Planning user research and creating sample data sets (9th December)

Following our meeting in York in November, I arranged to meet with my partners in Bridlington and Flamborough to plan how we produce the two pieces of research we had discussed in York. The purpose of this meeting followed my original rationale – that we would meet locally following meetings with all the groups present to feed back to those unable to meet in York and to plan local initiatives. One of the problems with this model, which became evident quite early on last summer, is that those who are invested in the project have been good at attending the central meetings and that the additional attendees at the local meetings are not regular participants. For this meeting, our hosts had done a great job of getting more people to attend, but this meant we ended up spending a large part of the meeting explaining what the project is about. It also meant that we had people who didn’t have a well-developed understanding of the project participate in planning our research, which in this case proved distracting.

At our meeting in York, I shared that Jo had identified that we didn’t actually know much about many of our users. While we know quite a bit about members of heritage groups, we know less about teachers, tourists and younger people, who we have all identified as target users. Jo suggested that we do some research to find out more about their interest in heritage and digital habits in order to flesh out their personas, so we can make better informed design decisions. Ultimately, the goal is to create a product they will find useful and engaging. We had also discussed that in order to take the design much further, we would need to create sample data sets. While I had imagined users would upload short statements about what they consider their heritage to be and why, I knew that many people would expect longer pieces of descriptive text or stories. In order to be able to design more realistic mock-ups we need to know what kinds of contributions users will want to make. screenshot-2017-01-23-10-27-28These two things then, sample data sets and user research were what I had hoped we would be discussing and planning during this meeting. We had discussed both at our meeting in York, and my impression was that there was agreement that these were worthwhile tasks that we would be tackling together. I was quite excited about this, because I thought it would be an opportunity to do some truly participatory research. I might have to do most of the draft design myself, but we would work on user research and sample data sets together.

I am not sure whether it was because of the composition of the group (including new participants), whether I’d misread the response at the meeting in York or whether some participants had changed their minds, but at this meeting these research tasks were met with scepticism. This caught me off-guard. I had expected we would be discussing how we would do the research, not discussing whether or not the research was necessary. It is safe to say that, surprised as I was, I didn’t make the most compelling case for the necessity of this research. This led us down a path of discussing whether we could use survey data from visitors to a local museum as a substitute for doing our own user research. Again, in my mind, it was clear to me that this would not be sufficient, but I don’t think I did a good job of explaining why. Toward the end of the meeting we were able to discuss how we might find out more about teachers as potential users. We weren’t able to agree on questions to ask local teachers, but a guest participant did say she could get us some Historic England research relating to heritage and school curricula, which might provide us what we needed – or at least help us ask the right questions.

A parallel meeting in Pontefract had to be pushed into the New Year, so further research is on hold until that meeting is held, but this meeting in Bridlington certainly provided much food for thought:

  • Firstly, I think it is a reminder that less can be more – I still think using local meetings to feed back to those unable to attend central meetings is useful, but it is probably more productive to have smaller numbers than to try to bring in new people to every meeting.
  • Secondly, it brings me back to expectations – is it unrealistic for me to expect my partners to participate in conducting user research and creating sample data sets? I hope not. I know the continuing struggle to get more people involved is frustrating, so I hope that by clarifying that we can do this work ourselves it will seem less daunting. On the other hand, I wonder whether the sense that this is my project automatically creates an expectation of that I do most of the work and that my partners contribute by attending meetings. I don’t mean for to imply that I am feeling any bitterness about this – if it is my project, then it is only fair that I do most of the work. I had hoped it would be our project – but again that may have been unrealistic.
  • Thirdly, it makes me re-consider roles, responsibilities and expertise. At this point in my career, I suppose I can claim to be a professional researcher. I know that data is useless unless it is relevant. I wanted us to plan our user research together, but what does that mean exactly? Even if this was a project where everyone felt equally in charge, research of this kind is something some of us have been trained to do and others have not. This doesn’t mean that we can’t work together, or that we shouldn’t be able to talk through things toward an aim of consensus. On the other hand, it may mean that it is an area where I should be more assertive and feel less conflicted about attempting to influence the direction that consensus takes.
  • Finally, in relation to whether this is my or our design project, I wonder whether this was already decided when I pitched my idea. My intention was that this would be a pilot and that we would spend the majority of our time working on ideas my partners came up with. I underestimated how long everything would take – so the pilot has become the project. As I mentioned, I decided I should be prepared to scrap this project so we could focus on our work instead of my work, but we have now come too far and become too invested. It does make me wonder though, whether no matter how open I am to incorporate my participants’ ideas and change mine, this project is doomed to remain mine simply because I pitched the initial idea. Maybe the only way a project can truly become ours, and have the collaborative dynamic I have been seeking, is by it beginning as yours. If I was participating as a citizen in my spare time it might be different, but if I am participating professionally and you are not – for a project to be ours, maybe it first must be yours?

