Sharing Archaeological Data: Part 1 – The Value of User Needs Studies

Many systems for sharing archaeological content have come on line in recent years. These systems have made tremendous innovative strides in sharing content that would otherwise be difficult to access or use. Many are meeting specific needs on a project or sub-discipline level (for example, the extensive Çatalhöyük database, which provides a wealth of context-specific information, associations and diary entries; or the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project: Internet Edition, which offers a site gazetteer and numerous finds databases, including images. Others are sufficiently generalized to satisfy some of the needs of most users, the extreme example being a search in Flickr that returns some 23,000 reusable images tagged with the word “archaeology” (and a further 6,719 reusable photos tagged with the less-popular American spelling, “archeology”).

Each one of these attempts represents an important and needed experiment in how to best use the Web for archaeological communication. This experimentation is ongoing, and in many ways, the blog, wiki, and other resources associated with this project are also examples of how researchers are attempting to adapt Web communication for their professional goals. Given the examples above, however, there appears to be a trend where tools are either designed for highly-customized, in-depth exploration or for simple, casual browsing. Is it possible to find a middle ground, a combination of these two that allows for both in-depth research and informal use, thus meeting the needs of divers users across multiple disciplines?

To answer this question, we first need to take stock and assess the impact and use of such systems. [Note: This blog will publish reviews of many of these systems in the coming months. If you have a system that you’d like us to highlight, please contact us.] Simply building a service doesn’t necessarily mean that people will use it. What makes users come to a site and find value in it? The answer to this is complex, and will vary from user to user. Builders of content-sharing systems cannot expect to meet all of the needs of all users all the time, but they can work towards meeting some of the needs of most users most of the time. Users should find a resource appealing, credible, easy to use, and relevant toward meeting specific goals. These necessities make up the “user experience,” or a person’s overall impression when using a product or system. The concept of user experience “places the end-user at the focal point of design and development efforts, as opposed to the system, its applications or its aesthetic value alone” (Rubinoff 2004). How a user perceives a system will depend on the user’s specific needs and experience with multiple facets of a system, such as content, branding, functionality, the user community and the context in which they are using the system.

Assuring a positive user experience is critical for online businesses and computer games. Thus, commercial systems invest greatly in exploring and meeting the needs of their users. More and more research and collaboration between scholars is being conducted digitally; however these noncommercial systems do not benefit from the large user design investments that are common in commercial services. Thus, the user experience around humanities computing systems tends to be “poor,” with clunky websites, tools that are difficult to use, and systems that poorly integrate with actual work flow patterns (Juola 2008, Warwick et al. 2008).

A poor user experience not only decreases a project’s chances of adoption; it also dramatically impacts data dissemination and preservation, as well as the quantity and quality of research outcomes. To avoid this result, we must focus on the users of systems, not on the systems themselves. Even more specifically, we must focus on the context in which the individual users work, and from which their various needs emerge (Carr 2006); That is, we must observe the users in practice to better understand why and how they are defining their needs. The two-year study that is the subject of this blog explores the experiences and needs of twelve representatives from multi-organizational and interdisciplinary stakeholder groups in archaeology, including academic researchers, heritage managers and specialist communities. In the second part of this 5-part post, I will expand on our approach and discuss some of the initial results of our first user experience workshop, held in January 2009.

References:

Carr, Reg (2006) What Users Want: An Academic ‘Hybrid’ Library Perspective. Ariadne. <http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue46/carr/> (Accessed February 8, 2009).

Juola, Patrick (2008) Killer Applications in Digital Humanities. Lit Linguist Computing 23:73-83.

Rubinoff, Robert (2004) How to Quantify the User Experience. Sitepoint. <http://www.sitepoint.com/print/quantify-user-experience> (Accessed February 15, 2009).

Warwick, Claire, Melissa Terras, Paul Huntington, and Nikoleta Pappa (2008) If You Build It Will They Come? The LAIRAH Study: Quantifying the Use of Online Resources in the Arts and Humanities through Statistical Analysis of User Log Data. Lit Linguist Computing 23:85-102.

One thought on “Sharing Archaeological Data: Part 1 – The Value of User Needs Studies

  1. I have several good Mesoamerican studies sites that I lean heavily on. The first 4 are the big guns:

    Mesoweb http://www.mesoweb.com/

    PARI – Precolumbian Art Research Institute (A subset of Mesoweb): http://www.mesoweb.com/pari/

    FAMSI – Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies: http://www.famsi.org/

    The Maya Vase Database: http://www.mayavase.com/

    Between those three I can usually find the information I need. There are also a few other really good sites:

    Wayeb, The European Association of Mayanists: http://www.wayeb.org/

    Peabody Museum of Harvard, the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Program (CMHI): http://www.peabody.harvard.edu/CMHI/

    Mexicon: http://www.mexicon.de/index.html

    Dr. David Stuart’s blog: http://decipherment.wordpress.com/about/
    David Stuart, is the David and Linda Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin.
    His links page: http://decipherment.wordpress.com/links/

    And finally two areas of one site:
    http://www.pauahtun.org/MayanGlyphs/Default.htm and
    http://www.pauahtun.org/Calendar/Default.htm They are a personal web site of an amateur Mayanist Ivan Van Laningham. He’s had these pages running since at least 1996. I think they qualify as the granddaddy of all the Mayan web sites. Its very good for beginners trying to get their heads around the complexities of Mayan the calendars, astronomy, numbers etc. The rest of his site also has a lot of interesting items also. http://www.pauahtun.org

    That should get you pretty far in the Mesoamerican studies area. Best wishes for the new project!
    Bob MacDonald
    Toronto, Canada

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