End user studies…

It has been a difficult few weeks, however my third written piece of work has finally been submitted and please find below an extract from it. Whilst I’ve no doubt that within a week or so I will read over this and cringe at its lack of insight and poor writing, as of now it is as good as I can make it (that’s sold it to you, I’m sure!). I am committed to keeping an electronic record of all my writing, for good and for ill. Feel free to comment via my Twitter feed should you have any desire to do so: feedback and collaboration are the way forward, after all! And as ever, I have attempted to hyperlink any references or terms in order to take your forward should you be interested in anything mentioned here. 

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“As part of my research thus far I have attempted to examine the history of the digital humanities and some important projects within the field that can be said to epitomise its aims and objectives. It is difficult to ignore the fact, however passionate one is about the digital humanities, that large-scale acceptance of digital resources within the academic community is not apparent at present, and whilst many universities (Glasgow, Kings College London, Oxford and Sheffield to name but a few) are enthusiastically embracing the benefits that the digital humanities can bring to teaching and research, there is still much suspicion surrounding the field.

There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them the simple fact that we have no real idea as to what makes a successful resource. Although Hockey suggests that “…much research has been devoted to establishing what makes a high quality and multipurpose scholarly electronic text” [p.3, 2004] the research into what happens to a digital resource after its creation is lacking, and it is this lack of understanding of the needs of the user, how digital resources are used and why successful digital assets are chosen above others which is leading to the creation of “data silos” [Ell, 2011], “digital objects marooned within a set of static HTML Web pages…highly localised and idiosyncratic” [Bradley, 2009] that absorb vast amounts of research time and funding but are ultimately underused and eventually abandoned.

Why do users prefer some resources to others? What is the rationale behind a user’s decision-making? Once we have established the preferences that drive a user’s decision-making, we can use that information to create our own successful resource.

Answers, however, are made all the more difficult to acquire due to the differing needs of the various branches of the humanities. For example, whilst historians require large quantities of information from which they can glean particular pieces of information, the literary scholar is more concerned with the detailed exploration of a text [Prescott, 2008, p.10]. This means, of course, that a digital resource attractive to one user will not be as attractive to another. Hockey tells us that it is:

“…impossible to avoid the question ‘How do I go about doing it?’ when embarking on a computer project. To answer the question ‘How?’ it is necessary first to address ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘Why am I doing it?’ and thus to articulate in detail the intellectual rationale for the project.” [Hockey, 2004, p.3]

There is an obvious need to “articulate in detail the intellectual rationale” [Hockey, 2004] of what is happening to a resource after publication, by taking Hockey’s “What” and “Why” and asking: ‘What have we created?’ and ‘Why are they using it?’.

The best way forward is to look at what research has already been conducted and what we can perhaps add to the information already gathered, in order to gain insight into the reasons why some resources achieve immediate success and others do not. End user research is integral to this process.

Despite the fact that the digital humanities have been with us now for many decades in a variety of guises, and used to varying degrees within academic research and practice, we are still “living in a time of transition”, where the printed page and the digital item co-exist [Darnton, 2011]. This is not a harmonious existence, however; in spite of the fact that the digital humanities has evolved to compliment and assist its older sibling, many academics see it as a usurper; a cuckoo in the humanities nest. This is not only unfortunate because the two should, and do, compliment one another, it is unfortunate because as Meg Twycross points out: “…digital…seem[s] set to become a normally accepted research tool for amateurs as well as professional scholars” [p.23, 2008]. The message is: they are here to stay, they are becoming more prevalent, and academics need to get used to it.

The reluctance and often outright aggression against the increasing use of digital resources becomes ever-more apparent in the case of born-digital research articles: “Scholars, it seems, tend not to read, or at least cite, work published under the heading of humanities computing” [Juola, 2008]. There is still the sense that a piece of work is only valid when it has appeared in print, or that research should be conducted with print items and not based on information gleaned from the Web. Juola cites Warwick [2004a] and the issues involved with the Oxford University Humanities Computing Unit:

“…it was extremely hard to convince traditional scholars in Oxford of the value of humanities computing research. This is partly because so few Oxford academics were involved in any of the work the HCU carried out, and had little knowledge of, or respect for, humanities computing research…the HCU could have become a valued part of the humanities division. That it did not, demonstrates the consequences of a lack of respect for digital scholarship amongst the mainstream.” [p.75, 2008]

The argument often is that the digital humanities don’t actually add anything to humanities research, or as Tom Scheinfeldt clarified in his blog Found History:

“The criticism most frequently levelled at digital humanities is what I like to call the ‘Where’s the beef?’ question, that is, what questions does digital humanities answer that can’t be answered without it? What humanities arguments does digital humanities make?” [Scheinfeldt, 2010]

Of course, the poor opinion of the digital humanities could be said to be a defence mechanism; Helen Burgess suggests that academics are “seeing the emergence of scholarly multimedia as challenging the primacy of traditional humanities scholarship” [Burgess, 2011]. The assumption could therefore be made that their disdain for the digital is born of a fear of the unknown: the Luddite sense that man will eventually be replaced by technology.” 

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