In this paper I would like to focus on some functionalities that help those who visit our websites use them in a more intuitive way. User experience is still underestimated in many digital projects, not only in the humanities. At the same time, many designers and developers across the world are making user experience their specialisation, so it is only a matter of time until this will be just as standard as responsive web design. Using the example of the New Panorama of Polish Literature,11 The New Panorama of Polish Literature is “a platform for the presentation of research results in the digital environment. It is a part of the Digital Humanities Centre at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It consists of separate collections, each telling a different “scientific story” and using a different form to present content. The interdisciplinary team of the New Panorama of Polish Literature includes literary and culture researchers, graphic designers and typographers.” - quoted from About Team on Nplp.pl. It is worth mentioning that digital collections are based on Literary Research and Polish literature. We have divided our projects into two main websites – Nplp.pl and another, Tei.nplp.pl, which consists of editorial projects using TEI standard. I would like to share some of our methods of increasing the comfort of utilising our digital collections. Most of our solutions are a result of close collaboration with developers Krzysztof Goliński and Maciej Kalczyński, as well as graphic designer Paweł Ryżko.
The collections will either be in Polish or in English. Some solutions may seem ‘too obvious’, leading the user by the hand at all times, but as far as I am concerned it is better to have navigation or interactions in digital humanities projects be ‘too straightforward’ than leave a user without the slightest clue as to how to use the website. This is because of the content and data of such websites; they are often detailed, complex, and require of those who want to work with them efficiently a specific academic background – thus, they need to be accessible in as unproblematic a way as possible, and should be located in a clear structure.
Undoubtedly, the digital environment has a certain advantage in allowing us to adjust the structure and change the details of a website whenever we notice that something is not quite right, is not intuitive enough or simply does not work.
1. Home page
We begin with the most recognisable part of any website: the home page, the opening to our projects or well-prepared materials. The statement can be found in plenty of designers’ guides that a simple, minimalistic, ‘google-style’ main page, with just a bare, white rectangle (i.e. the browser) is all that is needed as a starting point for users. This design might be worth considering for linguistic corpora/dictionary projects such as The Great Dictionary of Polish Language22 On the other hand, the Macmillan Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Dictionary have much more expanded main pages and are just as easy to use. – ideally, when you type any word or phrase and always receive a result.
Figure 1: The home page of The Great Dictionary of Polish Language
When we prepare more complex collections, like poets' letters, a timeline of a 19th-century Polish novelist's life, or contemporary Polish dramas, it is not always clear to new visitors of our websites exactly what he or she wants to search for or how the browser options work, and nothing is more disheartening than a series of messages reading “zero results” or “no matches found”.
Thus, the home page should be divided into a browser and exemplary documents. This provides quick access to the main content and encourages users to check the structure of the resources and documents.With the website's reload lists, those documents reload as well and next random ones appear.
Figure 2: The home page of Tei.nplpl.pl Part 1. The browser and collections of letters
Figure 3: The home page of Tei.nplp.pl Part 2. The exemplary documents and most popular entities from the index
On Tei.nplp.pl, we included not only exemplary documents within a browser but also paths to collections of letters. We decided to divide the letter corpora into smaller parts, as well as an index below the exemplary documents section. The home page can also contain manuals (we do not consider manuals crucial for our collections, though) or general information about the project, although these should not make up the majority of the home page.
On our first website, Nplp.pl, we offer a greater diversity of collections. Its home page is therefore designed in a much more minimalistic manner – as a row of icons, each of them linking to a separate collection.
Figure 4: The home page of Nplp.pl
In summary, an opulence of features may not be necessary on the main page, but having only a bare browser might be a fallacy as well.
2. Clickable or Not?
With regards to clicking, we realised that when the cursor icon morphs into the hand icon, it is not always an obvious indication of a clickable area. Our first solution is the use of a collection colour, unique for each collection; for example, in Prus Plus, a collection about a well-known Polish 19th century novelist, we chose a yellow-gold hue:
Figure 5: The Prus Plus collection: Articles from the Doll Lexicon
This colour appears not only in links but also in descriptions of pictures or quotation fields. Colour change is one of the greatest of CSS's hovers, which encourages users to interact with it.
