This project was performed as a requirement of a Human-Computer Interaction course, which fulfilled partial graduation requirements for the Master of Information Science degree. Graduate students from various disciplines were partnered together to come up with new solutions to improve access, discoverability, and use of archival findings aids.
A finding aid is a document that captures detailed information about an archival collection. These documents preserve valuable information, and help users find relevant materials within the collection. Initially, finding aids were solely produced on paper, yet the internet has drastically changed the way people gather information. We viewed current digital versions of finding aids essentially as scans, which have not been translated into a world of digital interactions. Our goal was to come up with a solution that would improve digital interactions with finding aids – by structuring and designing content with user needs at the forefront of decisions.
My role for the project was to lead the development of wireframes and a user journey map to demonstrate a new method for interacting with finding aid information, discovering archival materials, and requesting use of archival materials. I additionally assisted with the creation of our personas.
We began by holding a brainstorming session with the team to hear all potential ideas for reimagining the finding aid. We entertained ideas ranging from apps to store models, but ultimately arrived at two ideas that split the group: the mapping of archival materials and the creation of a website with user-friendly organized information. We saw the benefits of each as mapping would allow users to interact with archival materials in a new and innovative way, while a tailored website would allow researchers to more easily evaluate a collection before committing to in-depth engagement. In order to help our team choose between these two ideas, we created a user journey map and personas to identify pain points in the use of archival materials.
We created four personas based on our own experience with users and archives, with all of us having some work experience in archival settings. While I am personally aware of the many shortcomings of non-research-based personas, I believe they were acceptable in this case being that they came from our own knowledge of archival user behavior. We did not create the personas from assumptions, but rather from frequently known behaviors. These personas assisted us in our initial stage of identifying pain points in the use of archival materials.
I then led the creation of a user journey map to help guide the design of the site. Similarly to the personas, the map was also produced through our own knowledge of users and archives. The journey map demonstrates the many touchpoints users go through as they attempt to access and use archival materials.
In the end, we decided a website designed with users in mind would better address pain points of archival use. However, we did not want to completely abandon our mapping idea as it sits at the forefront of innovative archival engagements. We satisfied both desires by including an embedded version of the map within our proposed website redesign.
Our wireframes structured information very differently than traditional finding aids, placing the most user-relevant information at the front of the website and grouping all information into categories. With this structure, researchers are able to find what they need quickly and easily. In-depth information on the collection remains present in case it is required, but is located deeper within the website.
The redesign also attempts to improve the archival request process, as there are multiple steps involved with traditional finding aids. While the new layout assists with discovery, a newly designed request process would increase use. This portion was inspired by websites with focused checkout features like Amazon.
With the restructured content and site, we believe the user journey would be improved by a streamlined process that decreases the user burden. A new user journey map was created to demonstrate the difference in navigation between traditional finding aids and our redesign.
The user burden during the Discovery Phase is drastically reduced as a tailored website allows better searches and an improved information architecture. The length of the Discovery Phase is also reduced by eliminating a prerequisite education requirement and navigation to a separate finding aid. The user burden in the Request Phase is similarly reduced by streamlining the process, and the length of this phase is also reduced. Lastly, the Use Phase largely remains the same as this engagement takes place in the physical form. However, improvements in the Discovery and Request Phases reduce the user burden in the final stages of the Use Phase. As the first two phases improve the evaluation of materials, they decreases the possibility of users incorrectly assessing materials and thus, the chance that users will need to begin new searches.
This project emphasized the fact that user engagements differ greatly within different environments. While paper finding aids may have properly served users in the past, their digital equivalent is not simply a digitized copy. Instead, the format needs to be reimagined for an electronic environment, while preserving users’ engagements with critical information. Finding aids need to be interactive and properly structured to allow users to engage with materials and information similarly to other digital information sources.
A more in-depth lesson learned from the project, was the issues that arose from our requirement to use personas. The short turnaround time of the project did not allow for any in-depth studies of users, which led many teams to create non-research based personas. Discussions within our team led us away from this as we believed the were highly based on assumptions, had potential to reinforce stereotypes, and would inevitably included the design team’s preferences. Although our personas were based on actual archives users, I would attempt to perform more qualitative work tailored towards the use of finding aids if I were to perform the project again.
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