Discovery and the users’ mental model

On Thursday 7 June 2018, The National Archives will host its first annual Digital Lecture and welcome Professor Luciano Floridi (University of Oxford) to discuss ‘Semantic capital: what it is and how to protect it’. To mark the event, this week on the blog we will spotlight four of The National Archives’ own digital research projects. We kick things off with our work on understanding how users perceive and engage with digital archives and services.

The arrival of digital presents huge challenges regarding the preservation, storage, access and use of records. All four of these basic archival principles are radically transformed by the shift to digital and this affects not only archivists, but also users of archives.

In The National Archives’ digital strategy we are clear that when it comes to digital records there is a new type of reading room where archives are produced: websites.

Readers looking at a computer

Readers exploring Discovery

Our online catalogue, Discovery, holds over 32 million descriptions of records held by both The National Archives and more than 2,500 archives across the country. Since its launch in April 2011, Discovery has evolved to include new features aiming to open up archives to wide-ranging groups of users. It is no longer simply our online catalogue, but also an important communication channel for engaging with the public and enabling researchers to access our collection and learn about our records.

However, combining traditional archival methods with new opportunities provided by digital isn’t a perfect fit and requires research to ensure that the two complement each other. From feedback we have found that to date this combination is making it difficult for readers to understand how to use our online catalogue. To confront this challenge, our digital teams have been working to answer the question: what is the Discovery user’s mental model?

A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works. To understand how users perceive and engage with Discovery, we gathered user feedback through six applied user experience (UX) research methodologies:

  • data analytics, detailing a sample of 594,000 user sessions
  • survey-gathering the feedback of 463 users
  • capturing feedback about the details page from 1,352 users though a page widget
  • conducting interviews to gather insights into how users conceptualise and interact with Discovery
  • user testing: identifying usability issues by observing users conducting a simple search
  • observing users of varying levels of research skills and experience while they conduct complex searches during workshops

By applying these UX research methodologies to explore users’ behaviour, our digital team found that they need a comprehensive understanding of users’ mental models when it comes to the use and understanding of archival catalogues. Doing this will help us explore how to identify and create new features that empower our users.

By engaging with our users, we found two key challenges that we now need to focus on in order to enhance user experience in Discovery:

  1. Communicating complexity

The difficulties that users have in navigating Discovery could be linked to the difficulty users have aligning their mental models with what is happening beneath the surface of Discovery. We need to communicate why Discovery works the way that it works.

  1. Learning through use

The most experienced users of Discovery are those that are able to build a knowledge of how to use the catalogue through trial and error.

Based on the findings we have so far, we have made changes to the pages that show detailed information about a record, and improved the image viewer that allows users to preview digital downloads.  However, this is just the beginning of our research into how users interact with Discovery and we will use the results to shape the future of our online catalogue in order to make it as user-friendly as possible.

We intend to conduct further user research to allow us to build on this initial research.  If you would like to participate in Discovery user research, please contact us.

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