Friday, 13 August 2010

Reading the paradigm shift?

Morning all! (Or whatever time it is for you people in North America) It's wonderful that people are so interested in this topic and have made time to write such detailed and insightful comments. So rather than write another long comment myself I thought it might be easiest just to handle them in a post, not least because some of the same issues recur in more than one comment. I don't know if you're meant to do that in the blogosphere, so forgive me if I inadvertently transgressed the unwritten law (Thinks, 'Dinsdale....' in the voice of Spiny Norman)

Anyway evidently I missed the point a bit and underestimated the possibilities of Anthologize (and yes, thanks for pointing it out, I was using UK spelling!) So I concentrated on how it fitted into my conception of the world and my interests, prominent among which are reading in physical and digital spaces. Then I went on about it, based on a partial understanding of the topic, to my friends and colleagues. Unfortunately that means that in my interactions with Althologize and its web presence I ended up behaving like a typical humanities user as we have observed them.

In other words I made assumptions based on its name (sounds rather booky) then I looked at the web page, saw things about putting posts together and making an electronic book and then publishing it. All these words said book and print to me. (Remember I am a former literary scholar) Then I said to myself. 'I don't think I need that, it makes no sense to me.' Thus I proceeded not to download it. This is exactly what users do. They get easily confused by names and descriptions and if they don't see the point of something they don't go any further especially if, ironically enough, they would have to download and install anything. In fact I actually went a bit further and did explore your web page to find out more about the project, and most people would have been long gone by then. Amanda, if you'd like a reference for this, pick just about anything we've ever written about LAIRAH from my publications page eg 'If you Build it'... in LLC

We all want to be able to say 'No but wait, you got it wrong, you misinterpreted our work, it's so much more than you thought' And now I am convinced. But you only knew what I thought because I blogged it. Most users don't do that. They just give up. We can't be there to guide them through the resource, or answer their comments and put them right (even if you have a comment function or forum most people don't use it) Thus user testing is vital because it helps us anticipate to some extent how users might react, and to fix possible problems before they happen, and in doing so undermine their trust in the resource.

Amanda makes the very good point that there are different versions of digital reading. We have not yet studied them, but this is built into the research plan for INKE At the moment we are still gathering and analysing data for our early studies, and at this point we have not found that users are switching between many different types of device. They tend to read either at a computer screen on in print. A very few of them use phones and even fewer an e-reading device, so we haven't yet had chance to compare across devices. But this might change given that iPads and Kindles are much later into the UK market. We base our findings on what people are doing because we choose to study what people are already doing in their usual context rather than bringing them into labs and giving them things to do on different platforms. That's a perfectly valid method; it's just not the one I tend to use with humanities scholar or general readers. When we do have results ready for publication I'll be sure to blog about it, since it seems like people are really interested. Needless to say that if anyone reading this would like to take part in an INKE study, please do let me know. We'd love to hear about what you do.

And yes, I guess I do come over as a nay-sayer. As someone once said to me, 'As a user studies person you'll never be popular. You come in and tell enthusiastic people what's wrong with the lovely new thing they are so proud of, and that they have to change it.' But I don't care if I'm loved for this. I do care if as a result digital resources can be improved. It can be so much better than take it or leave it. By taking a few, quite simple things into account you can make it so much more likely that your tool or resource is more likely to be used. (cf our LAIRAH checklist) So in the end I see this as necessary pain for future gain.

Finally and by no means least thank you very much indeed to Kathie for her detailed and very informative comments about the UX team on Anthologize and what you did. I'm so pleased that this kind of serious user research was being done. The other day I was talking to someone whose opinion I respect who insisted that what I was describing in the adoption of user studies in DH was a paradigm shift. I was a bit unconvinced as it sounded too large and daunting a thing to be part of but I am beginning to wonder, and that pleases me more than anyone can imagine.

I wish you'd say more about your user studies on the web page, as it's really important stuff. I also very much hope you will write this up for academic publication. I might have an idea about how to do that.... watch this space. But seriously I think we ought to talk more about this off-blog as it were. Perhaps there could be a way to collaborate on testing as part of INKE since we already have Julie Meloni as link person.

I could go on about users and readers, and believe me I often do. I'd also like to reiterate that what I was saying was in the context of the Anthologize work, but it was meant to highlight the broader issues of the importance of users studies and testing. There is so much fascinating work to be done here. Also I am truly delighted to know that people out there are so interested in these issues. I've always thought, 'Oh well this is just me and my stuff, I'll talk about it occasionally at conferences and write articles, but nobody will really be bothered.' It's so good to know that people out there are bothered, and would like to join in the debates. Maybe there is something to this blogging lark after all...


  1. Hi Claire, Thanks for this. It's great to toss around these questions.

    A question for you. You say, "Then I said to myself. 'I don't think I need that, it makes no sense to me.' Thus I proceeded not to download it."

    But what about the people (2500 of them in less than ten days) who did download it? Something in the marketing, branding, descriptive text, website presentation must have spoken to them. There are a lot of people who (right or wrong) *like* the idea of making their blog more "bookish" and we want to speak to them as well as to the digital initiate (like me and you). Although we're mainly interested in soup-to-nuts digital knowledge production, at least part of the idea behind Anthologize is to ease those uninitiated folks into digital practice by giving them some signposts from the analog world that they can recognize.

    So, how do we speak to both groups at the same time on a home page of less than 100 words. Obviously all of this was done quickly, and we have always intended changes along the way, so any ideas you have for updating the website to avoid your reaction to the project (while at the same time keeping what's been attractive to others) would be very welcome.

  2. Hi Claire,

    Thank you for your interesting analysis of Anthologize and what you did and didn't get from the site. Please do send feedback so we can improve the messaging which I'm rather proud of as head of the Outreach team.

    I often feel a tension between "getting something out there" vs. pre-release testing and analysis. I think as Steve said during the Anthologize release podcast, we were a group of end-users. We spent a lot of time deliberating over the final 5 options for what to build, thinking about if/how it would be useful. In fact, because of the sheer number of ideas that came to mind for the library/museum/archive world alone, I was fairly convinced Anthologize was a great tool to pursue. Katie's team took these use cases we thought of, which are on the site here - - and interviewed people about their needs. She talked to a curator where I work at the Smithsonian about how he might use a tool to publish an online exhibition he curate -

    I have done both approaches and always advocate for more user testing when time/money/demands allow (sadly, it's short-changed in many cases). From a development standpoint, if you have a group of experienced developers with good instincts and a insightful group of users to talk to, I'd rather get it out there and do refinement afterward.

    I look forward to seeing the outcome of your research in this nascent world of digital reading. It will be critical to have as more tools are created to make publishing accessible.