The Records section of our website, along with Discovery, our catalogue, is at the heart of most research here. Among the most popular resources are the research guides, written and designed to help researchers, whether family historians or academics, to find and interpret what they are looking for.
Finding the right guide for your research is not always easy and this redesign project aims to provide people with clear routes in so that they can get the help they need with their research.
We wanted to bring the design of site up to date and make it usable no matter what device you are using, ranging from smartphone to smart TV. People looking at our website using mobile devices increased by 15% in 2014 and we need to make sure that our users have a good experience no matter what device they use.
Before we delve in to the detail of what and why we’ve changed things, one of the first things to mention is the user centred approach we undertake for all our digital products. The aim is to ensure that our users’ needs are at the core of what we do. Due to the ambitions of this project, we wanted to be sure we knew who our users are before we embarked on working out their needs. The first step was to go through all our previous user research and redevelop our personas. The purpose of personas is to create reliable and realistic representations of your key audience for reference within the project team and organisation wide. That way we’re clear that we’re not designing for us but for our user group. We updated the personas with staff from across the organisation in a series of interactive workshops.
We have carried out different forms of research throughout the project. We:
- sought feedback through an online exercise testing labels and headings
- sought feedback from visitors in our reading rooms showing them prototypes of the new designs
- spent a day speaking to members of the public in a cafe to get feedback from non-users of the site
- ran online surveys and used web analytics for more quantitative insights into how people use our website
- ran one to one, hour long sessions in London and Bristol with our users showing them the new designs, recruiting to our personas to ensure we spoke to the right people. We observed and listened as the participants carried out tasks and gave their feedback.
We then took all this feedback, analysed it and made changes to finalise the new pages for release in beta.
I’d like to say a big thank you to those at the Bristol M Shed who let us carry out some of the research in their building. It’s really important we get the views of those outside of London where visiting The National Archives is less of an option.
The main changes
The new-look Records pages, now entitled ‘Help with your research’, presents the user with a completely different set of options for finding guides which will be helpful to them. Gone are the ‘Person’, ‘Place’, ‘Subject’ categories, replaced by eleven new categories, the smallest number of meaningful categories into which we felt our research guides could be grouped. With categories like ‘First World War’, ‘Family history’ and ‘Foreign and colonial history’, users should now have a better sense of where to go for the records advice they need. We had regularly observed our users struggling to use the ‘person’ ‘place’ and ‘subject’ routes and often found that what they were presented with did not meet their expectations. The user research we undertook during the project showed a very positive reaction to the new categories and users were able to clearly identify a route in, whatever their task. Additionally, the new headings helped shaped their expectations so it was clear they were looking at research guides.
The new categories should appeal to a broader set of users and provide a route in for researchers at any level, whatever your task. You can see these changes in the screenshot of the current Records site and the screenshot of the beta version of Help with your research below:
Guides now appear in multiple categories, allowing for the different ways in which researchers think about what they are doing. Similarly as before, but in an improved format, there are several ways that you can find the right guide: by selecting categories, keywords or searching the text of the guides themselves. We’ve also presented the things we know that people look for within each category by highlighting the most popular guides.
The guides themselves look different too. At the top of each guide is our new ‘access indicator’, a visual key to how the records covered in each guide can be viewed, something often misunderstood in the past. Our research showed that this information was really important to our users; knowing whether something is available online or not has a big impact on people’s research. Related guides are more prominently displayed and they have a more uniform look and design, with the several different types of guides all brought together under the same webpage.
We’ve also made the pages responsive to any device. What this means is that whatever device your looking at the website on, be it a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop, the pages will respond accordingly and ensure a good experience.
While we have started with the over 300 research guides, we will continue to add the few remaining pages from this section into beta over the coming months.
The project benefitted hugely from the collaborative way in which it was carried out. The Web Team, responsible for designing and looking after the website itself, and a broad cross-section of the Advice and Records Knowledge department (ARK), who provide the historical knowledge and public enquiries staff at The National Archives, combined their expertise in the hope that we would cover all angles. It proved to be a very fruitful collaboration, with both sets of staff well versed in what users of the website want and need.
ARK staff, with their records expertise and the benefits of their daily contact with the public, suggested the guidance categories and sub-categories they felt people were most likely to identify with and which best represented the broad subject areas most popular with researchers of all kinds. The Web Team found the best way to present these categories on the website, making navigation to them and between them as easy as possible.
Staff were involved in much of the user research, getting involved, running and observing some of the sessions we ran. For example, we streamed some of the user testing sessions live to one of our conference rooms and it was great to see the room packed out with colleagues observing and discussing the sessions. It’s a really great way to ensure we all have a good understanding of our users and what’s working well and not so well.
We’d like to make sure that we listen to your feedback and keep evaluating the new designs during the beta phase to ensure that we’re continuing to meet users’ needs. We’re releasing the pages in beta which means that we’re releasing a working version for the public to use and give feedback on. It’s the last stage before we release it live. We will keep evaluating the changes and make amendments based on what people tell us. There may be some things which aren’t fully working and there may be some bits that are broken. It is our chance to iron any issues out. Have a look through the beta version and leave your feedback in the comments below. Tell us what you like, don’t like and how you think we can improve. We’d be really keen to hear what you think so that we get this as right as we can.