Original Problem Statement: Archivist Needs User Feedback

by Jakob Nielsen on January 10, 1999

Summary: Sidebar to Jakob Nielsen's column on how to collect user feedback from users of an archive.

The Alertbox for January 10, 1999 presents possible solutions to the Web usability problem described below. Instead of simply giving my own recommendation, I wanted to see what the collective wisdom of the Alertbox readers could come up with.

Burt Altman from the Florida State University Libraries describes his problem as follows:

I am the archivist for the Claude Pepper Library at Florida State University. We are building a website that will contain an information retrieval system for users to view the contents of Senator Pepper's vast collection of documents covering more than 50 years of American history. The first phase of my project will simply involve developing a homepage for the Pepper Library and the online retrieval system for the collection.

Based on our observations of website usage (no. of hits on our server, what parts of the site people are accessing more frequently, etc.), I will propose that for the second phase of the project, our staff will digitize those portions of the collection (printed documents, photographs, audiovisual) that are requested (or accessed) more frequently than other portions .

In addition to quantitative statistics that I expect to get from monitoring use of the site, I want to be able to get qualitative feedback from users to determine how "usable" it really is. I imagine that to accomplish this, some type of survey or control group will need to be established. Have you had experience with designing such a survey, and if so, what were the results? Or have you heard of other studies dealing with the academic environment that have evaluated the "usability" of an information-based, rather than purely "consumer-oriented"-based website? Any help would be appreciated.

To clarify, what I will be doing in Phase One will be to develop a website for the Claude Pepper Library. In addition, I will be putting up an "electronic guide," or finding aid to the contents of the collection. This means that researchers will not only be able to get an overview of the collection, but be able to browse the contents (lists of manuscript folder titles, photographs, and audiovisual materials) so they can make more productive visits to the Pepper Library. They will be able to print the finding aid to the collection. We still want to get researchers into the library and use the materials, but this project (particularly Phase One) will save them time and travel expense. They will also be able to make online queries about the collection, but in general we do not expect to "supply" them with the information (this will of course depend on the nature of the request, time, and availability of staff to process the request).

Then, based on observations of the server log and the qualitative feedback we get from researchers on use of this site, we will plan digitization activities for the second phase. The second phase will only involve selective digitizing of the manuscripts. A later phase will involve selective digitizing of photographs and audiovisual materials.

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