Passing the Mic to Our Audience: User Personas and Strategic Planning for the Sustainability of Digital Formats Website

This is a guest post written by Hilary Szu Yin Shiue and Jacob Kowall, 2021 Junior Fellows in the Digital Content Management & Services (DCMS) Division under the mentorship of Kate Murray, Digital Projects Coordinator.

Hilary and Jacob assisted in updating and expanding the Sustainability of Digital Formats website, which provides information and analysis on over 500 digital file formats and offers guidance on the long-term preservation of digital content at the Library. Through their work, they assisted in providing current information on file formats to users at the Library of Congress (LC) and throughout the international digital preservation community.

In another blog post, All Hyped Up for HyperCard: Further Adventures with an Apple Legacy Format, Hilary and Jacob talk about their research on the legacy HyperCard format. In this blog post, they introduce their efforts in strategic planning for the Sustainability of Digital Formats website and the development of user profiles.

The Sustainability of Digital Formats Website

The Sustainability of Digital Formats site (a.k.a. the Formats site) was first launched in 2004 and now provides users with detailed descriptions of over 500 important file formats. This summer, we’ve worked with the Formats site every day of our Junior Fellowship. We’ve helped to maintain the site and have even contributed some of our own research. Previously, we had each utilized the Formats site for graduate coursework in the areas of digital preservation and digital curation, so we already had a personal understanding of the Format site’s value.

As Junior Fellows, we embarked on a project to discover more information about our users and how they engage with and benefit from the site. To accomplish this, we began asking some essential questions: “Who all is using this information?” “For what reasons do they use the Formats site?” “Is the Formats site providing them with the information they expect to find?”

First and foremost, the Formats site is intended to serve as a tool for staff members at the Library of Congress. The introduction page of the website lists its primary purpose: “To support strategic planning regarding digital content formats, in order to ensure the long-term preservation of digital content by the Library of Congress.” The introduction page also notes that the Formats site helps to fulfill “the strategic planning goal pertaining to the management and sustenance of digital content.”

Over time, however, the Formats site has evolved from a primarily internal tool into a leading resource in the wider digital preservation community. Through web traffic analytics, we learned that the Sustainability of Digital Formats website yields an average of 40,000 unique visitors each month. By delving into comments sent to the [email protected] email address (listed on the site’s Contact Us page), we found that there is a diverse international audience for the Formats site. Its users represent a wide variety of different professions, and include academics, subject matter experts, computer scientists and GLAM (Galleries Libraries Archives Museums) professionals. Though the majority of users are based in the US, we noticed users from many other countries, such as Switzerland, France and Romania.

Project Purpose and Scope

Before starting this project, we already had a preliminary understanding of who uses the Formats site. We also knew the site’s intended purpose – “to support the Library’s strategic planning regarding digital content formats” [1]. But we faced two remaining questions:

  1. How exactly is the Formats site being used to promote the long-term preservation of digital content at the Library?
  2. At a higher level, in what ways does the Formats site support the Library’s stated goals and objectives of the FY2019-2023 Strategic Plan of the Library of Congress?

Through user research, we seek to answer these questions by collecting more information about how users are utilizing the Formats site, their information needs and their information seeking strategies. Because the current purpose and scope of the Formats site are aimed at supporting digital preservation initiatives within the Library, we focused on LC staff user groups in this project. However, we hope the process and methodology can benefit future research aimed at learning more about external users.

Additionally, we learned that our division plans to migrate the Formats site to be incorporated into the Library’s current website interface. Attesting to its own sustainability, the Formats site has maintained its original interface for almost two decades, but it’s beginning to show its age and is due for an upgrade. Therefore, another purpose of our project is to illustrate the value of the site in an effort to advocate for this update. By connecting the Formats site to the LC Strategic Plan, we aim to demonstrate how the Formats site is an essential resource that enables users both within and outside the Library to support and engage with its collections and services.

User Personas and User Profiles

The user research initiative is in part drawn from our conversation with members of the By the People team, who have previous experience of utilizing the LC Strategic Plan to support their crowdsourcing program. The Signal post “New strategy! New crowd! New team!” introduces the crowdsourcing program’s connection with the LC Strategic Plan. There is another Signal series “Volunteer Vignette” where the By the People team interviews individual volunteers to understand their transcription experiences. Through our conversations with the By the People team, we learned about their extensive experiences in user engagement and research with crowdsourcing volunteers. Their user-centered approaches and their use of collected information in making data-driven decisions both directly connect to the LC Strategic Plan.

