visit the Utopia site
Working from faculty and student use feedback, we have been successful in creating Utopia, an online cross-disciplinary resource. We have found that our responsiveness to user needs has been critical to Utopia's success. To continue to evolve in the Web environment, we have shifted our focus from users to activities, to a model of "use-centered" design.
Utopia is a digital resource, in development at Cornell University, designed to support undergraduate use of images from the Renaissance period. Included in Utopia are 4000 digital surrogates of artifacts held in the collections of the Johnson Art Museum, the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, and the slide libraries in the Department of Art History and the College of Art, Architecture, and Planning.
Utopia began several years ago as a CD-ROM product. Slides were digitized using PhotoCDs and cataloged with Kodak's Shoebox. One year ago, Utopia was migrated to a FilemakerPro database and moved to the Web.
1. Our first goal is to serve students and faculty by providing ready access to digital resources. We have found that not only do students like working with digital images, they feel that it is important to their education.
2. Another goal, perhaps at odds with our first, is to encourage undergraduate physical access to Renaissance artifacts and images housed by the four participating repositories. The digital image can act as a point of entry to other resources at those locations, be they artifactual materials or curatorial staff.
3. As designers and researchers we are also interested in monitoring and exploring the impact that digital technologies have on humanities education. We aim to learn how we, as image repositories and as service providers, can take advantage of the transformative features of digital technology to better serve educational needs.
4. We have a growing set of pragmatic questions around the adoption of digital technology for which we hope to find answers: What are the factors that contribute to or hinder successful use of digital technologies? What skills, tools, and support are necessary for students, faculty, and staff in the digital environment? Who will provide support? What types of collaborations across disciplines, across campus units, and across institutions, are necessary to enable our educational goals? And at what cost?
There are expectations of use embedded in every work environment. We are still climbing the steep portion of the learning curve regarding this new and evolving Web environment and the expectations within it which we can hope to fulfill. Before the Web became the model for digital information exchange, designers had a greater degree of flexibility and inventiveness in the creation and testing of multimedia environments and custom software tools. Informed user-centered design was the paradigm of choice for developing "intuitive, user-friendly" software. The rapid adoption of the Web browser as the primary interface structure has changed the nature of user-centered design. Although we may have lost some control over the medium conveying our message, in return we have gained a broadly-accepted customizable vehicle for information delivery.
The digital medium is, by its very nature, flowing and malleable. The act of creating digital resources is a transformative act that demands a reorganization of how we define our goals and guiding principles as well as how we implement and improve our resources. As resource creators we may try to keep the goals of our project separate from its specific implementation, yet the user experience of our resources is greatly influenced by their implementation. In our move from a CD-ROM-based resource to one available on the Web, we found that professors who had adopted Utopia on CD-ROM experienced disappointment and dismay when some of their activities were not supported within a Web-browser. Toolsets and features to which users had become accustomed were taken out of their hands. Had we been able to follow the tenets of user-centered design we might have chosen to remain offline, but being digital means accepting change, including changing beliefs in how we can best serve our users.
In the online environment, there is an inherent dilemma in the practise of User-Centered Design. User-centered studies are predicated on a fairly strict notion of who your users are. Once you make a Web resource, however, determining who your users are is impossible. Having tailored a resource to specific users, it is possible that it "won't fit" the needs of users outside your defined community. We have found that re-framing our methodology to support "Use-Centered Design" has made our design process more relevant for online resource development.
We have involved our users in almost every aspect of the development of Utopia. The two principal user groups of Utopia have been Cornell professors and students. Knowing precisely who our users are has been a significant advantage in its development--not only have we been able to tailor Utopia to support those user groups, we have also had ready access to them for feedback on access and design issues. By engaging in discussion with our users, we have gained a knowledge of the types of activities they perform in the digital environment. Since much of the technical delivery of the resource is handled by the Web, we no longer need to spend time and resources to develop graphical interfaces and cross-platform connectivity to the degree that we did before. We can now more productively focus on use issues rather than on user issues. This reframing may sound xx but we have found it to be quite significant to our approach.
Because we have systematically gathered user input from Day One we know what our users want from Utopia--prioritizing the implementation of those features has been, however, an on-going process. The balance between implementing our users' stated needs and encouraging innovative uses is a delicate one. We are in the awkward position of responding to explicit faculty and student needs while trying to anticipate and encourage innovative, perhaps un-asked for, uses. I have been eager, for instance, to allow users to post comments, data, and other links to a shared space such that other users can view this pool of user-generated information. Both as a designer and a researcher I am interested in the opportunites this would allow for shared knowledge, but to date this sharing of information appears to be a low priority for our users. An equally low priority, but a feature that I find interesting, is to scale the digital images to their respective physical sizes. Given our limited resources, we have allowed user feedback to inform the prioritization of the addition of features. The success of our resource may be measured by the success with which we are able to keep in step with our users' current expectations of use while we look ahead to anticipate new ones.