Co-design progress and managing expectations (5th November 2016)

Jo’s consultancy with the project ended in October, but the next meeting with my partners was pushed into November. This meeting was a chance to present what Jo and I had come up with, get feedback and do some planning together. I had blogged about some of the progress we had been making, but I had not had the chance to speak with my partners about them. So in addition to sharing our mock-up design drafts, I also needed to share that we should do some user research and that I had decided I should be willing to scrap the designs if we had ended up in a situation where we were working on my rather than our ideas. This was supposed to be a project about working together in new ways – not about me using my partners to create a digital product I thought would be useful.

Having spent some time catching up and communicating the concept of paper prototyping, I began by presenting the personas and scenarios I’d fleshed out for our users. This caused some alarm in the group because it was felt we had already dealt with this – we had discussed personas way back in our first meeting together in July. The expectation was that we had moved on from this and would now be looking at draft designs. While assuring my partners that we did have something for them to look at did calm these concerns, the momentary panic reminded me of the expectation of progress. My partners are investing time and energy in the project and want to see something come of it. For me, the process of working together may be what is the most important, because that is the focus of my research, but for my partners, perhaps not surprisingly, it seems to be more about the product.

Going over the mockups I had prepared proved a really useful exercise. Having something tangible as a reference, however rudimentary, proved really helpful for discussing expectations of what the platform would look like and how it would function. One of the things I really wanted was to provide users with tools to intuitively explore uploaded content. One of my pet peeves problems with similar platforms like Know Your Place, is that they rely exclusively on a pin-on-map interface. It is really useful for professionals doing desk-based impact assessments, but not that great if you just want to explorescreenshot-2017-01-20-15-33-31.
I played around with a couple of visualisations that I’ve copied in above. The right half is a network matrix that attempts to show how different entities on the site are linked. Seeing it laid out in this way let my partners engage directly with the design process and express that this feature was confusing and unhelpful. It initiated a really helpful conversation of what we want and don’t want this platform to be like. The left half is an attempt to give an overview of what people find important about a place. It is a way of organising information that is adapted from Janet Stephenson’s Cultural Values Model for landscapes. I had been very unsure about including it, but I left it in because I felt very strongly that we needed a way of communicating what is there at a glance. While I think the headings need more work, they get at the fact that places are important because of what is there, physically, the things that go on there and because of the things we know, remember or believe about a place. In the end, this feature was one of the ones my partners were the most positive about.

From the beginning, the idea behind this digital tool has been that people should be able to share what they consider their heritage to be and explain why it is important to them. As a result, it is a platform for capturing and communicating opinions about heritage. That said, an early concern raised by my partners was that the platform should aim to impact how people interact with heritage in person, not just online. There has also been a concern about the role of fact or truth as opposed to opinion. Seeing what the platform might look like, opened up the possibility for clearer conversations about expectations of the type of information that would be available on the site. While I’ve been quite stuck on the point that I believe that heritage is mostly about opinions, the point was raised that we want people to be able to direct users to places where they can learn more – like other websites, libraries and museums. Web addresses and opening times for institutions like these are arguably facts not opinions and a clear desire for there to be room for this kind of information on the site was expressed. In the current context of threats of closures, encouraging the use of cultural institutions was seen as especially important.

