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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > October 2005

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Vol. 25 No. 9 — October 2005
Using Participatory Design to Improve Web Sites
by Tatiana Nikolova-Houston

In a previous adventure (Computers in Libraries, April 2002), I told readers how I saved deteriorating treasures for further study by digitizing Slavic medieval manuscripts. A great deal of trial and error went into capturing those photos and producing the Web sites to display them. Now, let me share with you my recent experiences and the lessons learned as the work has continued. These les sons include discovering the historical accident underlying much medieval study, the resulting lack of Web sites, and how participatory design has mitigated this problem.

The Historical Accident

"Why were the Middle Ages called the Dark Ages?" my daughter challenged me one day. I started to lecture her, and she interrupted me impatiently: "No! Because there were so many knights! Do you understand, mommy? Because of the (k)nights?" Seriously though, there is a reason for the nickname. One of the earliest and most important art historians, a 16th-century Italian named Giorgio Vassari, decided that Byzantine art was "ugly and clumsy."1 He labeled the Middle Ages as the Dark Ages, referring specifically to Byzantine art.2 Not only did Vassari dislike Byzantine art, he labeled Byzan tine art history as a mere "option." Because of Vassari, the gap between East and West widened. For example, based upon my interviews with professors of library history, art history, Slavic languages, and medieval hypertextuality, western European medieval studies have distanced and marginalized southern Slavic medieval studies.

Vassari's 16th-century historical accident still affects the availability of resources and collection development in libraries today, as Slavic resources wither in the margins of library collections while French and English literary genres flourish and occupy entire floors of libraries. One professor of Slavic languages stated: "Demoralizing! One little quarter on the fifth floor was dedicated to Russian, and within this corner, a tiny bit of corner to other Slavic languages!"

The Situation Today

Five years ago, the Internet contained no Web sites with images of Slavic manuscripts.3 Today, there are only three. Bulgarian and other Slavic scholars grieve about this "clear gap" in Slavic cultural heritage resources on the Web.4 They blame obsolete data formats and tools, linguistic difficulties, lack (with minor exceptions) of manuscripts that already have been digitized, and lack of financial support for digitizing manuscripts and resolving copyright issues. Other factors include the wide variety of computer hardware and software that prevent standardization.5  

I asked myself several questions: Can any librarian confront the academic community? Could I refute Vassari? Could I fill this gap in Slavic resources with online materials? If I did, would scholars accept them? How do you measure acceptance? The answers lie in participatory design (PD), a method in which the researchers and scholars who use a Web site help to design it. But would they help me re-create my sites?

Participatory design (PD) originated in Scandinavia in the 1970s as a way to empower workers by involving them in the design of tools and artifacts.6 The method drew on the workers' "tacit knowledge"—i.e., their implicit or un ar ticulated knowledge learned and transmitted through experience and apprenticeship. At first glance, PD sounds like user-centered design, but there are differences. PD is design by users, while user-centered design is design for users.7  

In today's library school curriculum, we have developed several disciplines that design user-friendly computer interfaces, such as user studies, information architecture, and human-computer interaction. However, Web designers rarely involve users in the actual design process.8 Whether it's a cause or an effect of not involving users, contemporary interface design focuses on usability, not functionality.9  

Back in 2002, I had digitized manuscripts, expecting to create a Web presence for Slavic medieval manuscript treasures and to fill the existing gap in Slavic resources. The site I created received a warm welcome, but I felt it was incomplete. Then, in spring 2005, I discovered PD. It seemed to be the answer, since it involves the users in creating the intellectual content, design, and navigation of a Web site. I resolved to use PD to improve my three Slavic manuscript sites:

•  Slavic Medieval Treasures from Bulgaria (2002),

•  Byzantine Medieval Hypertexts (2003),

•  Slavic Medieval Treasures (2004),

The Three Stages of Participatory Design

Traditionally, PD occurs in three stages. During the first "discovery" stage, the researcher-designer gains the trust of the participants, explores their working practices, and studies their goals, values, and needs. She gets additional context from examining the visual and textual sources used in practice.

In the second "evaluative" stage, the participants explore and evaluate the artifacts (e.g., the three Web sites), focusing on their strengths and weaknesses; then they encourage each other to tell about their positive experiences with similar artifacts.

