Building a stronger user experience with our community’s help

By Audrey Altman, July 27, 2016.
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Following several studies about the use and usability of the DPLA website, we’ve just completed a set of small but significant changes.  We believe these changes will create a more pleasant, intuitive experience on our website, connecting people more easily with the cultural heritage materials our partners provide.

During the evaluation phase of the project, we drew insight from multiple sources, and benefitted greatly from our community network.  In consultation with DPLA staff, two volunteers conducted usability studies of our website, interviewing and observing yet more volunteers as they interacted with our site. Professional UX researcher Tess Rothstein conducted a pro bono study of users’ experiences searching the DPLA, while DPLA Community Rep Angele Mott Nickerson focused her study on our map, timeline, and bookshelf features.  In addition to these interviews, we conducted in-depth analysis of our usage statistics, gathered via Google Analytics.  In addition to the studies,  we considered  informal feedback from our community of users and partners.

Here are a few lessons we learned, and what we’ve done in response:

Highlighting full access

Anyone who has done a usability study is familiar with the shocking moment when your product completely fails to engage a user in its intended way.  For us, that moment came when a first-time user of our website did not realize that they could get all of the digital materials on our website right now, for free.  They were just one click away from total access — and they didn’t click!  

To ensure that future users don’t miss out, we’ve done a few key things to highlight that our contributors provide public access to all the materials users discover through DPLA. For example, a link that use to read “View object” now says something like this:

Get full image

Refining a search

DPLA is a treasure trove of cultural heritage materials – but sometimes it can be hard to find just the right thing amidst millions and millions of items.  Our research gave us a clearer picture of how to help users when their first search attempt returned too much — or too little — of a good thing.

For example, many of our users rely on our “Refine search” filter to narrow their search results and hone in on truly relevant materials.  In our usability studies, we paid attention to which filters interviewees used, whether or not the filters helped them achieve their goals, and what interviewees told us about their usefulness.  We corroborated these observations with analytics data, looking at which filters are used most frequently and when used, which filters are most likely to be followed by a “click” on a search result.  

As is often the case with user-driven decision-making, our findings surprised us.  We had predicted that filters with the best-quality metadata would prove most useful, but that was not always the case.  Ultimately, we moved the most in-demand filters, like subject and location, to the top of the page, and bumped the lesser-used filters, like type and date, to the bottom.Refine search

Making room for new ebooks features

DPLA is actively working toward an innovative future for ebooks.  To make space for this work, we decided to retire the “Bookshelf,” our original interface for browsing the ebooks collection.  Developed by Harvard Innovation Lab, the “Bookshelf” provided a unique search experience that will continue to inform our work with online search and ebooks.

No bugs, please!

Staying on top of bugs and layout issues – especially those that our community members take the time to report – is an essential component of usability.  We identified and fixed many during the project.  Thanks especially to everyone who has chatted with us or contacted us about bugs on the website.

Future work

This round of improvements is but one component of our community’s ongoing efforts to improve usability of and access to digital materials.  While small, low-cost improvements like these will make an immediate positive impact, we are also actively engaged in conversations about improved metadata quality, new technologies, and stronger community relationships.