By Alexandra Haggert
The Digital Services Access Team
During the past two years at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), a new team has emerged, embracing a new way of working and plugging away at improvements that are much needed for the digital experience at LAC. The Digital Services Access Team is a multidisciplinary team comprising software developers, a product owner with extensive client-service experience at LAC, subject-matter experts in library and archival information, and user-experience researchers and designers.
The team follows an Agile project-management approach, like most software development teams in tech companies, and increasingly many teams in government, following the Government of Canada’s Digital Standards. This approach allows us to rapidly pivot to changing priorities and address new client needs as they arise. For the past two years, LAC has embraced an interdisciplinary and agile approach to improving the digital experience of our users. This allows us to continually improve our digital tools, which include Collection Search, My Account, My Research and the Co-Lab crowdsourcing platform.
What is user-centred design?
User experience (or UX for short) research and design is not a new field, and it is not a digital-only activity. The idea of consciously designing a tool so that the user has a positive experience of using it has been around for ages. Think about how a path is routed through a park. A path that takes the user from point A to B in the most comfortable way (for example, by providing shade and avoiding a large hill) is user-centred design.
In the digital era, the number of products and tools that people use every day, like websites and applications, has simply exploded. Each of these products and experiences must be consciously designed for usability, accessibility, enjoyment and ease. As UX design has grown as a field, so has the process that designers follow to quickly create products and make them better. The most important aspect of this process is that it is iterative; that is, it is continually repeated. Digital products must be continually re-evaluated and updated to adapt to ever-changing technology, client expectations, trends and more. The UX design process consists of five key stages: research, ideation, design, prototype and test.
How we practice UX design at LAC: a case study
To understand how we are applying UX design practices at LAC, let us look at two products that were launched in the past year: My Account and My Research.
The team started by assessing client and business needs for online user accounts at LAC. In 2017, LAC first introduced user accounts so that clients could register online for in-person events. In 2018, we expanded that user account functionality when the Co-Lab crowdsourcing tool was released, which allowed clients to log in to contribute transcriptions (and more) to digitized archival material and keep track of the content they had worked on. We knew that the potential for what clients could do with online accounts was so much greater, and in the fall of 2020, we finally had a team that could use the design process to explore the potential.
The team held interviews with various stakeholders across LAC (such as the Reference team who help clients with research questions every day) and determined two key features that would bring value to clients:
- a user profile menu where clients could update their personal information and access the various tools attached to their My Account; and
- the ability to create personalized lists of records, saved from Collection Search.
After the design stage, the software developers on the team proceeded to prototype this product in our “dev environment”—a sort of staging ground for products that are still in construction mode. After many months of balancing this new product development with the maintenance needs of our existing applications, we had a working My Account system and began to test it.
Usability testing is where we learn so much about what works and what just does not work. Real clients are recruited to try a new product and are observed as they do so. Contrary to what some might think, we are not testing the client’s ability at all, we are testing the product itself. Is it intuitive, accessible, functional and easy to use? Where do we need to make changes? In usability testing for My Account, it was obvious right away that we had not made it easy for clients to sign up for a new account. The log-in window was front and centre, but for first-time users, it was confusing. So we went back to the drawing board and redesigned the My Account log-in page to have two clear options: log in as a previously registered user, or create a new account if it is your first time.
Once we had adjusted the redesign to reflect our test findings, we launched My Account and My Research in February 2022. These products now live on LAC’s website. If you are not already familiar with these new tools, please go and try them out, and then let us know what you think!
How you can get involved
Our Digital Services Access Team literally runs on your feedback and your service needs as LAC clients. We cannot get enough of your input!
Here is how you can help us to improve LAC’s online services:
- Send us your ideas, comments and feedback by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Sign up to participate in usability testing opportunities when they become available.
Alexandra Haggert is a senior advisor in the User Experience and Engagement Sector at Library and Archives Canada.
I am a military researcher and author and have been using the LAC site to access First World War records for many years. The legacy site provides much better and easier access to those records than the new site does. I hope that you don’t remove access to the legacy site until improvements are made in the new site to make it more user friendly.
Thanks for your feedback. If you have more comments or concerns, our team would love to hear from you. Here is the email address to their inbox: email@example.com
Thank you for sharing! What is the most challenging part of practicing User-Centered design in LAC? Looking forward to see more case studies from LAC
Thanks for reaching out. The biggest challenge is keeping our focus on a limited number of issues or products at a time. It’s tempting to take on way more challenges than our small team can handle, because there is a desire to examine and improve all kinds of services that LAC provides. However, we can make a bigger impact by working on a limited number of products or services and seeing them all the way through.
Yeah, I couldn’t agree more about finding the sweet spot between lower effort and higher impact
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As the head of an independent Archives (operating since 1978) in the Town of Gravenhurst and a researcher into the history of our participation in the two world wars, I must beg you NOT to change the present access route to the military records of First World War soldiers. I am writing two books on the men who went from our area to the Great War and I rely on fast access to their military records as i write. I would hate to think that I have to try to refind all of these records by some other “improved” access route.
Thank you for taking the time to share your feedback on the database for Personnel Records of the First World War.
To start, it is important to note that the First World War database you are using for your research is currently running on outdated technology and could permanently break at any time. The system responsible for this product is no longer maintained and many researchers have noticed that the search is often quite slow and will go as far as returning error messages on a frequent basis. We are confident that Collection Search is a much better product for your research and is built on a significantly more robust system. Furthermore, we are constantly working on improving its performance based on client feedback.
Here are the instructions on how to search for personnel records of the First World War inside Collection Search:
1- From the Collection Search basic search page, click on “Advanced search” on the right: https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/index
2- From the drop down menu “Database”, select “First World War Personnel Records”
We agree that these steps are not as convenient as a direct link to the search form that researchers can bookmark. We are happy to inform you that will soon be working on creating a unique URL link for the new search database for the First World War Personnel Records. The visual and search experience will be similar to what we are now offering through the embedded search form for the Second World War – War Dead database available here: https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/help/kia.
As you may notice, the new Second World War – War Dead database offers the same search fields that were offered with the previous (old) database. The First and Last name search fields offer a higher quality wildcard search, the system itself is stable and fast, and search results can be sorted in alphabetical order. Our plan is to replicate the same experience with the Personnel records of the First World War.
Another useful feature within Collection Search is the ability to save records to “My Research”, a free tool that allows you to save you research to your favourites folders. “My Research” and other features are available by creating an online account. More information on “My Account” is available at: https://library-archives.canada.ca/eng/collection/basics/Pages/about-my-account.aspx.
We hope this information is useful. If you have any other questions or feedback you would like to share, please feel free to contact the Digital Access team at firstname.lastname@example.org.