Inspired by their success with strategic planning, we decided to start our project by linking the Formats site with the LC Strategic Plan. We found it to be especially useful to create user profiles that map to the four user groups categorized in the strategic plan, Congress, Creators, Learners, and Connectors. This process helps us to better identify the Formats site users and meet their expectations. The mapping process also connects to the concept of the Designated Community from ISO 14721:2012, Open archival information system (OAIS) — Reference model. In the OAIS framework, the Designated Community is a subset of Consumers and primary users who are “expected to ‘independently understand’ the archived information in the form in which it is preserved and made available” [2]. Though the OAIS model is designed with archives and collecting institutions in mind, the idea of providing “independently understandable” content is transferable to our user research.

Creating user personas or user profiles fits our purpose in multiple ways. A user persona or user profile is a representation of the key audience (designated community), and it addresses their information needs, expectations, goals and purposes when using a resource, such as a website, a museum, or a specific collection. User personas can help us make informed decisions and assist other stakeholders when evaluating features on the new interface for the Formats site [3].

Methodology

After connecting with the By the People team, we started the project by mapping the Formats site’s user groups to the four user groups identified in the LC Strategic Plan. Figure 1 presents the overview process of our project.

Figure 1: The overview process of the project.

The four groups identified in the plan are Congress, Creators, Learners and Connectors. Based on available information about our users both internally and externally, we recognized that primary users of the Formats site can be (a) Learners who seek understanding and knowledge about digital file formats; (b) Creators who are originators of knowledge and scholarship; and (c) Connectors who are external communities that ultimately connect users with the Library. Figure 2 shows our conceptual mapping.

Figure 2: Mapping the Formats site primary user groups with the LC Strategic Plan.

To build our user personas and collect data about how LC staff members are using the Formats site in support of the LC Strategic Plan, we conducted virtual informational interviews with four known users. Our participants included archivists in the Manuscripts Division and multiple staff members in the Prints and Photographs Division. Using semi-structured interviews afforded us the opportunity to get a deeper contextualized understanding of user experiences, their perceptions, expectations, and the reasons behind their comments. This contextualized information is also potentially useful for future user research with external users, such as a user survey [4].

After conducting the interviews, we consolidated and synthesized the information collected to find the common and distinct user comments and experiences. Our key findings are described in more detail in the next section. With the collected information, we created three user profiles for each primary user group of the Formats site, LC Learners, LC Creators and LC Connectors. Figures 3, 4, and 5 show the three user profiles.

Figure 3: The user profile for LC Learners.

Figure 4: The user profile for LC Creators.

Figure 5: The user profile for LC Connectors.

Finally, we created an internal report about our strategic planning, user research findings and recommendations for our division to refer to for future work on user analysis. We also wrote this blog post in hopes to solicit more feedback for the Formats site from both LC and outside users and stakeholders.

Key Findings

Through our interviews, real users of the Formats site were able to provide us with invaluable feedback about the role of the site in their work. Our participants’ comments reveal that the Formats site is fulfilling its stated goals of supporting LC digital content preservation. However, their insights also show the need for technology upgrade to enhance user experiences.

Supporting stated purposes and scope – Based on the data we collected, it’s clear that LC staff members are indeed using the Formats site to support the Library’s strategic planning of digital content. As Learners, Library archivists use the site to find information that informs their processing work. Subject matter experts at the library use the site when preparing new documentation and policies, like the Recommended Formats Statement. In this way, the site supports staff members in their role as Creators. We expand the definition of Connectors from the LC Strategic Plan to include staff members who cultivate connections with external communities and stakeholders, as they facilitate effective flow of information between the Library and external entities. LC Connectors use the Formats site to share information with external communities, helping to introduce new users to the Library’s resources.

