I don’t know what I’m looking for: Better understanding public usage and behaviours with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums online collections

John Coburn, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, UK

Published paper: I don’t know what I’m looking for: Better understanding public usage and behaviours with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums online collections

Digital collections interfaces have been traditionally designed for audiences with an established interest and motivation to probe the collection for specific objects. There are still relatively few user-centric interfaces that encourage casual browsing and a greater exploration of collections from a broader cross-section of the public.

In 2014–2015, supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) undertook a digital research and development project with Microsoft Research and Newcastle University to explore the following question: “Can cultural organisations with a digital collection improve public access and engagement with their online collection through the adoption of Web interfaces and systems that more creatively provoke and respond to an audience’s exploration of content?”

A user-centric collections interface was developed to explore this, and a software development kit was produced to allow the wider heritage sector to adopt the system for their own collections. Ongoing user research and evaluation informed every stage of the system’s development and yielded key insights that recommended new directions for TWAM and potentially the wider sector.

This paper will explore the results and contextualise them against typical online collection formats and their perceived limitations, as well as other research in the field. It will investigate the public impact of an interface designed to inspire prolonged and open-ended browse, rather than enable directed text search.

This paper will argue that there are clear opportunities to deeply engage audiences, which have limited knowledge and inclination to search object catalogues, with visual collections interfaces that manufacture a public interest in “discovering the unknown.” As well as recommending design methodologies for developing digital collections, this paper will also ask questions about how this gathered intelligence can positively influence the practice of the museu

Collections Dive codebase and documentation https://github.com/digitalinteraction/past-paths

Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, supported by Nesta, Arts & Humanities Research Council and public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. http://artsdigitalrnd.org.uk/

http://artsdigitalrnd.org.uk/projects/tyne-wear-archives-museums/ the project page at the Native website with links to additional content and insights

Glinka, Meier, Dörk (2014) Visualising the »Un-seen«: Towards Critical Approaches and Strategies of Inclusion in Digital Cultural Heritage Interfaces http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de/wp/wp-content/uploads/Visualising_the_Unseen_KuI15.pdf

Visualizing Cultural Collections research project http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de/projects/vikus/

Poole, N. Big Cultural Data (2013) http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/past-posts/big-cultural-data

Whitelaw, M. Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections. (2015) Digital Humanities Quarterly 9(1)