Digital Archives Meets UX Research

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Michael J. Aguilar
March 1, 2019

In October 2015, a CSRC research team began preserving, describing, and digitizing the La Raza Photograph Collection, an archive of more than 25,000 images that were created by volunteer photographers during the civil rights era and were focused specifically on the Chicano movement. The photographers gave the majority of these images to La Raza newspaper and magazine, which published information in English and Spanish on issues and events related to the Chicanx and Latinx experience, particularly in the Los Angeles area.

The images in the collection are reminders that the La Raza photographers took activist roles in the Chicano movement era. They used photography to document actions of the state, frequently challenging official surveillance, and to capture moments that countered the dominant narrative about Chicanx and Latinx communities.

Because only a small portion of the photographs in the collection had been published, the goal of the CSRC’s research project was to provide public access to all the images through a digital platform. In addition, an exhibition of La Raza photographs, which opened at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles in September 2017, provided an opportunity for the CSRC research team to work with designers and developers to create an interactive digital platform—the “Autry Interactive”—for the exhibition.

To conduct the research needed to process the collection and assess the digital platforms, the CSRC team—myself and a fellow research assistant, with assistance provided by four undergraduate students—employed historical research methods, including primary and secondary source review and qualitative interviews, and user experience research methods.

Historical Research
The research project began with a content review of the physical and digital assets of the La Raza Photograph Collection. The research team examined the quality of previously digitized photographs, performed an inventory of the negatives, transcribed and documented any notes made by the donors, and added the notes to the metadata—the factual information associated with each image. This gave our team an initial understanding of the scope of the collection and how much work might be needed to process it. The content review also helped us shape the next steps of our research process.

During the content review it became clear that our team needed a more comprehensive understanding of the events and figures depicted in the images. We created a timeline of events by using La Raza newspapers and magazines plus a number of publications focused on Chicanx and Latinx experiences in the United States. This timeline eventually proved essential to our description practices. With an improved historical understanding taken from primary sources and published research, we were able to describe images with improved accuracy and consistency.

Students demand the removal of John Hogan, a teacher at Roosevelt High School, during an LAUSD Board of Education meeting in January 1969. The Chicano Student Movement, a precursor of La Raza, reported that Hogan had been accused of referring to a Mexican American student as a “dirty Mexican.” The timeline created by the CSRC research team enabled the identification and date of the event. Photograph © 1969 by Devra Weber. La Raza Photograph Collection, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

As we neared completion of the timeline, we decided to compile a list of La Raza contributors by consulting the credits printed in each issue of the magazine and newspaper. We were often able to narrow down a potential photography credit by comparing our timeline of events with our list of contributors. This process also worked in reverse: if we could not determine the event but already had information on the photographer who captured the image, we could better estimate a date based on when the photographer worked with La Raza.

Front cover of La Raza magazine, volume 2, number 6 (1975). La Raza Newspaper and Magazine Collection, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.
Credits for La Raza magazine, volume 2, number 6 (1975). La Raza Newspaper and Magazine Collection, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

The list of contributors also helped us determine a list of persons who had firsthand knowledge of events that might further our research. Their interviews provided additional information for the timeline and, more important, helped us identify figures who had played significant roles in the Chicano movement but had not been widely recognized for their contributions. Unsurprisingly, this was most evident when interviewees discussed the work of female organizers and photographers.

La Raza contributors stated in their interviews that plainclothes police officers often used photography to document and monitor activists and protests. Photograph © 1971 by Daniel Zapata. La Raza Photograph Collection, UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

User Experience (UX) Research
While the historical research was being completed, two digital platforms were being considered to provide public access to the photography. The CSRC research team chose Flickr for digital access to its collection, and the Autry commissioned the design and development of a custom interactive platform for its exhibition. UX research methods allowed the CSRC research team to draw on users’ perspectives during the evaluation of each platform. The team employed four UX research methods: a heuristic evaluation, a cognitive walkthrough, multiple usability tests, and a card sort.

Our decision to use Flickr followed the heuristic evaluation, which determined the usability and standards compliance of Flickr and three other existing digital platforms: UCLA Digital Library, California Digital Library, and Google’s Cultural Institute. After weighing pros and cons, we decided that Flickr was the best option outside of building a new platform.