The third "prototyping" stage involves brainstorming with the participants as they suggest ideas, sketch concepts, and envision future use and developments in the field. Finally, the participants evaluate the new design and approve its final version.

Stage 1: Discovery

I began the PD process by asking faculty and students from the library history and the Slavic, Byzantine, and medieval studies departments this question: "Would you use my Web site in teaching and research if you and I, creator, patron, and professor, work hand-in-hand to create it?" Other questions followed. "What information sources do you need and use? Would online Slavic manuscripts change current teaching practices? Can primary sources be presented online?"

I collected answers to these and other questions in semi-structured interviews, written surveys, classroom observation, and by examining documents such as class syllabi. Some of the interviews occurred through e-mail exchanges, which greatly facilitated the transcription process.

Good research requires verification. I verified my data through the use of different methods of collection, a pro cess known as triangulation. In this case, the face-to-face interviews and the classroom observations produced the same information as the data collected from e-mails, documents, and surveys. To further authenticate the data, I asked each informant to confirm the accuracy of my version of their statements, a process called "member checking."

Here's what I found out: Here are the answers I received to my initial questions.

• Would you use my Web site in teaching and research if you and I, creator, patron, and professor, worked hand-in hand-to create it? All participants expressed skepticism about the credibility and quality of Internet sources. For example, one person said: "The Internet? I don't trust the Internet except for quick information." Most professors and many students echoed this statement: "Those are intellectual toys!" However, many of the participants used online databases and bibliographies. Could I expand that Internet usage with their help?

Virtually every person I asked agreed to participate in the redesign of the sites. Will they continue to use the sites in the future? They promised to do so, and I believe they will.

•  What information sources do you need and use? Although the faculty members instructed students in the importance of research with primary sources, almost everyone relied on secondary sources. Their reasons varied: Some faculty members had developed excellent private libraries and felt that these secondary sources were sufficient for their teaching needs. Since students had 70 to 120 readings during a semester, they tended to follow Zipf's Principle of Least Effort and to search for online sources. Even with this student preference for the Internet, none of the participants trusted online sources at the commencement of the project.

•  Would online Slavic manuscripts change current teaching practices? Teaching practice varied by discipline and professor. Library history lent itself to lectures illustrated with slides and video. Slavic language and literature are studied by reading and discussing transliterated texts, with cultural and historical context added by the professor. In one innovative course on the hypertextuality of medieval manuscripts, students interacted with man uscripts and re-created them as electronic hypertexts. This approach empha-
sized the primary sources—the manuscripts. Byzantine art history required a discussion mode of teaching with high-quality visual images. Byzantine art history faculty members observed that students needed to experience the touch and feel of real manuscripts in a library environment. Yet, how many libraries house medieval manuscripts? Direct contact with primary sources saved as online manuscript images could foster development of independent research skills in topics ranging from history and literacy to everyday life.10  

•  What is the value of online primary sources for teaching or research? In the U.S., most Slavic and Byzantine manuscripts remain hidden in East European special collections. The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Hilandar Research Library at Ohio State University are notable exceptions. They house microfilm, color slides, and facsimiles of medieval manuscripts that might provide the heuristic experience—the thrill of discovery—that pre-digested second ary sources cannot. The participants in this study expressed the opinion that a strong and instructive presence of Slavic and Byzantine manuscripts could be established on the Internet. But would they use it?

So You Want to Try PD on a Web Site?

Keep in mind the three commandments of Web sites: Know thy users! Know their needs! Know their sources! Also remember the three criteria of site layout: content, design, and navigation. And don't forget—the intellectual content must drive the design.


1. Know your audience, their needs, and their sources.

2. Explicitly state your intended audience and purpose.

3. Situate the information in its spatial and temporal context.

4. Write simply or supply a glossary.

5. Write well in a level appropriate for your audience.

6. Provide authoritative and reliable information along with a bibliography.


1. Achieve a simple and consistent page layout.

2. Support images with text, but use plenty of images.

3. Use "thumbnail" images that lead to high-quality enlargements.


1. Make navigation simple and intuitive.

2. Provide a search function for the site's content.

3. Enhance the site (and please your audience) with a little interactivity.

4. Decrease the use of external links, or be prepared to update them frequently.

5. List your site on other authoritative sites.

6. Avoid the need for a scroll bar whenever possible.

In this study, several professors noted that "A projected image in the classroom is indeed worth a thousand words, and certainly sticks longer [than words]." Therefore, useful online sources must emphasize the visual, and herein rests their power. By their very nature, manuscripts are "hypermediated" (accessible through several reader-controlled paths) and visually richer than tradition al printed culture. Manuscript images are vital in teaching about manuscripts.