Distinct uses of the same resource – All of the participants agreed that the Formats site remains an important resource to both the Library and the wider digital preservation community. It was interesting to learn how all four of our participants engage with the site in very different ways, depending on their specific needs. While Library archivists use the site as a tool to perform file analysis of collection materials, other subject matter experts are more interested in the history and adoption of certain formats. All participants commented that, for better or for worse, the Formats site imparts users with a very comprehensive amount of information. They all noted that this is what distinguished the Formats site from other related resources, like the UK National Archives’ comprehensive file format registry, PRONOM.

Supporting LC Strategic Plan – Reflecting on our participants’ comments, we understand that, in a general sense, the Formats site supports the LC mission by “informing Congress and the American people” through access to trustworthy digital formats information. Our participants consider the Formats site to be the most detail-oriented and well-researched resource within the larger ecosystem of digital file formats tools. The Formats site’s format description documents (e.g. PDF/A Family, PDF for Long-term Preservation) are supported by extensive file formats research, detailed histories, a thorough process of source verification, and research from archived websites found using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

The need for better search and navigation – The meticulousness of the Formats site makes it a great resource for digital file formats, but at the same time, the amount of information requires thoughtful organization so as not to overwhelm users. During the interviews, the participants had the opportunity to share any difficulties they’ve encountered with the site. They admitted that the site could use some improved navigation and search features. While they appreciate the breadth and depth of the format description document, they mention there is a learning curve to find the specific information they need in the webpage.

Improving mechanisms for user feedback – The participants also commented that the process for suggesting content updates could be somewhat more transparent. This comment suggests to us that the Formats site’s current Introduction page, which describes its purposes and scope, does not provide enough context for the content updates. We are also aware that most participants never navigated to the Introduction page, reflecting again the need for better website organization. These comments were very constructive and helped us think of ways the Formats site might better suit the needs of its users.

Recommendations

Future user studies – We hope that our findings will help in the planning and execution of future user studies. In particular, we recommend that our project be extended in an effort to collect more information from external users, possibly through user surveys or additional interviews. The expanded research could assist our division in strengthening the connection between the Formats site and the broader LC Strategic Plan. By understanding how different external communities use the Formats site, the compilers of the site can enhance services, develop user-centered content, and make data-driven decisions – all of which are actions that directly relate to the current goals and objectives of the LC Strategic Plan.

An improved feedback system – Thanks to our discussions with staff users, we were able to imagine new ways in which we can respond to and meet the needs and expectations of our users. One especially helpful suggestion we heard from participants involved the creation of an improved feedback system. Currently, internal LC staff members provide feedback by directly contacting the Formats site staff – which currently consists of 1.5 LC employees. External users use the site’s email address to provide their comments, and then the Formats site staff usually responds to these emails within a day. If feasible, the site would benefit from a better feedback mechanism that keeps both internal and external inquiries in one place, while also recording basic user informatics. This system would not only lower the burden on the maintenance of the Formats site, but it could also help guide data-driven decisions that address the future development of the site, like what formats to add next and what formats to update first.

The necessity of interface upgrade and other favorable functionality – Overall, our participants agreed that the Formats site would be generally improved through incorporation with the current LC web interface. Some components of the Formats site, such as the search box, currently take users to the main, loc.gov interface, while others do not, leading to some confusion among users. Integrating the Formats site into the main Library interface would provide a more coherent user experience. This transition is not a straightforward process, however, and some additional web development work may be necessary. Hopefully, our results can be used to advocate for additional attention to the Formats site. Specifically, the site should be updated in a way that improves its appearance and accessibility, while also preserving its usability and functionality.

Conclusions and Reflections

Our research has provided insights on how the Formats site serves – and can better serve – the needs of staff users. It lays the groundwork for additional research on how external users connect with the site. In this way, our work is helping to bring the Formats site in line with the directions of LC Strategic Plan and promotes the Library’s identity as a user-centered organization that’s committed to improving user experience.

Our time as Junior Fellows has been of tremendous benefit to us as early career information professionals. Through this project, we’ve learned to effectively articulate how our contributions connect to the larger institution-wide strategic plan. We’ve had the opportunity to work across different Library divisions and communicate with various stakeholders, including collections specialists, technical experts, and institutional leadership. Moreover, we’ve developed competencies in evaluating how users experience online resources. All of these skills will serve us well in our future endeavors.

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