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


This handbook has its origin in three statements, often reasserted in past MINERVA activities:
•     the quality of a digital cultural project reflects decisions that are taken at the earliest stages;
•     most cultural digital projects should be available to the widest number of users. In 2001, the Lund Meeting conclusions identified the “lack of simple, common forms of access for the citizen” as one of the main barriers, while two years later in Parma digitisation was highlighted as an essential step to providing “improved access for the citizen to that heritage, enhancing education and tourism”;
•     In order to meet the users’ needs as much as possible, and to offer easily-used online facilities, digital cultural applications must be user-centred from their very inception.

Since the beginning of the MINERVA activities on web quality, we realized that central to these three aims is one core issue: user interaction and satisfaction.

In the first steps of MINERVA work we concentrated our attention on the dissemination of best practice and the generation of essential guidelines aimed at cultural institutions about the web as a new medium of communication and interaction. We suggested that websites shouldn’t be separated from other activities of the cultural institution, that technical issues may be easily faced by using standard vocabularies and widely accepted rules, that quality must be conceived as a continuous intersection between cultural content and its use, and that quality can’t be taken as a static question.

During the second phase of the project (MINERVA Plus), we condensed the issues on quality websites into ten essential principles, offering some tools to their interpretation and application. But we remained aware that we had not yet sufficiently focused on an essential factor of cultural web quality: the user.

The questions we mentioned but left without a satisfactory answer included the following:
•     What do users want?
•     How do users behave?
•     How can we understand their use of our web applications?
•     Do effective methods exist to ask users about their expectations (before) and their degree of satisfaction (after)?

The World Wide Web has changed since 2002, and it is changing everyday, giving more attention to the client side of the game. The web (so different from that of the 90’s to be named “version 2.0”) is becoming far more participatory, and there are now many more opportunities for individuals, in addition to institutions, to make their own voices heard.

European cultural institutions started to test the new tools and to re-think some of their applications in the light of this evolution, even if most of their resources were devoted to the building of common platforms and cross-domain access points, which had been identified as a core goal since the Lund Conference in 2001.

This handbook intends to be an additional resource for cultural institutions and companies, to be read together with the other MINERVA products: the Principles for quality of a cultural web application: a handbook and the Handbook for quality in cultural websites: improving quality for citizens. The target users of the handbook are all the cultural entities and projects concerned with tangible and intangible culture, planning to develop new web applications or to update and improve their existing applications, taking into account the users’ point of view.

First of all, the handbook begins with a concise panorama of users and cultural content providers on the web (chapter 1), drawing a distinction between the state of the art of “traditional” cultural web applications (websites and portals, chap. 1.1), and the emerging trends in web services (Web 2.0-3.0, chap. 1.2). Both sections apply to all the different types of cultural institutions, museums, archives, libraries, temporary events and so on, making a small number of core best practice suggestions for each category.

To effectively treat the broad spectrum of information in the handbook, from human-computer interaction to new trends in web user activity, from content selection to interoperability between applications and the models of common access gateways, we needed to benefit from different points of view and knowledge traditions. Our main sources came from the ICT field, from usability and accessibility experts, from the marketing and advertising fields, from cultural sector experiences, and of course from the web user community.

The second part of the handbook aims to integrate the elements of this knowledge spectrum, with the principal goal of guiding our readers in the practical application of what was discussed so far. A series of guidelines are offered to assist the reader to focus on user needs and to reflect user opinions about the use of web applications.

Chapter 2, divided into six sections, answers some basic questions:
•     Who am I?
•     What are the kind of web applications I may choose to develop?
•     When is it especially important to take into account the users point of view on my project?
•     What do we mean precisely by “web user”: is it a single person, a type, a role, a profile, an account or what else?
•     What interactive web services and procedures may I offer to my users? And most of all:
•     What are the current systems for monitoring and evaluating user needs, behaviours and satisfaction?

Moreover, the handbook offers two practical tools for cultural subjects who want to evaluate the users’ point of view (third chapter).

The first one is a self-evaluation questionnaire for planning a user-centred web application. This questionnaire follows a similar pattern to that used in the Handbook of quality principles. It is particularly addressed to cultural institutions which are developing a new web application (or want to update one which is already on-line) and which wish to evaluate user expectations, user satisfaction and the potential for advanced forms of user interaction. The self-evaluation questionnaire may be used not only in the initial stages of the project, but also in the subsequent phases, including the maintenance of the on-line application.

The second practical model is the websites and portals feedback form: a standardized interview model to be distributed to websites and cultural portals users. The questionnaire is built on the basis of what was explained in the “Finding one’s way” section of the handbook, and bears in mind similar efforts already available on the web. It can be used as a reference for the construction of a personalized questionnaire which reflects the requirements of one’s own web application.

Moreover, as we develop web resources, we need to consider a basic issue: the importance of using tagging and metadata to grant visibility and findability to our contents. The fourth chapter of this handbook focuses on this topic, and presents some practical tools for addressing it. Even if in some environments, such as libraries, the metadata standards are well known and used on a daily basis, we believe that a brief overview of the Dublin Core metadata element set may be useful for everyone. In addition, this chapter also includes some information on syndication techniques and languages and on the next step: the semantic web.

References to relevant documents and studies from other institutions and European projects are included throughout the text of the handbook.

Monika Hagedorn-Saupe
MINERVA EC Working Group
“Quality, Accessibility and Usability” coordinator

cover of  handbook





Quality, accessibility, usability

Best Practices