Sunday, May 18, 2008

Considering the User Perspective: Research into Usage and Communication of Digital Information

Research paper on use of digital media ...


In this article we present the methodology and initial results from qualitative research into the usage and communication of digital information. It considers the motivation for the research and the methodologies adopted, including Contextual Design and Cultural Probes. The article describes the preliminary studies conducted to test the approach, highlighting the strengths and limitations of the techniques applied. Finally, it outlines proposals for refinement in subsequent iterations and the future research activities planned. The research is carried out as part of the Planets (Preservation and Long-term Access through NETworked Services) project.

1 Introduction and Background

As the digital evolution becomes infused into everyday life, the ways in which society communicates and uses information are changing. New processes are emerging that were inconceivable in a solely analogue world. National libraries and archives, as the custodians of a society's information, have the responsibility to safeguard these records and to provide sustained access to digital cultural and scientific knowledge. If these organisations are to fulfil these responsibilities, as a community of practitioners we must understand the nature of new communication and usage processes, both to ensure the appraisal process captures the right material and to guarantee that the new kinds of emerging working procedures are supported by the institutions.

Since the 1980's, there has been an ever increasing focus on user studies within the fields of both archives (Duff 2002; Anderson 2004; Harris 2005; Sundqvist 2007) and libraries (Siatri 1999 and Carr 2006). The first user studies in archives focused on evaluating the performance of services (Conway 1986). Since then archivists, librarians and social scientists have extended the range of user-focused research (Wildemuth 2003). Many studies have focused on quantitative analysis of usage statistics to improve the usability of a specific service or class of services, including nation-wide studies with performance rankings (PSQG 2006). At the same time an alternative method has been to use ethnographically based studies to contribute to the design of appropriate services (Nardi and O'Day 1998, Seadle 2000, Akselbo et al. 2006). The idea behind this approach is that only by understanding users can one develop new and innovative services to meet the needs of the users themselves; put more simply, 'the people involved must be understood before services can be assessed' (Seadle 2000).

The primary aim of user and usage studies is to improve the quality of service. Knowledge about the wants, needs and activities of customers can be employed to change, adapt or update services, or to prioritize management and implementation decisions. A recent trend of user-centred research in archives and libraries has been to focus on two general issues, namely typologies of users, or user groups, and search strategies and techniques, essentially user behaviour (Sundqvist 2007). Introduction of new technologies has accelerated the process of including user studies as one of the basic elements in an overall program of customer service. The sophistication and richness of our understanding of the issues surrounding usage of digital objects and consequent implications for digital preservation requires more research.

Libraries and archives have traditionally been the guardians of analogue communication channels, whether these are scholarly publications housed in a library, or records preserved by an archive. The usual communication channel for scholarly research results, the journal article, has remained a relatively unchanged and consistent form, even with the arrival of digital e-journal versions (Lynch 2007). The digital evolution has since enabled the evolution of whole new processes and techniques for communicating and disseminating results. The emergence of e-government has created new communication channels affecting the business processes between government departments and between them and citizens. Scholarly communication itself is undergoing a transformation, with 'the nature of engagement with and use of scientific literature becoming more complex and diverse, and taking on novel dimensions' (Lynch 2007). Both the social activities of scholarly communication and the unit of information itself have been altered, with data sets, simulations and social networking venues all becoming accepted ways to share and disseminate research (Van de Sompel and Lagoze 2007). These recent transformations have affected the objects libraries and archives have a responsibility for preserving, and in turn affect even what we perceive to be a 'digital object'. Further investigations of these issues are therefore required."    (Continued via D-Lib Magazine)    [Usability Resources]


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