User Research Findings for Course Project

My project is inspired by the Facebook group “Growing Up in Old Redford.” Old Redford is a neighborhood in northwest Detroit and since I did, in fact, grow up there, I have been a member of this group for over a year. I don’t participate, but over the past year, I have noticed some drawbacks to hosting such a group on Facebook. The project for this class seeks to address some of these drawbacks. In my proposal, I envisioned a website to which users could submit photos and images; in the submission process, they could tag these with locations, dates, people, etc. so that other users could find and use them as well. Because I am a librarian, I also envisioned the site including links to related websites, digital collections, books, and articles.

Having done user research for library projects before, I have to note that this user research felt a bit constrained due to the deadline (and the awful work week I had last week). Generally I would want to conduct more, and more in-depth interviews and observations. Given the size of the current Facebook group (about 3,300 people), I would also consider doing a survey.

In some ways, my user research showed that my project ideas and plans were right on. My interviewee did not like the lack of contextual information (date, location, names) for photos and images. This was confirmed by my observation that users often ask for this sort of information when other users post pictures and images. One user, who frequently takes and posts photographs of the neighborhood, has even started to add some of this information to his posts in response to questions from other users. My observation also indicated that photos and images are the most common and also the most popular posts and that some users use these to create movies or slideshows.

In other ways, my user research suggested other roles my project could fulfill. My interviewee talked about how she liked to see things that she remembered from when she lived in the neighborhood. While posts with photos and images are the most popular, posts sharing memories of the neighborhood are also quite popular and garner a lot of responses. This suggests that perhaps my project should incorporate some element of collecting oral histories. I really like how the Bracero History Archive and Blackout History Project do this, and think the history of Old Redford would work well. Participants are dispersed and there is no larger institution collecting oral histories. Additionally, Detroit saw sweeping demographic and economic changes between 1950 and 2010 and I do think that would make these oral histories particularly interesting and valuable (John Hartigan does similar work in his book Racial Situations, but focuses on different neighborhoods).

If my project were more than a prototype, I would like to partner with the Detroit Public Library, which has a branch in Old Redford, similar to what Michael Frisch describes in “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back.” My observation showed that some of the most popular posts were recent photographs taken by a user and that representatives of neighborhood non-profit/activist groups have started participating in the group as well. My interviewee talked about “possibilities for the future” and I do get the sense that there is an interest in connecting with current residents and institutions, which could be done through the face-to-face dialogues Frisch describes. Alas, user research in this case points to really meaningful connections that are out-of-scope for a class project.

Finally, this is an issue that my user research revealed and the course readings touched on that I think is worthy of discussion but personally have no answers to. A lot of posts in the current Facebook group have a somewhat nostalgic approach to the history of Old Redford. This approach cannot really grapple with the neighborhood as it is currently, and so resorts to narratives that are locally popular but frankly inaccurate. Corbett and Miller’s article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” talks the tension between history and heritage, between how the public sees the past and how historians do, and gives examples of how specific projects negotiated (or did not negotiate) that tension. User research tells us what users want and are interested in, but how does that function with the (constantly negotiated and reflexive but still present) educational element of public history? I like Linda Shopes’s emphasis on integrating the local story with the broader story (quoted in Corbett and Miller) and would like to explore ways of doing that in my project. Even if users aren’t asking for it.

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