I'm David Little, a user experience researcher and designer

Putting the UX in DH: some initial thoughts and observations

Posted: December 11, 2011

I’m relatively new to the field of digital humanities but it seemed a good time for me to collect together some of my initial thoughts on the approaches to user experience design within the domain.

Firstly–a disclaimer. These are entirely personal and largely anecdotal observations–I haven’t exactly undertaken widespread research on the topic so there’s bound to be work which I’m ignorant of. Ok…

Understanding the domain

What is digital humanities (DH)? I imagine you’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask but a good starting point might be the Wikipedia entry:

The digital humanities is an area of research, teaching, and creation concerned with the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities.

In practical terms DH projects usually involve the creation of scholarly digital publications, more often than not now delivered via the Web. This has often equated to digitised texts, manuscripts or other source material of use to a small, specialised audience of researchers. However, this is not necessarily the only application of the technology in the field–some projects, whilst retaining scholarly rigour in their production may have a far wider user base, both in terms of their creation and consumption.

For instance the Great War Archive project undertaken at Oxford University, and its sister project in Germany run by Europeana created a crowd-sourced digital collection of memorabilia, documents and ephemera from the First World War. A diverse range of participants were able to contribute objects to the resource, either by uploading digital images via a website or by attending sessions in which people could bring their collections in for examination and digitisation. Some were also able to make connections and construct their own stories from the data.

I’ll admit a personal preference for the more “participatory” end of the digital humanities–simply as I’m excited by the potential of the Web to involve and, hopefully enthuse a wide range of people. However, whatever the type of resource being created, as all good designers know it will only be truly successful if designed for the needs of its users, whether they are a narrow selection of specialists or a much wider audience of non-specialists.

Approaches to user experience design in the digital humanities

Whilst I can’t speak for every project, I imagine it wouldn’t be massively unfair to say there is some reluctance to adopt wholesale user-centred design techniques in all DH projects–for a number of reasons, including some you might encounter in other fields: it requires time, effort and money to be done properly and sometimes funding and deadlines are tight.

However I think there are other reasons too. Culturally DH projects have been led by a particular research agenda rather than the desire to produce a “product” for a set of users. For this reason projects can often be rather vague in their precise aims at the outset, so resources may be the result of collaborative research between the technologists and non-technologists rather than built to a pre-set specification.

Related to this, academic staff involved in the projects may have a strong idea of how they want to present their findings–after all, it is their area of specialisation and they may not see the value of involving others; or they may simply make an assumption that others will use the resource in the same way they do–a common pitfall for the creator of any software.

There may also be a question of expertise–digital humanists themselves may not have the relevant knowledge of human computer interaction and interface design simply because they are highly skilled specialists in other areas (e.g. mark-up languages or text analysis). As DH projects are largely led by technologists it can be difficult to sell them on the value of design–which they may see as simply making something look pretty.

So, why bother?

All resources are (or you would certainly hope be) created for a purpose, and by association have a group of potential users. Understanding this from the outset and designing a resource appropriately can surely greatly enhance the impact and amount of use it receives (of course if your target is “future scholars” then it might be a little more difficult!).

It’s also worth thinking of a digital resource as being more than data. Data is generally stored in formats (e.g. XML or databases) that can be reused or even divorced from its presentation layer and archived. I see resources as a combination of this data, tools to interrogate and make sense of it and interfaces which allow users interact with the data–something which necessitates the involvement of the people who will be using them in the first instance; otherwise resources run the risk of being unused, unusable or simply esoteric experiments which soon disappear from view.

Current work

While it seems to me user-centred design is a relative newcomer to DH, things are certainly happening. Although focus groups and last-minute usability testing have certainly been used in the past, more robust approaches to user experience appear to be gaining more ground within the discipline: one indicator being more academic articles appearing on the subject.

Also, as I noted in an earlier post there is some very innovative participatory work going on in what might be considered DH’s more democratic/populist sister discipline: digital museums. Museum users are being encouraged to interact with institutions and their collections in more and more creative ways. In order to do this user-centred design processes are being adopted enthusiastically; something DH will no doubt learn from, especially as it adopts similar techniques to build resources (see for instance the Ancient Lives crowd-sourcing project to transcribe papyrii).

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