Redesigning the Portal to Texas History: A User-centered Design Approach Involving the Genealogical Community




Murray, Kathleen

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In 2007, the Digital Projects Unit of the University of North Texas Libraries began a two-year effort to redesign the interface to the Libraries’ Portal to Texas History. The Portal provides a digital gateway to collections of historical and cultural materials from Texas libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and private collections. It contains primary source materials, including maps, books, manuscripts, diaries, photographs, and letters.

The Portal went online in 2004 with five collaborative partners contributing to four collections of materials related to Texas history and culture. These collections were comprised of 489 objects represented by 6,688 digital files. By 2008, the Portal included 34 collections from 91 contributing partners. Its collections include 40,089 objects and 324,023 digital files. Likewise, usage has grown from approximately 1,000 unique visitors per month in 2004 to 105,000 per month in 2008.

Keeping pace with this growth occupied the Portal’s support staff during the early years and precluded major enhancements to the user interface. By 2007, the original interface of the Portal needed to be refurbished; it was dated both in terms of its look-and-feel and its feature-functionality. Additionally, the Portal’s underlying infrastructure had increased its capability to support features not possible in the original implementation.

It was decided to redesign the interface using a user-centered design approach. Previous research indicated that family history researchers are a significant, growing, and under-studied user group of online cultural heritage collections. Believing this applicable to the Portal’s user population, funding was obtained from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to study the information seeking behavior of persons conducting family history research in order to identify their functional requirements in regard to the Portal to Texas History. These requirements would serve as the basis for redesigning the Portal’s user interface.

Members of local genealogical societies were recruited for the redesign effort. The user studies included individual interviews, focus group discussions, and usability tests of the existing Portal. Analysis of the data from these studies informed a set of functional requirements for the redesign effort. The requirements are specific to typical functional areas of a digital library, such as searching, browsing, evaluating search results, and navigating, but also include requirements in the areas of metadata practice, obtaining objects, getting help, and contributing comments.

Users’ requirements were classified as either: feasible in the near term, feasible in the long term, or not feasible. This classification highlighted the gaps between user expectations and realistic satisfaction of those expectations by the Portal to Texas History, which is typical of many online cultural heritage collections. These insights are a direct result of the user studies and demonstrate the importance of such studies for digital libraries. This presentation will report the major findings of the research and the current status of the redesign effort.


Presentation slides for the 2009 Texas Conference on Digital Libraries (TCDL).