Evaluating Newspaper Sites I

Jan 02, 2014

Introduction to heuristics, and a review of The British Newspaper Archive.

In September 2013 I was given the interesting challenge of performing a heuristic review on six newspaper archive sites, the DDR Presse (Berlin State Library), British Newspaper Archive (British Library), dLib.si (National and University Library of Slovenia), Timarit.is (National and University Library of Iceland), eLuxemburgensia (National Library of Luxembourg), and Kramerius 3 (National Library of Czech Republic).

I then presented these findings at the European Library Annual Meeting to various representatives from Europe’s National Libraries.

Presenting at the European Library Annual Meeting

To the uninitiated, a heuristic review involves going through the individual websites, and seeing what works well, and what doesn’t work as well as it could. There are numerous sets of heuristics to follow, but the most commonly used are Nielsen’s set of heuristics, which despite being almost twenty years old are still relevant in today’s market.

Nielsen’s ten usability heuristics

  • Visibility of system status - The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  • Match between system and the real world - Speak the user’s language, using words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user.
  • User control and freedom - Users make mistakes, support undo and redo to allow for these errors.
  • Consistency and standards - Follow convention.
  • Error prevention - Better than a good error message is a careful design which prevents problems from occurring in the first place.
  • Recognition rather than recall - Make actions and options visible. The user shouldn’t have to remember information.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use - Allow expert users to use shortcuts, but also remember to cater for inexperienced users.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design - Keep things clean, clear, and simple.
  • Help users recognise, diagnose, and recover from errors - Sometimes errors do occur, ensure that they are in plain language that indicate the problem, and offer a way to proceed.
  • Help and documentation - Although it is better if the system can be used without documentation, sometimes this is necessary. All documentation should be easy to search, be focused on the user’s task, and list the steps to be carried out.

These heuristics are always a good starting point, but I don’t view them as being set in stone. In my line of work, accessibility is something that I do test against, ensuring that the site is structured correctly, has good readability, and has design considerations for assistive devices.

Of course, if I was tasked with evaluating an application to be used in the cockpits of aircraft, then accessibility requirements would be less of a consideration. Pilots with 20/20 vision and regular checks would not need this heuristic to be tested against, whereas ‘Error prevention’ would be of huge importance.

The British Newspaper Archive

The first site that I looked at was The British Newspaper Archive

My initial reaction was that it is a clearly laid out site, with good separation between blocks of content. There are clear calls to action to log in and register, and the search box is in a familiar location - dead centre.

In the accompanying video, which you can see above, I comment on “Print shop”, this is something that I was not sure about, but I assumed that you could print newspapers there. I proceeded to do a search, and mentioned that it was good to see that the loading status was shown. After I attempted to open an article I discovered that it was a pay site.

I don’t want to pay to see anything when I don’t know what the quality is like… I would like to see free examples before I register or purchase packages… And what are credits?

Users won’t sign up for a site they don’t understand or find appealing. Appeal to users by clearly stating and showing what your website offers and the benefits they’ll get from using your site.
UX Movement

I would like to have seen contextual help explaining what credits are, but I couldn’t see anything. When I clicked “Help”, I saw lots of text, but nothing jumped out. Eventually I found some information hidden away in the FAQs.

Highlighting the credits section on the British Newspaper Archive website
The area to purchase credits, or packages.

I think the usage of ‘credits’, ‘vouchers’, ‘page views’ and ‘packages’ is inconsistent on the website. The language should be consistent throughout, and easy to understand at a glance. “15 free credits”, “Up to 100 pages”, and “Credits 500” is confusing terminology. I feel that they should choose one term and stick with it.

The language used on the purchase packages area of the website
Confusing language on the page to purchase credits, or packages.

Along with the inconsistency, I also feel that the registration process may be upsetting to some. The user is being promised something for free, but they are asked to supply information first. If you look closer it may appear as though something is being given away, but it is at a cost - your personal details.

Is registration really free, when it requires your personal details?
Is registration really free, when it requires your personal details?

Although writers will be horrified, people do not read your text, we scan, in an F-shaped pattern, looking for content that jumps out. With this in mind the Help section could be separated into sections, making it easier for the user to get the information they need without having to read through unnecessary text.

Simplified Help screen
A simplified help screen.

Of course there are many positives that I should point out - there are skip links to assist users using assistive technology, and the powerful boolean search produces very good results.