As we wrap up the transfer phase of Project Electron, we’re turning to the next phase of the project which focuses on building, updating, and implementing systems, tools, and processes to facilitate access to digital records. We’ve started this work - which we’re calling the discovery and delivery phase - by revisiting and evaluating the user stories and personas produced during our user research in 2016 and 2017. Although this research was foundational to our understanding of the scope of Project Electron and shaped many of its deliverables, it was completed over two years ago. We needed to make sure our original user stories and personas still reflected our users and their needs.

In this post I’ll explain how we’ve revisited these original design artifacts to ensure that they continue to represent our thinking as an organization, and how this revision supports our project value of “plac[ing] users at the center of the design process.”

Strategies for re-evaluating user research

We had two major goals in revisiting the personas and user stories in preparation for the next phase of Project Electron. The first was to confirm that these design artifacts were aligned with the RAC staff’s understanding of our user population and our own work. Second, we sought to reorient the RAC staff to the methods and goals of Project Electron, so we could leverage our coworker’s experiences and expertise and as a method of continuing to build staff investment in the project.

To start, we shared the existing user stories and personas with each program area team at the RAC along with some context about their initial development, use, and our plan to review and revise them. We then scheduled meetings to discuss these user information artifacts with each group including our own team (Digital Programs), Processing, Collections Management, Reference, Research and Education, and our Director of Archives and President. We also held a few follow-up meetings to include staff who had been out of the office or wanted to follow up with specific feedback.

What we found

The results overwhelmingly confirmed the first goal of this work: that the existing user information artifacts aligned strongly with how the RAC staff sees our users and ourselves. Given the feedback and engagement we received, the process also supported the second goal. We received a number of suggested enhancements to the documents, particularly the personas. As a result, we made a number of small changes to existing personas and created an entirely new persona to address feedback related to representing the work of reference support staff.

The suggestions we received fell into five broad categories:

Representing the work of reference support staff

The existing user stories and personas largely omitted mention of work which supports important aspects of our reference services, including retrievals and returns of physical material as well as the management of digitization (both on-demand and project based) and exhibit processes. This is critical and often invisible work, and we wanted to make sure we account for it and support the staff who do it. We’ve gathered user stories in this area, and have added another persona that reflects this crucial organizational role.

Clarifying the process of researcher/archivist collaboration

While goals and pain points related to the research process are distributed throughout the researcher personas, we heard a consistent desire to better articulate these same concerns from the perspective of information professionals. Overall, the feedback we received conceptualized the research process as fluid, collaborative, and researcher-driven, with the archivist in the role of an expert advisor on recordkeeping practices (and how those practices are expressed in archival description) rather than as a mandatory conduit through which researchers access subject matter expertise and logistical information. We’ve tweaked a few personas in light of this and have also tried to articulate values around access to archival collections in a separate document.

Enhancing search and browse functionality

Unsurprisingly, the need for new and improved patterns for searching and browsing archival description came up consistently. While the breadth of research strategies included in the personas is fairly comprehensive, we enhanced the user stories with some specific search and browse strategies: locating visually appealing records for use in social media and digital outreach, browsing via document type or format, and navigating archival relationships between people, organizations, topics, and groups of records.

Addressing accessibility needs

Another common theme was our desire as archivists to ensure that the accessibility needs of our researchers are met. We’ve made some changes to better articulate the language barriers faced by researchers who are not fluent in spoken and/or written English, as well as the assistive technologies they might use to surmount those obstacles. We also heard a strong desire on the part of RAC staff to provide accessible content to users, so we’ve added some user stories about captioning audiovisual content and meeting other accessibility requirements for users with disabilities.

Documenting rights information and associated processes

Another area that many felt could be more fully fleshed out in the personas was the universe of issues surrounding restrictions on records due to intellectual property rights and/or sensitivity. Although a number of the personas state a desire for clear information on rights and restrictions, we’ve also specified that researchers and archivists need information on the copyright clearance or restrictions review processes where applicable.

Reflecting on our use of these personas and user stories during the first phase of Project Electron, it’s clear that they have helped us do some very important things. Primarily, they have done what user-centered design artifacts are intended to do: helping us remain connected to user needs while reminding us that meeting those needs requires more than just technological solutions. They’ve also played an important part in clarifying and managing expectations related to organizational roles, and in making archival labor more transparent to researchers and donors.

We plan to use our personas in other RAC projects in addition to Project Electron, and we think the new access services persona makes them more complete and representative of our users and ourselves. As we do this, we will continue to engage with our RAC colleagues in participatory design activities and incorporate their perspectives and expertise as users and future maintainers of this new infrastructure.