We found this especially important with our breadcrumb, a tool which helps navigate through Nplp.pl, especially in deepening structures like in the Doll Lexicon. In the beta version, this tool was not customised with a colour when hovering over an area. We did a quick test with our colleagues from the Institute of the Literary Research and found that nobody could recognise the breadcrumb and its purpose. As a result, we added colour to make the breadcrumb more accurate and effective.
Figure 6: The Prus Plus collection: The breadcrumb
A palette of colours is used in our editorial project about Skamander Poetry Group's letters. Here, each hue is connected with a different type of entity: yellow is for people, blue is for places, and coral is for organisations. Clicking on a colour allows access to the index with two types of information: static/encyclopaedic, and contextual, tied to a specific place in a particular letter. We are aware that such colourful annotation may make the text less readable, and hence introduced a special button which enables the user to switch all of this off with one click.
Figure 7: Entities (on the right) alongside the letter on Tei.nplp.pl
The main images alongside the Nplp.pl articles are also something we intended to emphasise as something to click on. Here, we could not, and did not, intend to recolour the original graphics. Moreover, we had a window for the main graphic, which crops it to 1350x500 pixels, so it is thus primarily only a narrow vision. We dealt with this by adding an icon of a reading glass in the top left corner, which is well-recognised online. When the icon is clicked on, the picture enlarges and the user is able to view it in its full form.
Figure 8: A graticule as navigation in the Atlas of Polish Romanticism collection
The Atlas of Polish Romanticism has a very unique navigation system in comparison to our other digital collections due to its ‘atlas-like’ structure. It consists of the main map, divided by a graticule into clickable areas. In this way, we have avoided presenting different state borders between the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe, which is not always evident to many users. When a user clicks on a specific location in that collection, they choose a point and are directed to the relevant article. By clicking, they also receive information about the name of the place in the half-transparent border.
Figure 9: The colourful-clickable objects in the “Postmodern Sienkiewicz” collection
Last, but not least, I want to present the emerging “Postmodern Sienkiewicz” collection. Inspired by video games, we created navigation by objects from Oblęgorek, Henryk Sienkiewicz's former house, which is now a museum named after him. To achieve clarity as to which parts of the photos are interactive, we used contrast between colour and black and white. Additionally, when hovering over a specific object, a dotted border appears around it. There is also a smooth fade-out effect after the screen has loaded.
Even an avid reader may leave a website if its navigation is not user-friendly. I mentioned the breadcrumb, a fast shortcut in deep-structured collections on Nplp.pl, but this will likely not be enough to encourage users to stay with us after reading one article (or letter, etc.). Therefore, we created double navigation in Skamander's Poetry Group letters, designed specifically for correspondence. The user is able to read letters not only in chronological order, but also in ‘answer-referring’ order. This equips him or her with a straightforward path to the previous letter, to which the letter being read is a reply.
Figure 10: Chronological and “referring-answer” order in Skamander's Poetry Group letters
Owing to a special WordPress plug-in created for New Panorama, we are able to connect part of the text, formatted as a header, with a point on our maps. In Henryk Sienkiewicz's calendar, we plotted locations visited by Sienkiewicz on the map and linked them with the year of the visit. At the top, there is a special border with the name of the article and a clickable arrow which takes us back to the beginning of an article. This border works in the entire Nplp.pl. I would strongly recommend this feature for every website with long scrolling.
Figure 11: Border with the article's title and back-home button at the top in a long-scrolling collection
To summarise, it is important to remember that the concepts of intuitiveness and user experience are often hypothetical. In many instances, designed patterns of interaction should always be compared with beta testers who did not participate in creating a particular collection. Furthermore, even the creation of ideal navigation on the website does not guarantee that the user will use the content of the site properly, though we are fortunate enough to be making projects for users who, more often than not, are scholars themselves and are prepared to work substantially with our collections.