From Charter Data to Charter Presentation: Thinking about Web Usability in the Regesta Imperii Online

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Kuczera Andreas (Regesta Imperii, Gießen), Torsten Schrade (Digitale Akadmie, Mainz)
Since the late 1990s the Regesta Imperii Online (www.regesta-imperii.de) have provided open access to the full texts of its printed edition which dates all the way back to Johann Friedrich Böhmer and the year 1829. Up to today, the online edition comprises more than 80 printed volumes and a total of about 125.000 Regestae concerning the German Kings and Emperors from the Carolingians to Maximilian I. (ca. 715-1519). The dataset documents thus almost the complete charter production of the Holy Roman Empire.

Technology is moving fast and after 10 years of service the old Regesta Imperii web application is currently in the process of a complete rewrite. When dealing with a large data set like the Regesta Imperii classic questions from such fields as data mining, language processing and information retrieval immediately spring to mind. This seems to be a common tendency in digital humanities projects: The occupation with creating “new” approaches to complex textual data far outweighs the occupation with the necessary presentation layer for the data and the user experience in respect to this presentation layer. Due to this, digital humanities web applications are very often difficult to maintain and difficult to use. The excuse sometimes heard is that complex scientific data needs complex interfaces for interaction.

But this is a misconception. Web usability cannot be neglected ever since Steve Krug wrote his famous book “Don’t make me think. A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”. It should be high on the agenda for anyone working in the field of digital humanities. For the task of rewriting the Regesta Imperii Online the development team therefore decided to employ a TETO approach (“Test early, test often”). Using wireframes, mock-ups, click-dummies and UI testing the team tried to involve the scientific audience as early as possible. Instead of having a closed release phase, the team opted for a public beta version of the application to collect as much feedback as early as possible from the wider public.

In the four months since the start of the open beta in November 2012, about 70.000 users from 100 countries have visited the new application and generated about 420.000 clicks. 40.000 searches have been performed. Time to draw a line see if the original concept is working out.

Our presentation will focus on common approaches to web usability taking the Regesta Imperii Online as an example. Using the web statistics for the open beta version and some other user feedback we will analyse in which areas our development approach worked out and where we did not quite hit the target. This will lead to some general assumptions regarding web usability in digital diplomatics projects.

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