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Seeing Is Believing: The JISC Information Environment Presentation Programme

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Chris Awre reviews the JISC Information Environment Presentation Programme and offers an insight to the outcomes of recent studies.

When using various Web sites for work or leisure most of us have favourites that we start with and prefer interacting with. The reasons why we prefer one site over another may not be clear to us, but the interface of many Web sites is commonly tested to make using them as easy and straightforward as possible. Making that interface between the user and the functionality of the Web site intuitive and easy to navigate will encourage users and increase traffic. In the commercial world this can lead to higher sales or greater awareness of a product. In education, the intention may be to assist the discovery of information and/or increase learning. JISC has sought to investigate how the interface to Web-based services within education might be enhanced in this way by funding a range of studies under its Presentation Programme.

The Information Environment Technical Architecture [1] has an existing presentation layer.

diagram (15KB): Figure 1: The JISC Information Environment Architecture

FIgure 1: The JISC Information Environment Architecture

This comprises the range of systems with which users will interact in order to access the brokers, indexes, content, and shared infrastructure etc. available. As indicated in the diagram, this may comprise portals of different kinds, learner management systems or resolver services. These are the tools and systems that can present the information landscape to the user and make it accessible via the open standards of the Information Environment [2]. The different functionality that these systems offer is the subject of various JISC programmes and projects [3]. The Presentation Programme has been set up to investigate not the functionality but the interface that these systems offer to the user, the route by which users actually use the functionality available. Inasmuch as other components within the Information Environment can present an interface to users, and many of them can and do, the Presentation Programme also seeks to investigate these and discover mechanisms through which they can be enhanced.

The differentiation between functionality and interface is highlighted by the original vision of the Information Environment. In the Technical Architecture document [4] portals are envisaged as having a dual role in the fusion of metadata from different content providers, and in the presentation of this metadata to users allowing interaction with it. Portals are now considered to be one of a range of presentation services, but this separation of roles is applicable across this range.

Programme Aims

The aims of the Presentation Programme are as given in the Information Environment Development Strategy [5] document and cover the period 2002-2005. These are:

  1. To have significantly improved the usability of JISC Services and resources offered through the Information Environment
  2. To have established the most effective means of embedding the presentation of resources within institutional, departmental, local and personal environments
  3. To have established and disseminated best practice wherever possible in design of interfaces to support the requirements of access to diverse types of digital resources

These aims have guided the work undertaken within the programme. The Information Environment Development Strategy was itself guided by the JISC Strategy for 2001-2005. This Strategy has recently been revised [6] to take account of the current rapid changes in technology and new areas of work will stem from this up to 2006.

Areas of Work

In taking forward the aims of the Presentation Programme, five areas of work are being developed. These are:

  • Usability
  • Human-computer interaction (HCI) design
  • Visualisation
  • Embedding
  • Personalisation

Usability

As the aims of the programme make clear, usability is viewed as a vital part of making interfaces more accessible and intuitive for users. Usability within the Information Environment can be defined as in 'ISO 9241-11: Guidance on Usability' - "the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use". Usability testing is undertaken by many Web-based services during their development, where it can be essential to make sure the service achieves its goals; testing can also be used within existing services, though, as a means of enhancing their usefulness to the target audience. The assessment of usability is indeed a sizeable industry. Professional companies can be hired to carry out a full usability assessment, possibly using usability labs. Whilst comprehensive, this route can also be very expensive. An alternative camp [7] suggests that usability testing can be carried out on a simpler scale, often by the service owners, and big improvements to usability can be achieved through fairly small tests. Within education, and particularly the digital library field, the discovery of information is a key task and establishing how the usability of services providing this functionality can be enhanced is a key part of the Presentation Programme.

HCI

Usability, though extremely important in itself, is, however, just one aspect of how humans and computers interact. Human-computer interaction (HCI) design considers the broader and more detailed perspectives of how this takes place. Usability is task-oriented, examining the achievement of goals through the use of a service/product; HCI design considers the design process that takes place in the development of a service, and can influence changes to existing services. These changes may include detailed aspects such as the exact placing of text and images on a Web page. The key to HCI is user-centred design, placing the needs of users at the centre of the development activity and building round this using the knowledge and experience of the development team. It is this user-centred design approach that the Presentation Programme is focussing on.

Visualisation

A different subset of HCI design is how the interface actually displays the information it is presenting. In the education and library fields, much information is text-based. Displaying this as text is often clear and straightforward. Indeed, it may well fulfil the requirements stated above for a usable service in achieving a certain goal. However, as search engines like KartOO [8] have shown, it is possible to take text-based information and display this in a graphical form to highlight relationships and links between different pieces of information that the text-based display is unable to show. This visualisation of the information allows extra interaction between the user and the service. In addition, visual techniques can be used to create the query for information in the first place and to manipulate the results where appropriate. Visualisation can, of course, be used in a variety of arenas and some disciplines lend themselves to visual techniques more than others, e.g., genetic data. Within the Information Environment, with the emphasis on sharing and discovery of metadata, it is the visualisation of metadata, or information visualisation, that the Presentation Programme is addressing.

Embedding

The flexibility of the Information Environment architecture, with components interoperating with each other using standards, allows for some areas of functionality to be embedded within others. Institutional developments within Higher and Further Education, both portals and learner management systems such as VLEs, encourage the users to interact with external services through these. An area of presentation that is growing in importance is how external services might be embedded within these institutional systems. Investigation of this embedding is ongoing in a range of current JISC projects [9]. In addition to these, the Presentation Programme will seek to investigate generic tools to facilitate this embedding and consider the technologies involved in the light of the usability, HCI design and visualisation work.

