Readings in DH, December 2014 (2)

Warwick, C. (2012). Studying users in digital humanities. In C. Warwick, M. Terras, & J. Nyhan (Eds.), Digital Humanities in Practice (pp. 1 – 21). Oxford: Facet Publishing, Ltd.

This week’s DH reading was another paper (or chapter) about users of digital scholarly resources, written by one of the same authors and referring to the same project (LAIRAH) as my last post about readings in DH. Written by Claire Warwick, it is a chapter taken from the book, Digital Humanities in Practice.

The chapter outlines how user studies for humanities scholars has been rare until relatively recently, because these researchers were assumed to be Luddites and therefore unable to identify what they wanted or needed in a digital resource. Adding to this perception was the fact that the adoption of digital resources by humanities scholars was slow, stubbornly so, despite some well-funded resources and initiatives.

Warwick flips this perception on its head and asks:

“Could it be that users did not adopt resources because they were not useful or did not fit what they would like to do as scholars?” (Warwick 2012, 2).

The complex ways in which humanities scholars use and search through information is actually quite like how the general public search and use information (Warwick includes examples of behaviours such as “berry picking” – honing in on germane information to support a particular argument, “chaining” – following footnotes, references and links, as examples of humanities scholars’ behaviour, and contrasts these to systematic keyword searching from the scientific model).

Most ideas about how to study users come from the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Inspired by such approaches, but also using other methodologies, Warwick et al. (2006, final report here) carried out the LAIRAH project (see also previous blog post). The reasons for conducting this research were to see why humanities scholars were easily dissuaded from using a digital resource (reasons given included a difficult or confusing interface and anything that required the acquisition of new skills). They found that there was often a “designer as user” problem, where design decisions are made based on the assumption that the user will be just like the designer. But why should they be?

Warwick suggests that trust is an important aspect of whether users will adopt a resource – if it does not appear to be trustworthy they will not user it.

“The more information users can find about a resource, the more likely they will be to use it.” (Warwick 2012, 13).

Brands (e.g. commercial academic publishers) and even museums and galleries, invest a lot of money in their online resources, they test and develop them, and through this investment they become trusted. But one of the reasons other resources can often look the wrong way (therefore inspiring suspicion or lack of trust) is because their interface looks dated. Commercial resources update constantly, but humanities projects usually have a funding end-date. How do they keep their resource looking up-to-date? In most cases they did not, and this has reinforced the issue of lack of trust (which can be based on look, rather than content). To counteract this, there are suggestions for feedback mechanisms and ways in which user studies can be carried out, with  two case studies illustrating the points made in the text.