User Required? User Research in the Digital Humanities

The development of tools plays an important role in the Digital Humanities. For the recent DHBenelux conference, I found that the word “tool” was used almost a hundred times in all the abstracts, not counting my own. Still, the actual adoption of all these tools by the target audience, the humanities scholars, does not always reach its potential. [1]Claire Warwick, M. Terras, Paul Huntington, & N. Pappa. (2007). 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. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 23(1), 85–102. http://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqm045 ref-closed (OA version ref-oa) In a recently published paper by Martijn Kleppe and me, titled User Required? On the Value of User Research in the Digital Humanities, we look into how Digital Humanities scholars might address this problem.[3]Max Kemman, & Martijn Kleppe. (2015). User Required? On the Value of User Research in the Digital Humanities. In Jan Odijk (Ed.), Selected Papers from the CLARIN 2014 Conference, October 24-25, 2014, Soesterberg, The Netherlands (pp. 63–74). Linköping University Electronic Press. ref-oa

User-Centred Design

The approach we look into is user-centred design; researching the target user group to uncover their needs and wishes and record these as user requirements. This might sound like a silver bullet; when we build the tools the target users want, they will adopt the tools and everyone is happy. However, two problems emerge: first, it is not so certain the users are able to explain their needs and wishes. The late Steve Jobs said: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” [2]Andy Reinhardt. (1998). Steve Jobs on Apple’s Resurgence: “Not A One-Man Show.” Businessweek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/may1998/nf80512d.htm Second, it is debatable whether the user requirements can be sufficiently generalized to a wider group of humanities scholars. Joris van Zundert warns: “A ‘one size fits all’ approach would be a disastrous underestimation of the specific needs of humanities research.” [4]Joris van Zundert. (2012). If you build it, will we come? Large scale digital infrastructures as a dead end for digital humanities. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 37(3), 165–186. ref-oa

With these two problems, does tool development in the Digital Humanities really benefit from user research?

User research in our projects

In the paper, we report the results of our user research for two DH projects: PoliMedia and Oral History Today. We interviewed respectively five and fifteen scholars from the targeted domains regarding their research, usage of current online tools and limitations thereof, and feedback on descriptions or a demo of the tools under development. Based on these interviews, we created a list of user requirements and categorized these as within-scope or out-of-scope, determined by feasibility and the projects’ goals.[5]For more details, see sections 2 and 3 in the paper

Lessons learned

What can we learn from the user requirements?[6]See for an in-depth discussion of the user requirements section 4 in the paper. All user requirements are available open access via Kemman, M., Kleppe, M. (2014): User Requirements for Two Digital Humanities Projects: PoliMedia and Oral History Today [dataset]. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1170077 ref-oa First, humanities scholars are aware of what they want, especially where it concerns making their research easier. This leads to our second lesson however: the user requirements are based on users’ current research practices, not on how a DH project might advance new practices. This might seem like an open door, but it is an important consideration for user research aimed at innovation in digital methods. Finally, the many unique user requirements show the specificity of humanities research, and the difficulty of creating generic tools.

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© Scott Adams

Conclusions

Does this mean user research has little value for DH projects? Au contraire; user research proved most valuable for the two projects undertaken. First, the out-of-scope user requirements give insight into the tool’s compatibility with existing research practices and whether the tool fits in the wider research workflow incorporating other tools as well. Second, the user requirements that were within-scope led to usable features that were sufficiently generic for the tool to be adopted, also for purposes for which it was not specifically intended.

Interestingly, after our presentation of this paper at DHBenelux 2015 we received a lot of interest from other scholars who were interested in how user research could help their projects. User research might not be a silver bullet for creating perfectly adopted tools, but we believe that it will bring DH tools closer to their target audiences.

For more details, read the paper published open access in the CLARIN 2014 Conference proceedings here.

References   [ + ]

1. Claire Warwick, M. Terras, Paul Huntington, & N. Pappa. (2007). 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. Literary and Linguistic Computing, 23(1), 85–102. http://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqm045 ref-closed (OA version ref-oa)
2. Andy Reinhardt. (1998). Steve Jobs on Apple’s Resurgence: “Not A One-Man Show.” Businessweek. Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/may1998/nf80512d.htm
3. Max Kemman, & Martijn Kleppe. (2015). User Required? On the Value of User Research in the Digital Humanities. In Jan Odijk (Ed.), Selected Papers from the CLARIN 2014 Conference, October 24-25, 2014, Soesterberg, The Netherlands (pp. 63–74). Linköping University Electronic Press. ref-oa
4. Joris van Zundert. (2012). If you build it, will we come? Large scale digital infrastructures as a dead end for digital humanities. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 37(3), 165–186. ref-oa
5. For more details, see sections 2 and 3 in the paper
6. See for an in-depth discussion of the user requirements section 4 in the paper. All user requirements are available open access via Kemman, M., Kleppe, M. (2014): User Requirements for Two Digital Humanities Projects: PoliMedia and Oral History Today [dataset]. figshare. http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.1170077 ref-oa

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