During the first year of my student fellowship with ESIP Data Stewardship Committee, I was introduced to the Data Stewardship Maturity Matrix (DSMM) by Committee member, Ge Peng. The DSMM is a unified framework for measuring stewardship practices applied to individual digital data, and it is structured using a measureable, five-level maturity scale with nine quasi-independent key components, which can be used to characterize and evaluate the stewardship practices (for more information, please see: http://wiki.esipfed.org/index.php/Data_Maturity_Matrix). Among the nine components, “usability” was included and defined by Peng et al. in their “A Unified Framework for Measuring Stewardship Practices Applied to Digital Environmental Datasets” article as “how easily users are able to use the data and learn whether the data are suitable for their own data requirements”. This was the first time that I was introduced to the concept of “usability” in the context of and application to data stewardship. Then, in the fall of 2015, I got the opportunity to take the LIS590IIL: Interfaces to Information Systems course with Dr. Michael Twidale from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The course focused on learning and applying usability concepts and practices, including usability evaluation techniques, to real life case studies. Although the course was based mainly on the foundation and development in the Human-Computer Interaction discipline, the principles and assessment skills that I gained from the course along with the experience of working with Peng on the DSMM inspired me to consider what other ways that usability could be integrated with data stewardship practices in order to improve users’ experience and interaction with data stewardship services. This was the reason that when Dr. Twidale invited me to conduct an independent study with him for the Spring semester of this year, I was excited and grateful for the chance to explore the different possibilities regarding how data stewardship could benefit from key lessons from usability.
When defining the project scope, Dr. Twidale and I wanted to ensure that we set up the project in such a way that the project result could demonstrate the following: 1) usability evaluation need not be complex or lengthy in order to provide helpful results, and 2) usability evaluations could potentially improve user interface (UI) / user experience (UX) of data archives/repositories, so that users are encouraged to participate in data stewardship activities. However, since Dr. Twidale and I also only had 16 weeks officially to work on the project together, we also needed to design the project to produce meaningful results at the end of this time frame. In the end, we decided to have two key phases for the project: 1) conduct literature review and 2) focus the assessment on the usability of the data submission process from five representative data archives/repositories in the Earth/geoscience domain. We also employed cognitive walkthrough as the only usability evaluation technique. Dr. Twidale and I targeted the data submission process as the function for the usability assessment because this was one key area of the data archives/repositories that required direct, hands-on input from the users. The ease of use of this function could have significant impact on how efficiently the users could complete the data submission process successfully and correctly, and consequently, how likely the users would return to the same data archive/repository for additional submissions. In addition, by using the same evaluation technique to assess the same function for all test cases, Dr. Twidale and I could keep the evaluation process consistent as well as establish the same basis for the comparison and contrast of the evaluation results. It is important to note that in addition to having Dr. Twidale as my primary adviser for the project, I also had two ESIP Data Stewardship Committee members, Dr. Matthew Mayernik and Ms. Ruth Duerr, as my secondary advisers. They were both able to help provide feedback and suggestions for the project from the data center’s perspective during the evaluation process.
At the time of this blog’s publication, I am currently working on summarizing the findings of the project, and the preliminary results of the project indicate that applying usability practices and principles could indeed have positive impact on the UI/UX of data archives/repositories. For example, the data archives/repositories’ websites evaluated in the project all share certain types/categories of usability issues that could benefit from usability improvement, and the implementations for these usability fixes do not need to be complex to be effective. At the ESIP Summer Meeting, I will be sharing the final results and recommendations during the “Applying Usability Practices & Principles to Data Archives/Repositories” session (http://commons.esipfed.org/node/9093). The session will also feature ESIP Data Stewardship Committee member, Dr. Robert (Bob) Downs, and his presentation, “User Interface Design for Online Data Collections”. Bob will help in sharing his experience with user interface design and the lessons learned from the re-design of the Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) website at Columbia University. We would like to invite anyone who is interested in discussing usability and its applications with data archives/repositories to attend this session, and if there are enough interests, perhaps starting an ESIP Usability Cluster could be the next steps for us to explore further topics.