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Geting to know our web users

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

Last week I gave a talk at the Museums Association’s 2015 conference alongside Peter Pavement of Surface Impression. Our talk, which was part of its workshop and exhibition strand, was about the development of our new website which launched in March of this year.

Our session focused on the research we conducted on our users’ needs and motivations for using the site, and how the results were fed into the design and development process. The presentation wasn’t filmed, but the slides below should tell much of the story.

(If the slides below are not visible in your browser, you can view them on this SlideShare page.)
I won’t give a detailed summary of our talk here, but it focused on the need to develop a website around its users’ needs. That may seem screamingly obvious, especially to anyone who has read the Government Digital Service’s Design Principles, but understanding those needs and embedding them in the development process presents its own challenges. One of the questions we grappled with in the early stages of researching the website development was what methods should we use to understand our users — in short, how do we pose the questions we need to answer? Our approach, which drew on Google Analytics data, Culture 24’s Let’s Get Real action research project, and the work of American academic Professor John Falk, leant heavily towards the behavioural rather than the demographic.
Behavioural models of human behaviour can seem counter-intuitive; most of us instinctively understand people through attributes such as sex, race, and age. This is why demographic models are so popular. But what was so surprising about the web development process was how quickly the behavioural approach became part of a common language between RPM staff working on the website and the developer.
That approach has also continued to inform our ongoing digital work. One small example can be found in the learning themes we introduced into our website earlier this year. These are simply streams of data from our published collections that have been tagged to link with National Curriculum subjects. It’s an attempt to make our collection data more accessible to school users, and while we’re still a long way from making our online collections truly fit for that audience, it is a modest step in an important direction. It also marks a vital shift in thinking away from simply presenting our collection data as an objective description of physical matter to repurposing it for an identifiable audience.
Much more work needs to be done in this area, but embedding our audience needs into our planning is a key part of our future digital practice.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer