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Handbook on cultural web user interaction
First edition (September 2008)
edited by MINERVA EC Working Group "Quality, Accessibility and Usability"

2.4       Users and usage           What does it mean “web user”? Is he a person, or what else?

In this section we begin to reason what it means to talk about users and usage of the cultural web and we provide tools of reflection for designing applications that satisfy citizens’ expectations.

2.4.1      The web user: state of the art and trends in definitions

This paragraph proposes various approaches with respect to the users, according to the most common approaches taken to the design and creation of web applications.      The user for ICT professionals

A user is a person who uses a computer system. In order to identify oneself, a user has an account (a user account), a username (also called a screen name, handle, nickname, or nick on some systems) and a password.

An account is that collection of functions, tools and contents available to a user in certain operational contexts. Through the mechanism of the account, the systems provide the user with an environment with contents and functions that can be customized, as well as separation from other parallel users and their accounts.      The user in marketing

Another approach is that of marketing, classifying users on the basis of their possible quality as consumers.

The users are not treated individually, but gathered into consumer market segments, or groups of people that have a similar perception of a requirement, its characteristics and motivations, that brings them to demonstrate an homogeneous behaviour in solving the problem represented by the requirement.

The requirements for a successful classification are: homogeneity within the segment; heterogeneity between segments; measurability; identifiability; accessibility of information; enough quantity to be profitable.

The variables used for segmentation include:
                        •     Geographic variables (nation, region, country, etc.)
                        •     Demographic variables (age, gender, family size, family life cycle, education, income, occupation, socio-economic status, religion, nationality/race, etc.
                        •     Psychographic variables (personality, life style)
                        •     Behavioural variables (product usage rate, brand loyalty, etc.)

When enough information is combined to create a clear picture of a typical member of a segment, this is referred to as a “profile” (or “type”).      The user according to MINERVA

According to the MINERVA Handbook for quality in cultural websites: improving quality for citizens, “A user is a professional person or not, a specialist or not, who casually or with specific aims, occasionally or systematically uses the Cultural Web Application. User identity is extremely variable depending on cultural profile, aspirations for cultural growth, professional aims and even momentary curiosity” (p. 15). Therefore, a quality website must be user-centred, “taking into account the needs of users, ensuring relevance and ease of use through responding to evaluation and feedback” (5th MINERVA Quality Principle).      The user according to usability gurus

According to usability experts, the end user of an interface needs extensive attention at each stage of the design process. “User-centred design (UCD) can be characterized as a multi-stage problem solving process that not only requires designers to analyze and foresee how users are likely to use an interface, but to test the validity of their assumptions with regards to user behaviour in real world tests with actual users. Such testing is necessary as it is often very difficult for the designers of an interface to understand intuitively what a first-time user of their design experiences, and what each user’s learning curve may look like. [...] The chief difference from other interface design philosophies is that user-centred design tries to optimize the user interface around how people can, want, or need to work, rather than forcing the users to change how they work to accommodate the system or function” (Wikipedia).

This process was defined by different authors and also by some ISO rules, as n. 13407, Human-centred design process and TR 18529, Human-centred lifecycle process descriptions1. Several sources describe slightly different processes, but they are all guided by the same philosophy: the project must be founded on user needs.

User-centred design

A requirements analysis forms one of the primary activities of a web application project.

The decisions made at this time make a significant impact on its usability. In order to construct a successful application, the requirements of all stakeholders involved must be analyzed, in this case the stakeholders being both those who use the services offered by the web application and the clients.

Task analysis, which can be conducted at different levels of granularity, means learning about one’s users’ goals.

User and task analysis aims at understanding:
                        •     which are the users’ goals
                        •     what the users do to achieve these goals
                        •     which are the personal, social, and cultural characteristics of the users
                        •     how the physical environment influences users
                        •     how users’ previous knowledge and experience influence their workflow.

The benefits of this type of analysis are:
                        •     discover which are the tasks that must be supported by the web application
                        •     choose the best technological solutions a web application should include
                        •     define the web application’s navigation and search according to user needs
                        •     build specific web pages and web applications matching users’ goals, tasks, and behaviour on the                                web. Conduct task analysis The user in current trends

Seeing the current trends of the Web, strongly oriented towards the functions of cooperation and advanced interaction, with the movement of applications onto the network, the sharing of social networks, etc. (Web 2.0, by now 3.0...) it would seem necessary to update the classical concept of the user as a person who uses an application.

As early as 1980 Alvin Toffler introduced the term prosumer (producer + consumer), extending a suggestion made by McLuhan in 1972: in a standard and saturated market, the added value would be found in mass customisation guided by users, and the functions of consumer and producer would tend to become mixed and overlap.In short, the classical user is changing into a hybrid individual also defined as a transceiver (transmitter + receiver), the addressee of content and the source of his own multimedia productions.

In conclusion, a fluid individual, from time to time prosumer, consumer, client, audience, surfer, visitor, viewer, player, clicker, downloader, streamer, etc.

These are only some of the terms used to describe many the current activities and user roles in the network.


To explore the issues for users and the Web, a significant study on the user behaviour of virtual libraries is the information behaviour of the researcher of the future, commissioned by the British Library and JISC to identify how the specialist researchers of the future, currently in their school or pre-school years, are likely to access and interact with digital resources in five to ten years’ time.

The main question focused on by the study is this one: if the `Google generation’ are searching for and researching content in new ways, do these seem to be any different from the ways that existing researchers and scholars carry out their work? To reach an answer the study examines first of all the edges of the so-called Google generation, and the current behaviour of virtual libraries users, characterised by horizontal information seeking, by the prevalence of navigation in comparison to reading, by the average shortness of time spent on e-books and e-journals and by ‘squirreling’ behaviour. According to the study, some trends of the future information environment could be identified: a unified web culture, the inexorable rise of the e-book, more content explosions, emerging forms of scholarship and publication, virtual forms of publication and the spread of the semantic web.

Fully available at programmes/reppres/gg_final_ keynote_11012008.pdf      The automatic user

The Web is increasingly an environment of interaction not only between people and organisations but also between software procedures on different computers.

It is sufficient to mention search engines, web services, extraction and reprocessing of XML feeds, mash-ups between functions, harvesting of metadata and data, SOAP, WSDL, etc.

So a web application must also satisfy non-human users, which to function must be able to find the right information in the right form and in the right way. These conditions, in short, are what guarantee interoperability.

2.4.2      The web user – who is he?

These paragraphs try to classify web users based on the role that they play (within a cultural institute or as end users of information and services), or that it seems to the web designers that they want or can have (abstracting them into types, typical behaviour, profiles and scenarios).      The in-home user

The management of a web application within a cultural institution can be very simple (think of a little museum where one person is sufficient), or very complex and involve many individuals (think of a large museum or library). Web applications give the possibility to define in-home different user types with different roles – for example Administrator, Supervisor, Editor etc. – with different levels of authorizations.

In the Handbook for Quality of Cultural Websites: Improving Quality for Citizens, among the 8 recommendations (chap. 1.3) was put in evidence the necessity for cultural institutions to grant the co-ordination of internal and external information flow, the cross-over between various channels of communication and to focus on the phase of planning, development and management of web applications. The issues involved in the planning and preparation phase of a digitisation process, involving the organisation of human resources and the choice of the right in-house users, are well explained in the MINERVA Technical Guidelines for Digital Cultural Content Creation Programmes and in the Quality Principles for cultural websites: a handbook, as regards transparency, effectiveness, maintenance, responsiveness and preservation.      The simulated user

Recently, web individualisation through information technology has become an increasingly significant trend in cultural institutions, in order to make facilities more relevant and useful for individual users and to help to respond to institutions’ educational, marketing, and as usability priorities.

Consequent to the rapid development of the Web, people with different characteristics and goals can access an ever-growing quantity of information for personal use.

But the potential visitors of a web application have a wide variety of characteristics which are difficult to predict and which change over time. In order to manage this complexity, in the phase of task analysis, it may be worthwhile to “simulate” some “user profiles”, “user types” or fictitious characters, through experimented techniques.      User types and roles

The user types describe “some stable features of a type of people which are representative of the user base which the web application aims to address”2.

As in marketing, user types can be classified, for example:
                        •     By geographic variables (nation, region, town, etc.)
                        •     By demographic variables (age, gender, education, income, occupation, socioeconomic status,                                                       religion, nationality/race, disabilities, language, etc.
                        •     By ‘webliographic variables (behaviour in using Internet, preferite sites, browsed used etc.
                        •     Behavioural variables (impatiens, disposed to explore etc.

Example of User Type
                        Job: Museum Curator
                        Age: 25-35
                        Use of the Web: 2 hours a day
                        Connection: ADSL
                        Favourite sites: museums and art portals
                        Languages: English, French 

This kind of classification doesn’t allow the consideration of features which are common to more than one profile and that need to be treated in a different way.

In fact each user type may to correspond a “role”, describing the user’s general reasons for visiting a web application and the tasks or objectives deriving from these reasons.

A role must not describe any personal feature. A role may be assumed by other user types.

Example of Roles in a Museum Website
                        Casual exploration
                        Planning of a visit
                        Look for events
                        See a virtual exhibition

The web application can propose content selections based on certain user types or roles. This process may also be automated following a registration where the end user indicates the profile he belongs to.

In this case, user types can be added according to the requirements of the site and deleted if no longer needed. Once defined and assigned to users, these types can be used in searches and to apply marketing logic to specific groups of users. Once a user type has been defined, it may be used as an attribute that can be used to quickly retrieve all users of this type.

When site access is directly controlled by roles, these roles may be granted to users through user types.

Each role may controls access to one or more web pages.  A user type may be associated with more than one role; a role may be associated with more than one user type. For example, in a museum website, roles could be: explore, search images, plan a visit, learn, purchase.

Examples of user types and roles on the Web

Professionnels (A la Une, Journalistes,
Entreprises, Tourisme, Professionnels & Associations)
Enseignants Jeunes – de 26 ans
(A la Une, Moins de 18 ans, 18-25 ans)
Children’s Museum of Manhattan
For teachers
For parents
Destination modern art (for Kids)
Red Studio (for teenagers)

Modern teachers
Britih Library
For higher education
For business
For librarians
Aboriginal Canada Portal
By Audience (Elders, Women, Youth, Kids)
British Museum
Schools and teachers    Further and higher education
Adult learning
Access, families and children
Parent portal Life events (Adolescence, Ageing, Diagnosis, Employment, Infancy, Leaving Home, Post School, Preschool, School)
Where to go
What to do
Plan your trip
Cité des sciences et de l’industrie
Cité des enfants
Cité des metiers
Cité de la santé
MICHAEL Culture 
By institutions
By audience      Personas

To characterise user types, it’s possible to use the technique of “personas”.

“Personas – a technique popularized by Alan Cooper in his 1999 book The Inmates are Running the Asylum – are fictitious characters that are created to represent the different user types within a targeted demographic that might use a site or product. [...] Personas are useful in helping to guide decisions about a product, such as features, interactions, and visual design. A user persona is a representation of the goals and behaviour of a real user group” (Wikipedia).

How do we get information for a persona? Usually, personas are synthesized from data collected from contextual interviews, individual interviews, online surveys, focus groups, usability testing, etc. (see section 2.6). Through these techniques, the major user groups of one’s web application type are identified and descriptions including behaviour patterns, goals, skills, attitudes, and environment are identified. Once each group’s most representative characteristics have been selected, they are combined into a persona. For each application, more than one persona is usually created, but one persona should always be the primary focus for the design.

A persona usually include a fictional name, perhaps an image, demographic information (age, education, race, family status, etc.), job titles, goals and tasks vis-à-vis the web application, environment (physical, social, technological), etc.

The benefits of using personas include:
                        •     Personas give a personal “human face” on otherwise abstract data about users.
                        •     Defining personas helps the development team to share understanding of the real users in terms of their goals, capabilities and contexts.
                        •     Personas help prevent “self referential design”: designers and developers may unconsciously design a web application following their own mental models which could be very different from those of most end users.

For example, in a library website, personas could be: a person accessing the site for the first time, teenagers, users with visual disabilities, teachers, journalists etc.).

Some experts denigrate the use of personas, arguing that they are fictional and therefore there is no clear way to determine how many users are represented by any given persona.

John Smith
    • 45-years-old
    • Married, 2 children
    • Degree
    • Comfortable using a computer, with an ADSL connection at work and at home
    • Uses e-mail extensively; uses the web about 1.5 hours a day

Key Attributes
    • Focused, goal-oriented
    • Curious, etc.

Example of a Persona Develop personas
Wikipedia – Personas      Use simulation

Some techniques allow also to “simulate” the user’s behavior on a particular web application.      Use cases

A use case is a description of how users will perform tasks on one’s web application. It describes a sequence of interactions between a user and a web application, without specifying the user interface. Usually it is divided into two parts:
                        •     the steps a user will take to fulfil a particular task
                        •     the way the web application should respond to a user’s action.

A use case must include:
                        •     the actor (the user who is using the web application)
                        •     the interaction (what the user wants to do)
                        •     the goal (of the user).

Generally, a use case must be narrated in an easy-to-understand language. Members of the design team must be involved and encouraged in defining the requirements.

Alistair Cockburn, in Writing effective use cases, identified three levels of detail in writing use cases:
                        •     brief use case:a few sentences summarizing the use case
                        •     casual use case: few paragraphs of text, summarizing the use case
                        •     fully dressed use case: formal document based on a detailed template with fields for various sections.

In summary, a use case defines the interactions between external actors and the system in order to accomplish a goal. An actor specifies a role played by a person or thing when interacting with the system. The same person using the system may be represented as two different actors because they are playing different roles. For example, “Juliet” could be playing the role of a Student consulting an online catalogue to find a book or the role of a Librarian giving online advice.

To describe the functions and services offered by a system, so as they are perceived and used by actors interacting with it, it is possible to use a Use Case Diagram (UCD).

Use case diagram

The diagram includes three items:

System: the system as a whole is represented as an empty rectangle. This symbol placed relative to the others so that the elements that represent characteristics of the system will be positioned inside the rectangle, while those that represent external bodies are positioned outside.

Actor: he is graphically represented in the diagram by an icon that shows a stickman. Formally, an actor is a class with a stereotype “actor”. Practically, an actor represents a role covered by a certain group of bodies interacting with the system (including human users, other software systems, hardware appliances and so on). A role corresponds to a certain family of related interactions that the actor undertakes with the system.

Use case: a use case is graphically represented as an ellipse containing the name of the use case. Formally a use case is a classifier with behaviour; it could be seen as a class of related behaviours. Practically, a use case represents a function or service offered by the system to one or more actors. The function must be complete and significant from the point of view of the actors that participate in it. Use case
Wikipedia – Use case, Use case diagram
Identifying use cases (with practical examples)      Scenarios

“A scenario is a narrative describing foreseeable interactions of types of users (characters) and the system. Scenarios include information about goals, expectations, motivations, actions and reactions. Scenarios are neither predictions nor forecasts, but rather attempts to reflect on or portray the way in which a system is used in the context of daily activity” (Wikipedia).

Scenarios can be at different levels of detail:
                        •     goal- or task-based scenarios in which it’s only stated what the user wants to do
                        •     elaborated and very detailed scenarios
                        •     full-scale task scenarios, including all the steps to accomplish the task.

Scenarios for one’s website may be built by gathering information from many sources (see section, 2.6), such as:
                        •     e-mail to users
                        •     surveys (Online)
                        •     contextual Interviews
                        •     individual Interviews.

The differences between use cases and scenarios are that a use case typically refers to generic actors and describe several paths, while scenarios typically refer to examples of the actors and describe a single path.

W3C. Web Service Description Usage Scenarios

To formulate scenarios, a valid help may be given by editing tables with lists of personas, roles and expectations3.

Personas’ goals

Persona GoalExpectation
Tourist To decide to visit the museum or not
To decide whether or not to bring children
Student To consult a database
To download images
Needing to be guided
To explore all the contents
To follow in-depth paths

Roles’ goals

Role Goal Expectation
Visit planningTo look for opening time and address
To reserve a guided tour
Currency of information
Looking for imagesFind works images of xyz with relevant information
Download high resolution images
Know about copyright rules
Needing to be guidedTo follow in-depth pathsClarity      The final user point of view: user stories

“A user story is a software system requirement formulated as one or two sentences in the everyday language of the user. Each user story is limited to the volume of a small paper note card to ensure that it does not grow too large. The user stories should be written by the customers for a software project and are their main instrument to influence the development of the software (Wikipedia).

User stories are a quick way of handling customer requirements without having to elaborate vast formalized requirement documents and without performing the administrative tasks related to maintaining them. The intention with the user story is to be able to respond faster and with less overhead to rapidly changing real-world requirements. User stories are written by the users as things that the system needs to do for them.

Wikipedia – User story

Example of user story by MICHAEL project “How I found Austria in North East England”

My name is XXX. I am from Germany and I am working on my Ph. D.. I am writing about the history of German university studies in Austria and Germany and two 19th century scholars in particular, August Sauer from Vienna and Albert Leitzmann from Magdeburg. They exchanged letters for nearly 40 years and their letters are the basis of my dissertation. My research started with the biographical details of their lives. Being interested in getting a picture of their home towns and living conditions in the nineteenth century, I was looking for an easy way to get the information and found MICHAEL to be a very helpful.

I started my research in the MICHAEL portal using the geographical search combined with period: I chose “Austria” and “19th century”. Next, I was able to browse the digitised collections that document Austria in that period. It is surprising the collections in which one finds interesting pictures, drawings and photographs!

From the MICHAEL portal I was redirected to the Bowes Museum in North East England that holds a great collection of European fine and decorative arts - including Austrian art. Amongst the digitised items I found a lithograph called “National Costume of Austria” showing the fashion and local costume of the time ( This was very interesting for me as August Sauer was engaged in ethnological studies. In the 19th centuries there were more than 10 different nationalities and ethnicities in Austria. Without MICHAEL I would never have looked at an English museum collection! MICHAEL broadens my sense of the richness of European historic tradition and shows just how widespread the collections and cultures of Europe are.

Of course, I could always borrow a book from the library in order to get a picture from former times. I see using digital information as complementary - MICHAEL’s advantage for me is its 24 hour availability, and the service is free of charge. Also the content is taken from reliable sources - and cultural institutions allow for quotation and academic uses of their content.

MICHAEL-Culture – User stories

2.4.3      Systems adapting their behaviour to users

Often it is very difficult for people to find the right information at the right time and at the right level of detail. In order to find a solution to this problem, researchers are developing systems which adapt their behaviour to the interests, task, and goals of single users or groups of users. Individualisation helps to provide differentiated access to information and services according to the user’s profile. Such systems are generally called “adaptive or personalized systems/hypermedia”. Differing from traditional “static” web pages, personalised systems foresee a user model that represents the characteristics of the user. This model is then used to create and present content and services adapted to the requirements of different individuals. Individualisation techniques offer useful tools in the selection and filtering of information, facilitating navigation and increasing the possibility that the user finds what he is looking for in a shorter time.

The first applications of this type were developed in the e-commerce field, where companies understood the possibility to market products and services and to offer advertisements according to a customer’s profile.

In the field of cultural institutions, the first personalised web applications were developed by libraries, in order to assist librarians in selecting and filtering materials for users. By means of personalised systems, models of users’ interests can be created in order to “prioritize” information and sort search results so that users find immediately what they are looking for in the library’s catalogue.

In recent years museums and other important cultural institutions are experimenting with individualisation tools, offering various modes of access to collections, personalised agendas, tour proposals, etc. They have understood that the challenge is not solely to improve the usability of the website and access to information, but also to facilitate the learning process. In fact, research says that learning is stimulated when information is described in a more understandable way. Moreover, personalised systems “listen to the user” recreating the human element and making the user feel more comfortable. A satisfied user may be encouraged to go back to the site and reuse the system.

When providing access to information and services, there are clear benefits for cultural institutions to take into account the different user’s needs. However some analysis must be carried out first. Studies say that often only a few percent of visitors benefit from individualisation techniques. This may be due to the difficulty of using these technologies or just because the user decides not to invest the necessary time.  Moreover the cost of personalisation is rather high, so only large cultural institutions can invest in them. It may be suggested that an institution invests in individualisation systems only if there is a real added value in terms of increased website use and increased real visits to the institution, at least until technologies are more stable, usable and cheap.

There are several different techniques for collecting information about users, as well as different methods to process this information to create different user profiles and develop/deliver adapted content, presentation or structure. Moreover, the amount of control the user has on the personalisation process may vary a lot, depending on the techniques used.

Individualisation techniques can be divided in two fields: customisation and personalisation. Customisation

 Customisation refers to the ability of the user to modify the interface to meet individual requirements. The user can configure an interface and create a profile manually, adding and removing elements in the profile. In this case the user is involved actively in the whole process and has direct control.

A good example is given by My Yahoo!, which emerged in 1996, a customizable web page with news, stock quotes, weather, and many other features, giving the possibility to customize the access to content and the layout.

Other examples are given by websites customized to aid disabled access online, for example partially sighted people who can customize colours, sizes and fonts. In summary, customisation generally covers content presentation, meaning that the user chooses the best way in which he wants the content to be presented.      Personalisation

Personalisation techniques see the user as being more passive and less in control. In this case, modifications in access to content and structure are performed automatically by the system, which uses information on the user included in the so called user profile. This information can be provided explicitly by the user, by means of online registration forms, questionnaires and reviewing,or implicitly by recording the surfing behaviour and preferences of the individual user, for example through cookies and web server log files which track user routes through the site. In summary, personalisation generally involves modifying access to content on the basis of information given explicitly by the user or extracted implicitly through technologies.

After the collection of the users’ data in both implicit or explicit ways, appropriate content is edited and delivered by one or more of the following techniques:

1.   Collaborative filtering: this compares the different user’s tastes, assuming that a user will value what like-minded users also enjoyed. Amazon, for example, identifies the users’ interests by analyzing and comparing previous purchases and ratings given to titles. Libraries, for example, could use this technique to generate lists of the most read books in the library.

2.   Rule-based filtering: website administrators specify rules based on a profile to associate a certain content with a certain user. For example, a user interested in Lascaux murals could also be interested in prehistoric rock painting.

3.   Web usage mining: the application of statistical and data-mining methods to the web server log data, in order to produce patterns indicating the user’s navigational behaviour. According to Wikipedia “Data mining is the principle of sorting through large amounts of data and picking out relevant information”. Data mining techniques include: association rules (to find correlations among sets of items), sequential pattern discovery inlcuding the notion of time sequence); clustering (according to Wikipedia: “the partitioning of a data set into subsets (clusters), so that the data in each subset (ideally) share some common trait”; classification (process which maps items into classes, as for example different user profiles).

Jonathan P. Bowen, Silvia Filippini-Fantoni,
Personalization and the Web from a Museum Perspective,
Paper presented at the International Conference“Museum and the Web 2004”,

Individualisation techniques (from Bowen, Filippini-Fantoni 2004)

1, ISO 13407: Human centred design processes for interactive systems, <>.

2 Lorenzo Cantoni, Nicoletta Di Blas, Davide Bolchini, Comunicazione, qualità, usabilità, Milano: Apogeo, 2003, p. 33.

3 Lorenzo Cantoni, Nicoletta Di Blas, Davide Bolchini, Comunicazione, qualità, usabilità, op. cit., p. 47.

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Quality, accessibility, usability

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