Friday, 10 August 2007

Final diary entry from Catalhoyuk

I'm back in London now but here goes anyway:

August 1
My final entry of the season as I'm on the overnight train from Cumra to Istanbul tonight. After various conversations on the veranda I've been thinking about the intellectual accessibility of our Catalhoyuk data and how that relates to web publication and this entry is just a good way to stop these thoughts running round my head like a rogue tune.

[This has turned into a long entry, and I don't say anything trivial about the weather or other random things so you'd have to be pretty bored to read it all. Shouldn't you be working instead?]

Getting database records up on the website isn't hard - it's just a matter of resources. The tricky part is providing an interesting and engaging experience for the general visitor, or a reliable, useable and useful data set for the specialist visitor.

At the moment it feels like a lot of good content is hidden within the database section of the website. When you get down to browsing lists of features, there's often enough information in the first few lines to catch your interest. But when you get to lists of units, even the pages with some of the unit description presented alongside the list, you start to encounter the '800 lamps' problem.

[A digression/explanation - I'm working on a website at the Museum of London with a searchable/browsable catalogue of objects from Roman Londinium. One section has 800 Roman oil lamps - how on earth can you present that to the user so they can usefully distinguish between one lamp and another?]

Of course, it does depend on the kind of user and what they want to achieve on the Londinium site - for some, it's enough to read one nicely written piece on the use of lamps and maybe a bit about what different types meant, all illustrated with a few choice objects; specialist users may want to search for lamps with very particular characteristics. Here, our '800 lamps' are 11846 (and counting) units of archaeology. The average user isn't going to read every unit sheet, but how can they even choose one to start with? And how many will know how to interpret and create meaning from what they read about the varying shades of brown stuff? Being able to download unit sheets that match a particular pattern - part of a certain building, ones that contain certain types of finds, units related to different kinds of features - is probably of real benefit to specialist visitors, but are we really giving those specialist visitors (professional or amateur) and our general visitors what they need? I'm not sure a raw huge list of units or flotation numbers is of much help to anyone - how do people distinguish between one thumbnail of a lamp or one unit number and another in a useful and meaningful way? I hope this doesn't sound like a criticism of the website - it's just the nature of the material being presented.

The variability of the data is another problem - it's not just about data cleaning (though the 'view features by type' page shows why data cleaning is useful) - but about the difference between the beautiful page for Building 49 and rather less interesting page for Building 33 (to pick one at random). If a user lands on one of the pages with minimal information they may never realise that some pages have detailed records with fantastic plans and photos.

So there are the barriers to entry that we might accidentally perpetuate by 'hiding' the content behind lists of numbers; and there is the general intellectual accessibility of the information to the general user. Given limited resources, where should our energies be concentrated? Who are our websites for?

It's also about matching the data and website functionality to the user and their goals - the excavation database might not be of interest to the general user in its most raw form, and that's ok because it will be of great interest to others. At a guess, the general public might be more interested in finds, and if that's the case we should find ways to present information about the objects with appropriate interpretation and contextualisation, not only to present information about the objects but also to help people have a more meaningful experience on the site.

I wonder if 'team favourite' finds or buildings/spaces/features could be a good way into the data, a solution that doesn't mean making some kinds of finds or some buildings into 'treasure' and more important than others. Or perhaps specialists could talk about a unit or feature they find interesting - along the way they could explain how their specialism contributes to the archaeological record (written as if to an intelligent thirteen year old). For example, Flip could talk about phytoliths, or Stringy could talk about obsidian, and what their finds can tell us.

Proper user evaluation would be fabulous, but in the absence of resources, I really should look at the stats and see how the site is used. I wonder if I could do a surveymonkey thing to get general information from different types of users? I wonder what levels of knowledge our visitors have about the Neolithic, about Anatolian history, etc. What brings them to the website? And what makes them stick around?

Intellectual accessibility doesn't only apply to the general public - it also applies to the accessibility of other team's or labs content. There are so many tables hidden behind the excavation and specialist database interfaces - some are archived, some had a very particular usage, some are still actively used but still have the names of long-gone databases. It's all very well encouraging people to use the database to query across specialisms, but how will they know where to look for the data they need? [And if we make documentation, will anyone read it?]

It was quite cool this morning but now it's hot again. Ha, I lied about not saying anything trivial about the weather! Now go do some work.
(Started July 29, but finally posted August 1)

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