The option to create a new digital platform presented itself in early 2016, when the CSRC partnered with the Autry Museum to organize the exhibition La Raza for the Getty-led arts initiative Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. To create an interactive component for La Raza, the Autry Museum worked with Narduli Studios, which designed and developed the digital platform that would be used by visitors to the exhibition. The CSRC research team was asked to handle content and descriptions for the Autry Interactive and to provide input on its usability. The platform enabled users to explore the entire digital collection of over 25,000 images through four  unique experiences. Each of these experiences was built on links that the CSRC created using the archival metadata. In addition to these links, the platform used machine learning to produce connections of its own based on user behavior.

Our first meeting with Narduli Studios began with a cognitive walk-through of the platform’s first iteration. Cognitive walk-throughs are used to evaluate tasks and scenarios from the perspective of the user. Our goal was to identify usability issues by focusing on how easy it was for users to navigate the platform and understand the context of the images. Although this first iteration included only fourteen of the original twenty-six fields used for archival documentation, the most significant takeaway from the walk-through was the need to further limit the fields in order to improve the user experience. We decided to use six of the original fields as is and to transform one field into user-friendly tags that correlated with standardized index terms used to describe the individual images. While these index terms provided context and an opportunity to create numerous links between related images, their complexity contributed to the unfriendly user experience. We addressed this by performing a quantitative analysis of the terms used to index the archival images, which allowed us to identify those used most frequently. We then simplified the terms, eliminated any that were repetitive, and converted those that remained into a final set of user-friendly tags that would be used to create links between the images.

Notes made during the conversion of index terms and topics to user-friendly tags, August 2017. Photography by Michael J. Aguilar.

The second iteration of the interactive platform incorporated our recommendations from the cognitive walkthrough and the new user-friendly tags. Prior to the exhibition opening, we conducted a group usability test with La Raza photographers, activists, and team members from the Autry Museum, Narduli Studios, and the CSRC. Although individual usability tests are typically preferred, the group approach allowed us to better monitor how users would engage with the Autry Interactive in a museum setting. The test revealed issues with functionality, including problems with the new tags and features that caused confusion. These issues were resolved by reworking the content, the tags, the links, and the interface layout, creating the third iteration of the platform.

An image captured during the group usability test of the Autry Interactive, August 2017. Photography by Michael J. Aguilar.

On the night of the exhibition opening, we asked museumgoers who used the Autry Interactive for their feedback. The most frequent response was that the tags did not access all the images that users expected. We realized that these users were correct: our tags were not covering all relevant material. In order to solve this problem, we decided to rework our tags through the use of a card sort. This is a UX research method in which participants organize content into categories as they see fit. We gathered every index term, tag, and topic used in the descriptions of our images and printed them on small cards. We then recruited UCLA undergraduate and graduate students, explained the project, and asked them to organize the cards. This process led to user-defined tags that greatly improved the discovery of images on the final version of the Autry Interactive.

Cards printed with tags, index terms, and topics, organized in a card sort, February 2018. The card sort was used to create the tags and links included in the final version of the Autry Interactive. Photography by Michael J. Aguilar.

Given the importance of the events captured by the photographers, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work on this project, which brought the CSRC’s La Raza Photograph Collection into the digital realm. Because the Autry Interactive was an iteratively developed product, it presented different problems at different stages, which allowed our research team to constantly reevaluate how users engaged with the platform. This process also yielded increasingly rich research findings, which reinforced the notion that digital projects are never fully complete. Instead, they require ongoing revision to enhance the users’ experiences. This notion can also be applied to archival collections, which can evolve as we improve our knowledge of their historical contexts. My biggest hope is that the research undertaken by our team produced a digital collection and digital platform that will improve our understanding of events during the Chicana/o civil rights era and civil rights movements more generally.

A visitor at the La Raza exhibition scrolls through images on the Autry Interactive, August 2018. Photography by Michael J. Aguilar.

Processing of the La Raza Photograph Collection was funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources. The La Raza exhibition was on view at the Autry Museum of the American West from September 16, 2017, through February 10, 2019.

Michael J. Aguilar is the community engagement coordinator at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. He previously worked as a research assistant on the CSRC’s La Raza Photograph Collection. He holds a master’s degree in information science from UCLA, where he focused on user experience research and design.