Friday, 26 August 2011

Enhancements #1

The first set of enhancements designed to improve usability on British History Online specifically produced as part of the JISC 01/11B funding went live this morning. I'll round them up below but first I want to say a little about how these changes came about.

Our analysis was led by qualitative interactions with a set of academics from different locations around the country and different specialised subject areas using interviews and a focus group. Each interaction came up with a qualified wish list, the aggregation of which enabled us to look across the field and identify common bugbears and frustrations.

This led us to create an issue list – a plain English account of the problem including screen shot, a suggested recommendation and, crucially, a test question which embodied the issue. All nine test questions were then spliced into an online click test and put out through our public communications channels (site news, Facebook, Twitter etc) to the BHO audience.

This first consultation has enabled us to benchmark the current state of the site, and as you can see from the sample below, for some test questions, there has been a worryingly large distribution of clicks from users (the red circles indicate user clicks, and the arrow points to the correct click location).

I hope that the power of this approach is now becoming clear. After redevelopment, we are able to ask exactly the same questions of our users - a before and after situation - which will enable us to report the success or otherwise of each amendment. The key to enabling this is creating these easy to understand test questions.

So here are the enhancements which have just gone live, together with the issues to which they relate:

Issue: Support documents can clog up the search results filtering process
Enhancement: New checkboxes added to the advanced search form allowing users to exclude indices and abbreviation lists (see how to lose the noise from indices and abbreviations lists in search results)

Issue: Search result filtering can be time-consuming when working chronologically
Enhancement: Documents with clear event dates have been re-indexed, and a toggle option added to search results page enables users to switch between the two sequences (see how documents without specific event dates appear after those that do)

Issue: Issue: It is not clear which search filters are being employed
Enhancement: 'Breadbox' added to search results page enables users to examine their query and instantly remove certain parts (see how the construction of the query is clearly exposed)

Issue: Data structured geographically is not represented visually
Enhancement: Device to include a map at the head of the sources to which they refer, with simple zoom function (see how we brought an overview to the Survey of London)

Issue: Users have no way of re-ordering a list
Enhancement: Added 'A-Z' and 'Z-A' sort options to sources, most useful where the volumes are ordered chronologically, e.g. parliamentary/state papers (see the sequencing options in action for the Calendar of Close Rolls)

Thursday, 25 August 2011

On Gideon and experimentation

In reaching the final stages of our usability project, I've started to think about the kind of change which this process forces upon the system manager/developer. It's not just about working your way through a list of software modifications; it's about identifying which ones are the most important and prioritising them.

Knowing that they are going to be re-tested by the same users as before binds the organisation to the user. If some of this testing is anonymous (for instance, through remote click tests), then the pressure to deliver a great service builds because users can feed back on the product as they find it, and there is no opportunity for political interference of these results.

But that pressure requires a specific ability on the part of the system developer: experimentation. Functions need to be tested over and over again before release, often using other team members from within the organisation. To function effectively, all the team members need to appreciate the value of this iterative but ultimately repetitive behaviour. For a certain period of time, they have to reject what is customary or an accepted standard for an information service and place themselves in a research context (much like how the usability standard persona tool works).

This isn't an easy piece of intellectual gymnastics to perform and some might say it's too exposed to the mundane organisational risks of political interference. However, the levelling factor will be the end user's response – no amount of influence will tell a humanities researcher what to think. And if that response is well documented and capable of being compared across time, as the usability process gives us the framework to do, then that voice will be heard.

So it looks as if running experiments such as surveys and click tests, standard tools within the social sciences, is finally here to stay for humanities products, as the results can easily communicate across all levels of an organisation how specific investments can provide a return. That's why the term usability applies as much to the methodology of this process (i.e. interview & focus group transcriptions/notes, survey results, click records) as it does to the system under investigation. Approaching the process in this way allows it to form not only the basis for modification of the system under review, but also for the very processes used to examine the system.

PS: you may be wondering why Gideon was in the title to this post. Gideon, as you may know, was unsure of whether he was actually speaking to God when he prayed; so he asked him to put water on his fleece but keep the ground dry. This was duly done, but being a sceptical fellow, the next day Gideon asked God to make the ground wet but keep the fleece dry. Now, instead, he could have simply asked someone if God existed and accepted their answer...but he didn't. Not only did he experiment, but crucially, he made that experiment easy to understand.