Ready to dive into a new online history project? You may want to pause for a second and make sure that you’ve considered all of the effort it will take before you begin. If you haven’t fully assessed all of the work necessary to complete a successful digital history project, you may be unpleasantly surprised when issues keep seemingly popping up. As a part of my Public History New Media course, I will be working with classmates to design an online exhibition. In preparation for beginning the project, I consider here some of the challenges we may face as we compose and complete the digital exhibit. Here are some “things to consider” when contemplating whether to take on the endeavor of beginning a digital project:
- Format and access: What platform will you be using? Will it be easy to maintain? Low in cost? User-friendly? Easy to modify and arrange to best serve your exhibit and the design you intend to implement? Is the platform viewable and usable across multiple devices? Does the platform appear to have longevity or will a new digital format soon replace it, making it obsolete or inaccessible to users? Will you allow full access to the site or limit it to subscribers? What are the benefits and risks of each option?
- Audience and content: Who is your targeted audience? Is your material and the format appropriate to their interest, age, and reading level? If the material is not appropriate for a young audience, do you need a disclaimer or a way to limit access? Is the material appropriate for sharing online to begin with? Are you overwhelming the user with too much information, images, graphics, colors, or things to click on? Is the site easily navigable or is a user prone to get lost in all the links and pages?
- Organization and design: How do you make your project interesting, informative, and engaging? Is the layout visually appealing? Will there be color and graphics? What fonts, font sizes, and font and theme colors will you choose to be most conducive to your theme and most attractive to the user? Will there be links to click on and other interactive activities to enhance learning? How will you display documents, images, text, and other material in an engaging and useful manner?
- Effectiveness and functionality: How do you replicate the physical space of a museum, or represent important three-dimensional aspects of an artifact? Is the collection conducive to digitization, or does the collection risk being damaged or losing value through digitizing it or presenting it online? Is the theme or collection you’ve chosen appropriate for display in an online format, or does a physical exhibit work better for conveying the themes, objects, etc.?
- User-friendliness and interactivity: To what extent will you invite audience participation? Will there be interactive activities on the site to reinforce the most important points of the exhibit? Will you allow visitors to leave comments? In what capacity? Will the invitation to comment be structured in some way, such as in the form of a specific question about the exhibit, or will it be open-ended? How will you implement these components? Will comments be moderated? To avoid repetition or an overabundance of text for users to read, will you select representative comments of a set of similarly-themed responses and delete the rest? Or will all comments go live? How will you screen for inappropriate comments and spam?
- Cost and personnel: What is your budget for the project, if any? What materials do you need and what do you already have on hand? Do you need to invest in digitizing equipment? Is there a cost for using the site or platform? Are you paying to reproduce copyrighted images or sources? Who will complete all these tasks? How many people will you need to assemble the project before its deadline? How much maintenance time will you need to dedicate after the site is live? Will you need to hire someone to do this work or to monitor the site? Do you need to outsource work? How much will this cost?
- Time: How long will it take to capture images and digitize files? To what extent will digital media need editing? How long will it take to research and write exhibit script, to cite sources, to format and edit the layout and content of the site, and to check that all links and other components are working once the project is ready to go live? What is your deadline for the project? How will you prioritize tasks into a manageable and organized schedule? How much maintenance will the site require after the project is live? How long will the site be live? Will the site, comments, etc., require monitoring and updating for the duration of the site’s life?
- Copyright: Are the objects, documents, or images you wish to display still copyrighted? Do you attribute knowledge to the appropriate sources, and indicate where users can access these sources? Will you copyright images you post for the sake of your project or the institution you represent, or allow open access? Will you limit users’ violation of copyright? If so, how? Is it possible to do so? What are the risks to your project or organization if an image or source of information is reproduced?
- Maintenance and sustainability: Will the site be live for a limited duration, or indefinitely? How long will you have to moderate and update the site? Will the site require maintenance after it goes live? Will you update the content as new research or material comes to light? To what extent will you need to keep up with changing platforms, so you don’t end up with a broken or dead site? How often will you check on the site for maintenance, broken links, or comment moderation? Daily, weekly, monthly, annually? When will opportunities for comments close? Ever? Will comments remain posted as long as the site is live? What level of maintenance is most appropriate to your project, in terms of its cost, your personnel, the number of interactives to maintain, and frequency of comments to moderate?
- Evaluation: How will you measure the effectiveness of your exhibit? Will you test it among colleagues and users who represent your audience before you make it live? What amount of remedial evaluation may be needed? Will you track how many people visit or use the site? Will you offer users the opportunity to evaluate the final product, perhaps through an online survey? To how many people will you administer this evaluation, and what time and personnel will be needed to analyze the results? What action will you take based on the results?
Starting a digital project is a more complex and lengthy undertaking than many assume. Creators must take several components into consideration before providing access to an online site. This is certainly not a comprehensive list of all factors needed to implement a successful evaluation project, but they are important starting points to address as you get the ball rolling.
Featured image copyright Kelly Schmidt.