Professors don't teach from textbooks, nor do they rely on pre-packaged slide sets. Course texts are most often a combination of books and customized "course packets" of reading material. Given this approach to integrating materials for courses, it should come as no surprise that customization of digital resources is essential to their adoption. Professors who successfully incorporated Utopia and other online image resources, such as the Fuertes Site and MESL (the Museum Educational Site Licensing Project), into their courses used an array of visual materials for their courses including digital images, slides, and cultural artifacts.
Cornell faculty have been involved in the development of Utopia at every level: from the initial concept, to funding, selection of images, and cataloging decisions. We have had to learn to expand Utopia in response to faculty needs, uses, and to the "languages" of different academic disciplines. Though this learning process was not one of Utopia's original goals, we have found that customization is non-negotiable in the university environment; faculty involvement in the resource also encourages their use of the resource on an on-going basis.
Here are a few examples of ways that we have customized Utopia:
1. Selection: As Utopia is not encyclopedic, we have added images based on faculty needs.
2. Cataloging: One art history professor asked for and became involved in creating enhanced cataloging. By adding extensive descriptive data to the images, subject and iconographic access was enabled. Students in her courses have assignments to make use of the added-value of the cataloging and new juxtapositions of images that subject access affords.
3. Browsing: An architecture professor is interested in his students viewing massive quantities of images. His students of architecture are instructed to scan Utopia for paintings that contain architectural elements. For this course we created a browsing environment where users can scan up to 100 images at a time without entering or viewing any text. The full information about the image is only one click away, but primarily this professor was interested in students developing their visual skills.
4. Curation: Other professors have requested that "galleries" be created for their courses. A simple gallery might consist of one "page" of images while a more elaborate gallery might contain a dozen "rooms" filled with images. We have provided faculty and students with templates for curating virtual exhibits; these exhibits can then be posted on the Utopia site.
5. Study Use: With the addition of study questions provided by the professor, we have created "slide review" sites for students preparing for exams. Although a fairly simple use of the resource, image review sites have proven to be a valuable and expected study aid for students.
The features listed above were not considered one-off customizations for particular faculty members. Rather, these customizations serve particular uses. The browsing module has become, for instance, a key feature. While the implementation of the customizations listed above was not difficult, arriving at an understanding of faculty needs, especially in this changing environment, can take time. During this learning phase we need to invest the time in finding out how to support our users. Eventually, we hope to have created a flexible environment that will satisfy most faculty and student uses and provide users with a suite of tools and templates so that further customization and integration can be left in their hands.
While we continue to gather feedback from faculty about ways of using and improving Utopia, it has become more difficult to involve student users--they no longer feel that they need training to use Utopia. On our most recent survey, <[>xx%] self-rated their level of expertise at using the Web at <[>xx]. Comments like this one "...if you know how to use the Web then you know how to use Utopia" were common. We do visit classes to introduce the resource to them, but we miss the opportunity of guiding their use. Although we administer surveys to gather feedback, this written feedback "out of context" of the digital environment is less rewarding than the kind of qualitative user feedback to which we were accustomed to gathering, by participant observation and troubleshooting, during training sessions.
Unsolicited feedback from students using Utopia is most likely to be negative feedback, i.e., driven by problems a user is having, an unsuccessful search, or by other use expectations that are not being met. This feedback is valuable, but it takes time to respond to an individual user's needs. We need to develop ways to anticipate user problems, provide context-sensitive help, and initiate forums where students can assist each other--as they do with other resources.
The User-Centered design model relied on access to specific users--a difficult mandate when serving an online community. We do not have the resources to continue to customize our product for particular faculty customers. Our reframing of Utopia development to be one of "Use-Centered Design" has enabled us to continue to be responsive to faculty and student input and also has encouraged us to ask fundamental questions regarding our resource. The door to Utopia has not yet been opened to the public, but as with other online digital resources, the possibility is there to encourage new users and, therefore, new uses of the resource. As we move away from a Cornell-only Utopia, where we know who our users are and have a gained a sense of how they are using it, we will be asking ourselves about the types of uses and which learning situations we are most able, and willing, to support. Shifting from a user-focus to a use-focus will enable us to redefine our resource in ways that make it more relevant to the online environment.