaisant, 2009), DH projects tend to fall short in practice.
A lack of long-term funding and the interdisciplinary nature of DH projects often result in the development of websites, databases or mobile applications that make many compromises and are no longer updated when user expectations and technical possibilities change. In their 2016 conference paper “Usability in Digital Humanities”, Natasa Bulatovic and her co-authors found “that more resources need be spent on testing of digital tools and infrastructure components and that it is especially important to conduct user tests covering the whole knowledge process” (Bulatovic, Gnadt, Romanello, Stiller, Thoden, 2016, abstract).
Jason Slipp (Slipp 2015) has analysed a broad range of digital editions, online archives and biographical websites, pointing out their failure to permanently engage their users. One of the projects he discussed was the William Blake archive, which won the 2003
Modern Languages Association Prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition and was last updated in May 2015. Slipp notices that the site offers “a vast amount of content, but [lacks] the aesthetic layout” to help users find and process this information without frustration. In Slipp’s opinion, a consistent site navigation, basic information about the objectives of the project on the landing page, and a video or other visualization explaining the usage of the site are key elements of a successful digital humanities project.
The Letters 1916-1923 project, first launched in 2013, also faced the challenge of re-designing its user interface in 2018 to engage a broad range of users from school children to professional researchers, both as end users of the project and as contributors. In contrast to some of the projects analysed by Jason Slipp, Letters 1916-1923 had to cope with a potentially unlimited, constantly expanding dataset whose metadata were not only added by members of staff but also by students and members of the public. Therefore, extensive data cleaning and careful data management was an inherent aspect of the website redesign, and compromises had to be made when presenting such complex sources.
The fact that many women had different maiden and married names, that Irish republicans often used Irish variants of their English names, and that letter-writers fearing censorship and criminal prosecution resorted to pseudonyms had to be taken into account, and a balance had to be struck between respect for the variety of spellings and names used in the original sources and the technological necessities of a user-friendly digital archive (see evaluation tools suggested by Stiller, Thoden, Zielke, 2016).
Onsite user testing provided insights how website visitors would interact with the site and how self-evident navigation would be. One important result of the user testing was that our clean and reduced design overwhelmed users with little IT experience. An additional section was added to the project’s landing page to offer alternative ways of accessing information on how to participate in the project. Menu categories were renamed, and the number of keywords in “browse” filters was limited.
Every step towards simplification was always balanced by the introduction of spaces for the ambiguity and complexity of content elsewhere (e.g. continuously growing “highlights” and “news” sections on the landing page). Feedback received from the focus-group revealed that the average website user is more willing to accept complexity at least in the design of search results. Frequent contact with sophisticated search engines in the world of online shopping, streaming services or digital newspapers have prepared users to handle large amounts of search results they themselves need to narrow down. When the Letters 1916-1923 project first invited members of the public to test its website in 2015, this type of display was rejected by most users. In only two years, the public expectations of how to navigate search results have changed considerably.
By describing some of our initial problems and design choices in the light of recent user testing, we provide a case study from which similar public humanities projects may benefit
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