As I’d mentioned in my previous blog post, I was increasingly concerned that this co-design project was not achieving what I had hoped. I had hoped we would be designing together, but recently it had felt that my partners were simply a sounding board – consultants rather than partners – for my research project. I was concerned that I was using them to push my agenda and that this project was turning into the kind of participatory project I am critical of. As a result, I felt it was important to mention that if my partners did not think this was a worthwhile project and that we should be designing something else together, we could scrap all these ideas and work on something they thought was more worthwhile. This idea that we would throw away all the work we had already done was met with dismay. It was also mentioned that ‘this is your project’ (my PhD). I really can’t blame anyone from reacting in this way, but it did add to my concerns. I set out to sustain community heritage groups through co-design. That was what my partners signed up to be part of. I am committed to seeing this co-design project through and I still think we can come up with a really useful product, but I had hoped we would end up truly designing together. This may have been unrealistic. These kinds of expectations should obviously be discussed at the beginning of a project, but back then I don’t think any of us thought we would be making mock-ups like these ourselves. Now it has taken me back to considering roles and responsibilities. I think it’s great that we can take more control over the design process, but it is time-consuming, especially in the beginning. It raises new requirements and introduces expectations we had not discussed. Ultimately, it brings me back to considering what I should expect of my partners and what they should expect of me. Which kinds of participation are useful, reasonable and realistic – and in which contexts?

Toward personas, scenarios and prototyping

Late in August, I met with Gareth Beale (@GCBeale) and Mike Heyworth (@mikeheyworth) to discuss how we could move forward with the design process based on the requirements identified during our co-design session in July. Mike kindly agreed that the Council for British Archaeology would provide funds to bring in a technical consultant to help us to move toward a technical design brief and Gareth forwarded a project description to PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the DC Labs and Department of Computer Science, which put me in touch with Jo Pugh (@mentionthewar).

Jo has convinced me that we (my partner groups and I) should retain more control over the design process and that while we have user data for heritage professionals (decision-makers) and community groups, we know very little about a third group of potential users: those who are not already part of an established heritage group, but nevertheless have an interest in heritage. While we have been proceeding with the design process based on the information we already have, we are therefore also planning how we can gather this additional user information:

  • Who are these users?
  • What is their interest in heritage and the changes that are made to the places that matter to them?
  • How do they use digital and web-based technology?

Once we have gathered this information, we will have a fuller picture of the range of our users, which will allow us to make design decisions to provide for their wants and needs.

More significantly, Jo pointed out that while the theoretical argument I am constructing for my PhD research is critical of participatory initiatives that promote institutional agendas and co-opt local initiatives, I could be accused of promoting institutional agendas through my own participatory research practice. I have chosen to select this as a central theme for my research – why do heritage practitioners and academics find it so difficult to apply critical approaches to participation in practice. I will be studying a range of other participatory projects, documenting my own struggle of attempting to bring my practice in line with my ideals and reflecting on whether aligning theory and practice can lead to more sustainable partnerships. I think it is difficult because sometimes we don’t realise and sometimes we simply think we know best. I’m not suggesting that practitioners and academics have nothing to bring to the table, but that cloaking our agendas in a rhetoric of emancipation should have no place in our practice. I’m grateful to those of you who have called me out when I’ve strayed into this area, and would like to encourage you to continue to do so. 

I have already kick-started the process of describing some of our users based on the requirements we identified in July. We had a go at this at the time, but I don’t think we had a clear enough grasp of how to do this to really come up with what we needed. We will be discussing my drafts the next time I meet with my partners in October and will hopefully be able to share examples of our personas and scenarios after that, but I thought I would give you a sneak-peak.

Based on what I told Jo about our work, he identified three main user groups and seven different personas that I have tried to describe:

  • Community group members
    • Liz (the booster), 63, is a local business owner in Bridlington, who wants to attract tourists, foster civic pride and meet others who love Bridlington, and is frustrated by negativity and narrow-mindedness as well as that no one listens to or seems to care about her efforts.
    • Michael (the bigwig), 68, is a retired lawyer in Pontefract, who wants to responsibly represent local interest through the civic society and get more people involved in local decision-making, and is frustrated by apathy and lack of initiative.
  • Heritage professionals
    • Laura, (the decision-maker) 43, is an archaeologist working for Historic England, who wants to make good decisions for heritage in keeping with the interests of current and future generations, and is frustrated by the lack of time and money to give each case the attention it deserves and the absence of a mechanism to effectively communicate with stakeholders.
  • Those not part of established groups
    • Caroline (the tourist), 39, is a sales assistant from Manchester, visiting Flamborough, who loves having experiences of the local and every-day while on vacation, and is frustrated by the lack of time to get to know the places she visits.
    • Boris (the disconnected local), 28, is a hairstylist in Bridlington, who wants an exciting social life and to be connected with current issues, and is frustrated to be stuck in Bridlington where nothing happens.
    • Paulette (the teacher), 28, is a teacher in Pontefract, who wants to incorporate local history in her teaching, and is frustrated by her lack of time and accessible resources to find out more.

