The project, entitled ‘Participating in Search Design: A Study of George Thomason’s Newsbooks, 1649-1653’ began in February 2012. It is funded by the AHRC and has been a collaboration between the departments of History, English, Sociological Studies; the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield; and the content provider ProQuest.

The project team is composed of academics, researchers and technical developers whose task has been to explore a user-driven approach to improving search design within online resources, working with academics in the fields of History, English Literature, English Language and Linguistics, Politics and Journalism. These disciplines were chosen because they highlight different research practices, research needs and ways of interrogating datasets. In addition, they were also deemed likely to have the most interest in the test dataset, a sample of the Thomason tracts. These are newsbooks that were produced in the Interregnum in the mid-seventeenth century and gathered by an English book collector, George Thomason. Before this project, the newsbooks were only available as digitised images via ProQuest’s Early English Books Online (EEBO). The identified sample (the full run of the title Mercurius Politicus and the year 1649 for all available titles) has now been rekeyed to a high rate of accuracy and a full-text keyword search facility is available within the resource.

The project has aimed to build up an understanding of how search is currently used within humanities research methodology and use this knowledge in the design of better search interfaces for online resources, which genuinely meet the needs of the research community. Data searching is a core activity within humanities research and, given the vast evidence base now available to scholars in digital form, the design of search has a significant impact on research results. However, although this is changing as we speak, it has become increasingly clear that in many cases the research community is not consulted when content providers are designing online resources and there tends to be an assumption that the search needs of humanities research are the same as those for other disciplines or non-academic knowledge gathering activities.

Conventional technical development processes often involve consulting users at an early stage in order to ascertain requirements and then conducting user testing towards the end of the development cycle. The issue with this approach is that the users’ involvement is reactive and not immersive or creative and, as such, the technical development can quickly become divorced from user needs. In addition, if projects run over schedule there is little, if any, time for user testing. Furthermore, time and funding may run out before user and community feedback can be implemented.

By contrast, one of the main thrusts of this project has been to explore the use of Participatory Design in developing search tools for the arts and humanities community. The aim of this methodology is to ensure that the design of ICT meets the needs of users by making them the driving force behind design decisions for the development of a digital resource. This means involving them in the design process before any development work has taken place and, as such, attempting to improve search by designing from actual research practice.

Research Design

The project has been conducted in two phases: Phase One - a preliminary investigative phase involving extensive data gathering and analysis to explore how search is practised by humanities scholars; Phase Two - a practical application phase to tackle the design and development of a digital resource around the test dataset.

Within Phase One, Section 1.1 provides an overview of academic research practices and methodologies, particularly focusing on the disciplines targeted by the project to identify some general observations about ‘search’ in each research area. This is followed by a summary of a technical study looking at how people recall, recognise and reuse search results, along with the concept of “change blindness”, and how search functions can best accommodate these practices. Lastly, a review of humanities research practice in current literature focuses on two recent projects and identifies the gap in knowledge into which this project fits. Section 1.2 examines our overall methodology, particularly pertaining to activities conducted as part of Phase One. Section 1.3 provides a report based on the findings from an academic research practice landscape survey. The purpose of this was addressing some of our initial research questions and identifying general trends by mapping existing search methodologies within the relevant research communities, highlighting benefits and deficiencies, and finding out what academics value in terms of search. These trends are highlighted in key themes picked out of the survey analysis. Section 1.4 offers a summary of how the focus groups were conducted to build on and consolidate findings from the survey and gain a more in depth understanding of research practices and methodologies. The key themes distilled from the analysis of the session transcripts are then described. Finally in this phase, section 1.5 provides an overview of what was gleaned from interviews with a variety of content providers,in whichperspectives of digitising content and how they design search in the production of digital resources were discussed, particularly focusing on if and how they involve their end users in the development process.

Within Phase Two, Section 2.1 will explain our methodology particularly pertaining to our Participatory Design approach, in terms of forming a Design Group to lead the design and development of the resource. Section 2.2 goes on to give details of the design groups. Firstly, a pilot Design Group was conducted at the National Library of Wales, which provided valuable insights into the best ways of using a Participatory Design approach effectively for the project Design Group sessions. How we found our participants and conducted the groups is then outlined, followed by an overview of the early outcomes and how the resource has been developed as a direct result of critique, observations and suggestions made by the participants, as well as recording everything they did and said during the sessions. Here we will also introduce another method of analysis we have used to inform resource development, which is ethnomethodology. Our application of this technique involves the step by step recording of actions with time stamps to highlight hesitations and therefore show where disruption is occurring in the use of digital resources. It has furthered our understanding of the way in which users actually work, as opposed to how they say they work, enabling us to provide developers with vignettes of actions, which could inform how they build certain aspects of resource functionality by confirming or refuting what the users say.

Finally, we will set out the overarching project conclusions and review the overall effectiveness and limitations of a Participatory Design approach to digital resource development in the humanities. We will also provide some thoughts on how this method might contribute to the sustainability of resources and some recommendations for those thinking about applying a Participatory Design approach to future projects. The report will end with a reflective and reflexive look at the ways in which our methods have fed into our understanding of the actual practices of humanities researchers and how these can be usefully fed into to the design and development of intuitive and user-friendly digital resources which stand the test of time.

Research Questions

The research questions we have set out to address throughout the project are as follows:

  1. What is the role of search within humanities research methodology, how is it used across the different subject domains, what are its current deficiencies and what impact does it have on research results?
  2. How is the design of search conditioned by technical considerations or the viewpoint of content creators?
  3. What would constitute good search design within the humanities and how would it support and transform research methodology?
  4. Is it possible to design new types of search which meet the community's differing methodological requirements more effectively than current approaches?
  5. What constitutes effective development methodology in the digital humanities and electronic publishing in terms of ensuring that user requirements are constantly addressed? Does a Participatory Design approach meet these needs?