As more and more content was added to British History Online (BHO), the listings pages and search results became longer and users were confronted by growing amounts of information which they would need to sift through to help them decide on which sources were going to be relevant to their research.

To prevent users becoming overwhelmed by the volume of information (thus impairing their ability to use the site for research), we undertook a usability project as part of the JISC 01/11B funding round. Our intention was to modify our way of working, building in usability practices, to find a self-sustaining way by which usability could be built into our working pattern and persist after the funding round had ended, i.e. bootstrapping.

Many project teams will be wondering how to employ usability without a budget  – and that’s the model we followed. Our only direct cost, a rolling subscription with, was USD10 per month but enabled the crucial quantitative aspect to our investigation.

Our plan envisioned us researching qualitative and quantitative feedback, altering the BHO interface according to recommendations, and then re-testing both sets afterwards to give a before and after style report. It wasn’t all possible (we weren’t able to schedule interviews after the development) but most of it is in place and we reported the results through this blog.

Here is an outline of the work:

  • interviews with historians
  • focus group with the Survey of London at English Heritage
  • benchmarking of System Usability Scale (SUS) before developments
  • production of the issue list
  • Click testing for each issue
  • Development and deployment of new and modified functions on BHO
  • Click testing for each issue using new modified interfaces
  • Review of SUS results after modified interface went live
  • Publishing the findings

At its heart, the project produced an issue list – a jargon-free document containing a clear description of the issues, how to reproduce them, screen shots and suggested questions to ask users to test any remedial development – it was the most important managerial output from the exercise because it could be understood by anybody thus providing the means for support for the changes to come from a range of different departments.