I have drafted scenarios for Liz, Michael and Laura that we will be discussing in October, where we will also be laying a plan for how we can find out more about Caroline, Boris and Paulette, so we can draft their scenarios based on evidence rather than pure guess-work. If any of you identify with Laura, we would also be really interested in knowing more about her.



co-design meeting in Pontefract (8th August, 2016)

In relation to the event in York on 3rd July, it was commented that it was a valuable session that fleshed out what we want and what’s possible – Meghan’s input was useful.

With regard to audiences, it was pointed out that there may be differences between groups. Pontefract Civic Society see it as an opportunity to promote Pontefract and what it has to offer. Pontefract already have a web-presence. A lot of effort is about setting Pontefract in a good light and providing information.

The group also wants to create links more broadly, connect and learn from others. I pointed out that I hope this will be achieved through the co-design process as much as the co-designed products.


In going over design brief it was pointed out that analytical back-end can be facilitated through search function.

We ended up spending some time discussing the purpose of the platform and the idea of iterative adaptive design. Are we looking to design a good virtual experience, or are we also interested in how the design impacts place-based experiences – actual interactions with heritage as opposed to virtual representations of it. I had been so stuck on creating a pleasing virtual experience in order to encourage users to dwell and make their own contributions that I had lost sight of the idea that the platform should facilitate changing perspectives, attitudes and thereby relationships and behaviour with heritage. This should not be seen as simply a platform to document emotional responses to heritage, but also to impact emotional responses. So we must design the platform to impact both virtual and physical experiences and have feedback loops from both. As much as I like to think I’m an interdisciplinary thinker, this highlighted how stuck I am on a narrower definition of caring for heritage of decision-making and interventions – but caring for heritage must include encouraging use and developing connections between people and heritage.

The issue of sustainability was also raised. Sustainability does not come from having a website – so how does this design contribute to sustainability exactly? Well, I certainly hope it does contribute, but not on its own, no.

How do we know that we have attracted younger people? Do they give age in registration? If this is an aim for the design and for the larger project the surely we should make sure we can measure it?

Talking about platform names – it was suggested heritage must be in the title. We must be careful not to use something that already exists.

Users should be allowed to curate their feed by choosing places, categories etc. that are important to them. They control content on their profile page, but should also be able to filter content in their feed.

For design, it was emphasised that it must be simple and uncluttered – not too busy. Different kinds of heritage are so different. Do we need different pages for different types of heritage? Flexible – different individuals must be able to create different things on the site. I responded that while I think I sometimes gloss over differences between types of heritage, this tool is about highlighting why things are as important, not to document and digitise heritage. There is a big difference between the technical documentation of an archaeological site or historic building and the documentation of why people think it is important. Oral history came up again, and is clearly something worth looking at in the future, but I think tying it to what we are designing now is complicated. This is because its relationship to heritage is not clear cut. Oral history can both be heritage and can talk about heritage.

It was suggested that a map with a zoom feature could be a simple way of letting users navigate posts. The platform must both be simple to inexperienced users and satisfying to advanced users.

The use of a 4-divided screen was suggested. I think this could work really well as a landing page that gives an overview of what the platform does.  

first plenary co-design meeting in York (3rd July, 2016)

Central co-design session at Council for British Archaeology offices 3rd July 2016 with representatives from Pontefract Civic Society, Bridlington Civic Society and Friends of the Chalk Tower (Flamborough). Meghan Dennis joined us as a consultant at the end of the day.

