In reviewing the dhq website, “an open-access, peer-reviewed, digital journal covering all aspects of digital media in the humanities,” it is apparent that a rich resource of current and diverse thinking is tethered to a traditionalist and outdated expression of academic online publishing. From the information hierarchy to the interface, this website does not take advantage of best practices in facilitating the easy access to the rich collection it houses.
Although this type of website may feel familiar and comfortable to academics who began their careers in an earlier wave of online expression, newer scholars, digital natives, are accustom to sites that take advantage of UX/UI learnings over the past decades to address user needs and behaviors and apply design principles that signify relevance, active participation in the larger online world, and promote engagement.
Main Navigation: This tool serves as the primary framework that users engage with to understand the contents of the site, and it also communicates what the creators have decided merits attention based on what they understand their objects and user needs to be. Typically when landing on a site, users need to gain understanding of where it is they have landed—what is the purpose of the site? Who is shaping this site? The order of options on the main navigation of dhq suggests that before knowing about the publication itself or who is involved in it, users should be concerned with guidelines to submit. From an outside observer this can suggest that the publication is lacking in sufficient submissions and soliciting new work is imperative or, alternatively, assumes that academics are most concerned with having work published, considering it is seen as a legitimizing activity. Either way, this prominent placement on the navigation feels unseemly. In contrast, non-profits typically don’t place the donate button before the who and why of their organizations. That is not to say it does not have prominence, and following non-profit convention of creating an alternative treatment that both draws attention to the action of submitting, but maintains the prominence of the publications existing content and underlying philosophies may serve the dhq site well.
Issue Navigation: Presumably, this navigation should provide entry points into the evolving conversation, and provide insight into the overarching themes that the editors chosen to showcase. This would provide users with a layer of understanding to help navigate the many areas of inquiry in the field. However, on the dhq site the issues are simply arranged by date—giving indication of the themes revealed only after arbitrarily clicking into a dated link. If you are not a user arriving with a specific inquiry in mind, the search tool is rendered useless, and the lengthly scroll of dates becomes overwhelming and obtuse. It’s akin to offering someone an anthology where each chapter is simply a page number, requiring you to flip to that page to know what the chapter covered. Using only dates to indicate each issue is also a missed opportunity to cross-pollinate thinking—to invite users, many of whom may have come to the site with a specific understanding or area of knowledge, to explore new perspectives.
Orienting The User
- Issues: Each issue has a theme only revealed when you click on its issue date. Once on the issue landing page, however, you are required to click again into the “front matter” to better understand the intention and process behind the issue. Some issues do not have a theme, and simply list an “articles” section—negating the convention of the others. In both cases, the issue landing page would benefit from a quick (2-4 sentence) summary from the editor(s) to both humanize the issue theme and set the stage for deeper understanding. In a sense, the issue landing page is the quarterly cover— which even in the more traditional publishing world typically include some kind of indication of what’s to come.
- About DHQ: This page should help orient the user to the overarching perspective and structure of the publication. It does include key information, but it might benefit the creators to reconsider the order in which they present it. Technical and contextual information about the publication seem to be intermingled in a way that doesn’t suggest a progression to build up the users understanding. For example, it might benefit the user to read through “DHQ on Digital Humanities” before getting information on public indexes and source code. It’s also confusing that the technical overview section does not also encompass the sub-topic related to “getting DHQ Data” vs. having that section stand alone. The current hierarchy raises questions about the definitions of the term “technical” as seen by the creators. There also seems to be a missed opportunity to cross promote other portions of the site. Having learned more about the structure and purpose of the publication, it would make sense to be invited, as a user, to find out more about submitting, or have a carousel promoting recent articles that exemplify the purpose delineated on the page.
- DHQ People: This page is meant to give insight into the folks who bring the publication to life. It’s worth noting that the publication’s statement on BLM and Structural Racism does not appear on the page where it’s actual personnel structure is listed, and there are no images of the people behind the publication to give a preliminary indication of the diversity of the staff. In addition, providing images of staff and contributors would act as an encouraging signal to those entering the space if they were to see images of people who may resemble them. Simply stripping away any human representation (ironic in the humanities), creates a faceless cold index driven experience and misses opportunities for greater community building and collaboration.
Overall, the dhq website is aesthetically uninviting and feels like a missed opportunity to collaborate with design professionals who would bring their own expertise to help create a more compelling and engaging experience. The site as a whole could benefit from more modern and thought out branding elements including an updated logo, typography, palette, and images. A more sophisticated typographic treatment would help reinforce hierarchy, while an updated palette and imagery would better set the tone and indicate cultural awareness. Increased usage of images, in particular, would help infuse energy and a sense of vitality into the presentation of these deeply engaging conversations. Each issue with a theme, for example, could benefit from images that help bring the area of exploration into relief.
It is true, simple mastery of basic coding skills does create enormous potential and opportunity for sharing information quickly and easily. The dhq site does an extraordinary job of gathering and presenting the writings of a wide range of DH scholars and thinkers and serves as an impressive resource. However, the site also exemplifies a common occurance on many academic pages. These sites are often set up with an uneven emphasis on their underlying indexes and neglect the needs of the user and front end design conventions to facilitate efficient and frictionless access to information. Everything from the site architecture and mapping, including the hierarchy on each page, to the fonts and colors impact the user’s experience. Done well, these elements can create a welcoming hub that users choose to return to, and even make into a “third space,” done badly and it can render a site a chore to navigate and only accessed in times of immediate research based need. In considering the building of DH tools, creators must invest in the user’s experience. Perhaps the strict formats and conventions of earlier scholarly publishing has influenced the current online expressions, but in order to take full advantage of the internet’s potential a new approach is required. As a tool, the internet provides incredible opportunity to positively impact both academic and public engagement—leading to richer and more varied outcomes. Besides, scholars like easily navigable and aesthetically pleasing things too!
It’s possible that lack of funding for a front end design collaborator limited this site’s front end outcomes, but hopefully it was not a case of these skills being deemed unnecessary. UX/UI and front end design funding should be included in grant proposals and presented as imperative, because the resulting digital expressions will better reflect the energy and sense of possibility inherent to Digital Humanities.
Some sample resources that successfully use front end design and structuring to impart varied and rich long for content: