The Autry Interactive is part of the user engagement portion of a digital photograph collection held by the Chicana/o Studies Research Center (CSRC) at UCLA. The collection consists of nearly 25,000 negatives produced during the Civil Rights Movements across Los Angeles; the vast majority of which have never been seen by the public. Given the historically important content, the CSRC knew it wanted users to engage with these materials in a new and innovative fashion. Yet, herein lies the problem, as libraries and archives have struggled to keep pace in rapidly evolving digital environments.
Creation of the Autry Interactive was a joint project between the Autry Museum of the American West, Narduli Studios, and the CSRC. The Interactive was designed with an iterative process, which yielded varying problems and solutions at different stages of the project.
Working for the CSRC, my role was to oversee the creation, transfer, and update of all content used in the Interactive. This included interviews, a card sort, a competitive analysis, content writing, and the creation of tags. I also assisted the design team with a cognitive walkthrough and usability tests, which informed updates to layout and architecture to improve the user experience.
Our research team at the CSRC began writing content based on information obtained through qualitative interviews. These interviews were conducted with photographers and activists who were present during many of the Civil Rights protests in Los Angeles. This yielded rich descriptions far beyond our subject expertise, which we then fit into UCLA Library metadata standards.
Our CSRC research team then held a brainstorming session to hear new ideas on how to makes these images accessible and engaging. After going through the session, we performed a competitive analysis on the platforms and solutions discussed to better gauge our options.
The team examined pros, cons, and features of the UCLA Digital Library, California Digital Library, Flickr, Google’s Cultural Institute, and benefits of a new platform. We determined Flickr was our best free option, though we needed to develop an original platform if we wanted users to engage with the materials in a new and innovative fashion. Having already partnered with the Autry Museum for an upcoming exhibition, we then pushed for a third partnership with Narduli Studios to develop the new platform. The new platform would serve as the engagement platform for the CSRC, while also being featured in the Autry’s exhibition.
Our first meeting with Narduli Studios began with a brainstorming session focused on the user experience of the platform including: interactions, architecture, and content. This meeting established the initial workflow with the CSRC handling architecture, content, and assets; and Narduli Studios handling graphic design and development. Once we had a working prototype, the teams met again to go through a cognitive walkthrough that examined the various user touchpoints.
This walkthrough revealed some needed updates to the platform’s architecture, yet the largest finding was the necessity rework some of the CSRC’s content. Being written according to library and archival standards, we quickly realized it wasn’t the most user friendly writing. We decided to convert our index terms to tags based on frequency, and limit the fields seen by users of the Interactive.
Group Usability Tests
The second iteration of the Interactive included updated architecture and content, which we decided to test with users prior to placing it in the Autry Museum. We invited former photographers and activists, along with team members from the Autry Museum, Narduli Studios, and the CSRC. With the exhibition quickly approaching, we performed one large group usability test and monitored how different users engaged with the Interactive.
While I normally would prefer individual usability tests, I believe the group test actually worked in our favor as it mimicked a museum setting. The test revealed some issues with functions, the newly created tags, and features that needed to be removed due to confusion. All of these issues were updated prior to the exhibition opening, creating our third iteration.
Live Usability Tests
On the night of the exhibition opening, I performed usability tests with museum-goers to test how easily they were able to discover images. The most frequent feedback I received was that tags did not include all of the images users expected. I explained that this was due to the fact that the Interactive currently only held half of the CSRC’s assets, with the other half due for delivery in early 2018. However, upon returning to the CSRC, I realized our users were correct – our tags were not covering all relevant material.
The obvious solution to this problem was to rework our tags once more. Yet, I did not want repeat the same process and potentially yield similar results; I instead wanted a more user-focused approach. This led me to conduct a card sort of our index terms, which would then be turned into tags.
I consolidated every index term used for the collection, and printed them out on small cards. I then recruited undergraduate and graduate students from across the UCLA campus, explained the project to them, and had them organize the cards as they saw fit.
The card led to user-defined tags which we believe will greatly improve discovery and interaction. We incorporated these tags soon after, and they will be included in the next version of the interactive along with all CSRC assets.
This project was a great experience with an iterative process, as we were able to continually update our platform while still performing research. This process also yielded increasingly rich research findings, which reinforced the notion that digital projects are never fully complete. Instead, they require continual maintenance to ensure user engagement.
Although I consider this project to largely be a success, a major thing I would change is the early incorporation of user-input. With future projects, I plan to make greater attempts to include users at the forefront of development. Even if this input is limited in the beginning stages, I believe it will hasten the production of quality research findings and create a better product.