Things we hoped to get out of the day and from working together:

  • Engaging younger people
  • Learn from experienced groups
  • How digital tools can help struggling towns interested in heritage
  • Find ways to let people interact with their towns – not everyone has time to attend meetings
  • To help ensure that Civic Societies speak for people
  • To build up around local decision making
  • To break out of insular groups and committee meetings – to talk to other people, not just ourselves as first step to attracting new members
  • Embrace social media in an effort to reach new audiences
  • Link with other groups

Then a moment of bonding over hatred of litter ++: it was becoming clear that this exercise of sharing hopes and expectations was helping connect individuals from different groups

  • To create a tool that shares information and connections to people – a place that points people in direction of where (or to whom) to go for more information
  • Again, to build consensus, or at least the sense of speaking on behalf of more people


Early expectations for what we are co-designing:

  • Must accommodate culture/nature, sea/land, practices/relationships/people/etc. not just monuments
  • Must accept images and video, not just text
  • Noted concern about sharing/pooling ignorance
  • It must be simple to register
  • Easy to navigate and use
  • Give near instant gratification
  • Intuitive search function that gives desired results
  • No initial requirement to agree to conditions – puts people off
  • Pictures to draw you in
  • Remember that some people have slow computers and internet connections
  • Let you use it before registering etc. and have functionality to draft and then share/publish as distinct phases.

The full list of requirements, intended users, etc. have been compiled and organised in a design brief draft document which is attached. It was clear that having a range of people present who were drawing on their own personal experiences and frustrations with websites was highlighting a range of different issues – making a case for co-design with regard to useful products.

We talked specifically about our users and did an exercise creating personas. While this got us thinking, I think the exercise should have been introduced and explained better to be more useful. Despite this, it got us thinking about who we are designing for and the implications of this. By the end of the day, it was very clear to me that we were designing for two different types of people, broadly speaking: those who want to share and contribute views, and those who want to use these views. In the room, we represented a range of different people who wanted to use views, but we need to be creative about how to attract people to the platform and make them want to share, contribute and interact with personal identifications and interpretations about heritage. While my focus coming in had been on the analytical back-end, or how we could use contributed data (and designing a system that made access and analysis simple), by the end it was clear to me that where we really need to focus is in making it appealing and intuitive to use on a casual basis.

Bringing Meghan in was very useful, initially because it forced us to pull all the ideas we had brought up together so we had something to present. There seemed to be a general consensus that what I (assisted by the group) presented to Meghan was a fair reflection of our discussions. Gratifyingly, it seemed our presentation was clear – when Meghan delivered a summary of what she understood our wants to be, the response was overwhelmingly positive; it felt as though Meghan had described what we wanted better than we had been able to ourselves. Especially the expression “emotional response” struck a chord – this is what we want people to express: their emotional responses to places and use this as a way to identify “heritage”. This led to the idea that what our platform will do is “add colour to black and white” descriptions of heritage, and about moving forward, about how we want something to be and how we want to use something. A number of other points were sparked:

  • We need a clear design to ensure that people can do what they want – useful from first visit
  • Instant gratification looks different to different people
  • We need to understand how people use social media, not just that they do
  • Information should be open – access should not be restricted
  • Let people set filters rather than have filters be imposed

This is only a very partial account of the meeting, which lasted four hours. Some of my initial reflections on the meeting are below:


I think the meeting achieved introducing participants to other groups and creating ties – at times it was a challenge to keep us on track due to so many other connections and useful conversations being initiated, but this was part of the point of the meeting. There was not enough time to work through the design process together – there was definitely not enough time to work through the process together and make room for creating connections between people and groups. For me, this has re-emphasised the importance of building in more time throughout the process, as these connections that are formed and the ideas, skills and knowledge that are shared during the process are a central part of the reason for choosing collaborative design.

I was reminded again how much expertise there is within this group, which makes me reflect on my own role. I was very grateful to the response at the end, when I re-iterated that the work this summer is partly about learning how to work together, about developing a way of working that builds capacity and sustainability in participating groups. It is clear that those participating are as interested in facilitating sustainability and connections between groups as I am – again, this leads me to reflect on my role in this process.

As we concluded the meeting, it was perfectly clear to everyone (I hope) that we had only just begun the co-design process. We had really just started formulating what we wanted to create together. Again, this emphasises the need to resist the temptation to rush the process: if we want to reap the benefits of everyone’s input, we must make time for ideas to be formulated, shared, captured and integrated.

While I think the participating groups already had many characteristics that underpin capacity and resilience (or if you like, sustainability), I like to think that our work together has been productive in facilitating sustainability already. We have linked groups and people, linked to a supporting organisation (the CBA), secured grants to make our collaborative work possible, shared ideas and knowledge – and we are working toward a common goal. I hope that the digital design work we do together will just be one part of the many activities we are inspired to initiate by working together toward fostering resilience, diversity, vibrancy and relevance in groups of people who want to take care of their local heritage.