Personalisation

Another area of growing interest is how much services can facilitate interaction with users by knowing who they are - incorporating personalisation within them. Such techniques are commonly used by commercial services such as Amazon and lastminute.com. However, their possible role within the Information Environment, and within education more widely, is less well understood. Personalisation can be implicit, where it is presented without the user realising, through tracking activity or identifying users through some form of authentication or authorisation; or it can be explicit, which requires an acknowledgement from the user that personalisation will take place. In either case, personalisation has the potential to make interaction with Web-based services more targeted and assist the user in achieving their goals more directly.

Projects

A range of studies has been undertaken so far within the Presentation Programme. These are as follows:

  • Usability Foundation Study and Investigation of Usability in JISC Services [10]
  • Human-Computer Interaction Design Foundation Study [11]
  • Visualisation Foundation Study [12]

Two further pieces of work are currently ongoing:

  • Investigation of embedding within the JISC Framework Programme [13]
  • Investigation into Personalisation within Presentation Services [14]

The focus of all the projects has been on services delivered within the Information Environment, and particularly focussed on existing services operated through JISC. However, the findings from the studies are intended to have wider applicability and are relevant for anyone in education designing a Web-based service.

The usability studies served two purposes. The foundation study has reviewed existing usability practice, both in the UK and worldwide, and has made recommendations on the usability techniques that will be most applicable for JISC Services, bearing in mind that different techniques might be appropriate in different situations. A usability and accessibility evaluation framework has been developed to allow service developers to assess which usability techniques will be most relevant for them. Use of the framework is intended to raise awareness of different usability techniques and show how these can be used at different stages of development. The report and framework documents from this study can be found on the project Web site.

The second usability study, the investigation of usability within JISC services, took the findings from the foundation study and applied them to a sample of JISC services, in order to test out the findings and to provide a benchmark for usability within JISC services. These four services found the assessment both useful and encouraging and provided a great deal of valuable information. It is recognised that time and effort is required to make full use of the usability techniques suggested as a result of the assessment and the results of this study will be used by JISC to assess how usability can be enhanced across all JISC services. However, it is also recognised that application on a limited scale, (and the investigation demonstrated that the level of usability testing was already reasonably high), also helps in the production of services.

The HCI design foundation study has performed a similar task to the usability foundation study in assessing current HCI practice and considering the applicability of relevant design principles to JISC services and the Information Environment. The study has very successfully collated a number of design principle documents into a single list and has evaluated these, with very positive results, with JISC services and institutional Web developers. Additional guidance is provided for the design of online courses, portals, and digital libraries. The principles are available for all to use as required via the project Web site.

The visualisation foundation study has provided another good review of existing practice, with a wide-ranging assessment of current information visualisation techniques and discussion of these in the context of JISC with key individuals in this emerging field. The study has also used paper-based prototypes to investigate the applicability of individual visualisation techniques to a range of JISC services delivering different types of content. The full report can be found via the project Web site.

Next steps

As indicated above, there are two areas of work currently ongoing within the Programme. These will add to the body of knowledge being accumulated. Having examined current practice in the various presentation fields, the Programme now needs to examine more closely how the guidelines and principles highlighted can be effectively embedded within service design and development. Consideration of the many different types of content that can be disclosed within the Information Environment, and their different presentation requirements, will also benefit from further investigation and the Programme will seek to take this forward.

Conclusion

In building components within the Information Environment there are many presentation issues that can be addressed to make the service easy and valuable to use; indeed it is hoped it will be one of those Web sites to which users instinctively refer when seeking to achieve a particular goal. Usability, HCI design, visualisation, embedding and personalisation can all be used to enhance a service and make it more visible and usable. There is, of course, a possible danger that adopting all the different guidelines available can be viewed as taking up too much time and effort. When applied extensively there is no doubt that they can take up a lot of resources. But it is equally true that application of selected guidelines and principles can have benefits far in excess of the effort involved. The Presentation Programme will continue to investigate these issues and seek to make the guidelines themselves as usable as possible.

References

  1. The JISC Information Environment Architecture
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/jisc-ie/arch/
  2. JISC Information Environment Architecture Standards Framework
    http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/jisc-ie/arch/standards/
  3. JISC Projects http://www.jisc.ac.uk/projects/
  4. Powell, A., Lyon, L., The DNER Technical Architecture: scoping the information environment, http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/distributed-systems/jisc-ie/arch/dner-arch.html
  5. JISC Information Environment Development Strategy
    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/strat_ieds0105_draft2.html
  6. JISC Strategy review http://www.jisc.ac.uk/jisc_strategy_review_update_250803.html
  7. Useit.com: Jakob Nielsen on Usability and Web Design http://www.useit.com/
  8. KartOO http://www.kartoo.com/
  9. For example, see http://www.jisc.ac.uk/programme_portals.html and
    http://www.fair-portal.hull.ac.uk/
  10. Usability Foundation Study and Investigation of Usability in JISC Services http://www.jisc.ac.uk/project_usability1.html
  11. Human-Computer Interaction Design Foundation Study http://www.jisc.ac.uk/project_hci_design.html
  12. Visualisation Foundation Study http://www.jisc.ac.uk/project_visualization.html
  13. JISC Framework Programme http://www.jisc.ac.uk/programme_frameworks.html
  14. Investigation into Personalisation within Presentation Services http://www.jisc.ac.uk/project_personalise.html

Author Details

Chris Awre
Programme Manager
JISC

Email: c.awre@jisc.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/people_awre_c.html

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Date published: 
30 April 2004

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How to cite this article

Chris Awre. "Seeing Is Believing: The JISC Information Environment Presentation Programme". April 2004, Ariadne Issue 39 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue39/awre/


article | by Dr. Radut