Images can captivate the user, but they must conform to Web constraints. One participant reminded us: "Images are the most important, but Web sites must follow best practices of Web design. They must find the right balance between the number of images: right size for better downloading and high quality." He suggested that Web sites should offer a gallery of searchable "thumbnail" images that lead to larger files.

Images might initially captivate and motivate a broader audience than traditional printed text. Without context, however, images impart an obscured and skewed understanding. The Byzantine and Slavic life, culture, and traditions portrayed in manuscripts require knowledge of the wider political and cultural context of the Middle Ages. One participant in this study emphasized the importance of comparing Eastern and Western traditions chronologically and thematically because, in the Middle Ages, people from both traditions inter acted with each other. A Slavic manuscript Internet presence, therefore, must include copious illustrations and text to provide context of both the Slavic and the contemporaneous Western worlds.

Stage 2: Site Evaluation

Slavic Medieval Treasures from Bulgaria. All participants commented positively on the navigation and content of my first site ( but suggested improvements. Specific recommendations included adding an explicit introduction stating the purpose and intended audience of the site; a map of Bulgaria; a comparison between Slavic and Western traditions; information on codex, parchment, and paper media; and facts about the number and types of manuscripts in the collection. General recommendations included additional and improved images, the use of appropriate fonts, and an improved writing style (because poor writing undermines the authority of the intellectual content).  

Slavic Medieval Treasures. I constructed this site (
to consolidate my research on various Slavic topics and to augment them with multimedia features such as video. I chose the Slavic manuscript tradition and its relationship to the Byzantine manuscript tradition as the theme. The participants found that this site had corrected many of the problems of the first site. They appreciated the uniqueness of the material, its air of authenticity, its aesthetic qualities, its multimediality, and its organization. They grasped its purpose and intended (i.e., academic) audience. They recommend ed the title page as a model for the other sites.

Problems included the lack of a glossary to clarify the academic jargon, inconsistent design, lack of images, and lack of thumbnail images linked to larger, higher quality images. One participant felt that the spiritual aspect of the site would undermine its authority among scholars who might not be comfortable with manuscripts portrayed as an expression of a living religion, rather than as historical evidence.

Byzantine Medieval Hypertexts. This site ( received the few est negative comments and the most praise. Participants found the intellectual content to be academic and acceptable for teaching and research. "A truly impressive collection of images, commentary and translation," said one. They also appreciated the balance between text and images and the integration of images into the scholarly text. As with the other sites, this site lacked consistency in its layout. Most participants preferred a single column of text illustrated by images.

Stage 3: Prototyping a Site

The third stage of PD involves participants in the design of the artifact they might use. Thus, the sites become a product and reflection of what the participants considered important for their teaching and research.

My participants evaluated the navigation and content of the three sites. They followed the Web site evaluation criteria developed and recommended by Alastair Smith.11 Smith's navigation criteria is rather comprehensive: back buttons, usability, scrolling, "bells and whistles," working links, functionality, loading time, and interactivity. The content criteria included scope, accuracy, authority, authenticity, a balance between text and images, colors and aesthetics, currency, graphics and multimedia, links to other sources, organization, purpose and audience, quality of writing, uniqueness, user friendliness, integrity and reliability, and reference to other sources.

My survey of participant opinions showed that the three sites required improvement in navigation (back buttons), usability, working links, and interactivity. Common problems with intellectual content for all three sites included quality of writing, lack of uniqueness, and lack of reference to other sources.  

To Flip or Not to Flip?

I had to decide the best way to move from one image to another. The British Library, for example, presents its online Bible with pages that appear to flip the same way a physical manuscript would. My participants widely diverged when faced with this question. The library historian preferred "flipping" to scrolling; the Byzantine art historian preferred flipping to slides and felt the flipping of virtual manuscript pages had the potential "to present the entire manuscript, to experience movement through the pages, to have a sense of the material and texture of the pages." For one faculty participant, however, forcing a manuscript design onto a Web site manifested a "nostalgia" complex and would create an accessibility problem for visually impaired users. His students echoed him; they felt animated flipping pages were a showy and distracting gimmick.

The Success of the PD Model

Perhaps it was the refreshments, or perhaps it was the feeling of empowerment. Participatory design created a more intimate social atmosphere between the researcher and the participants—it was an atmosphere of trust. The participants shared their feelings, values, needs, and knowledge. After 11 interviews, two observations, one joint prototyping session, five participant surveys, and numerous e-mail conversations, I felt more confident that I understood the tacit knowledge of the users.

I wasn't able to use some of the recommended techniques for PD—e.g., participants did not permit videotaping. I had to follow their inclinations, such as their willingness to share their thoughts in writing. E-mail helped our communication tremendously by allowing the opportunity to think about responses, then to respond at leisure.

Participatory design does take time, but it is worth the effort. If you want to try it, keep in mind the value of time for the participants, especially the faculty. Prepare yourself and your project ahead of time through homework and research. Choose extra participants, because some will drop out along the way.

PD Can Be Beneficial

Like it or not, research and pedagogical technology change. If we use PD to create online resources, we can maintain our position in the academic community. Although many still do not trust online sources, the PD "marketing strategy" convinces users that the online sources they design can be used for academic teaching and research. I invite the readers of Computers in Libraries to adopt the PD method. It will prove a most rewarding experience.


1. Gombrich, E. (1987). "The Values of the Byzantine Tradition: A Documentary History of Goethe's Response to the Boisseree Collection." In The Documented Image: Visions in Art History. Syracuse University Press: New York.

2. Trachtenberg, M. (2001). "Desedimenting Time: Gothic Column/Paradigm Shifter." RES 40: 5–24.

3. Nikolova-Houston, T. (2001). "The Internet and the Virtual Scriptorium of Slavic Medieval Manuscripts." Libraries in the Age of the Internet, Sofia, Bulgaria, Union of Librarians and Information Services Officers (ULISO): Bulgaria.

4. Dobreva, M. (2005). "Medieval Slavonic Written Cultural Heritage in the E-World: The Bulgarian Experience." In Review of the National Center for Digitization. Yugoslavia.

5. Miltenova, A. (2002). "The Sofia Corpus of Data on Slavic Manuscripts." In Slavic and East European Information Resources, 3 (2/3), 81–86.

6. Greebaum, J. & Kyng, M. (1991). Design at Work: Cooperative Design of Computer Systems. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Also Spinuzzi, C. (2005). "The Methodology of Participatory Design." Technical Communication, 52 (2), 163–174.

7. Iivari, N. (2004). "Enculturation of User Involvement in Software Development Organizations—An Interpretive Case Study in the Product Development Context." In Proceedings of the Third Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. ACM Press, 287–296.

8. Dillon, A., Sweeney, M., & Maguire, M. (1993). "A Survey of Usability Evaluation Practices and Requirements in the European IT Industry." In J. Alty, S. Guest, and D. Diaper (Eds.), HCI ‘93. People and Computers VII. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Also Taxen, G. (2004). Introducing Participatory Design in Museums. Paper presented at
the Proceedings of the 8th Biennial Participatory Design Conference. Toronto, Canada, July 27–31.

9. Dillon, A. (2004). Designing Usable Electronic Text. New York: Taylor & Francis.

10. Winkler, A. "Digitized Medieval Manuscripts in the Classroom: A Project in Progress." The History Teacher, 35 (2), 1–22.

11. Smith, A. Testing the Surf: "Criteria for Evaluating Internet Information Resources." The Public-Access Computer System Review, 8 (3), 1997.

Tatiana Nikolova-Houston is a doctoral candidate from the School of Information at the University of Texas–Austin. This article evolved from her attempt to redesign her existing Web sites and to supply online resources for Slavic and Byzantine studies. She has received the 2002 IREX travel grant, The Manuscript Society Maass Research Grant for 2004–2005, and the 2005 ATLA Bibliography Grant. Her e-mail address is

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