Because digital art historians work on projects that span both the traditional analog and modern digital realms, our projects must combine techniques from a variety of disciplines in order to be successful—i.e., to be usable, useful, and relevant. That’s one of the main reasons the field is highly interdisciplinary.

One type of research we do to ensure our projects are successful is qualitative research. There are many different types of qualitative studies and many different applications for their findings. In part because it varies so much in how it’s conducted, qualitative research is often dismissed in academic and scientific circles as being too fluffy. But, as Kristen Carter (user experience designer for the Getty Research Institute) can tell you, results from a fine-tuned qualitative study are far more than just fluff. Often they mean the difference between a major fail and a game-changing success. By identifying the project’s target audience and those people’s needs, desires, and pain points–rather than by designing blindly based on institutional standards or pressures–researchers and designers can mitigate losses of time, money, and resources. All technologies, including art historical research technologies and software, need human (i.e., user) input much earlier in the process than we usually expect.

Here’s Kristen to break it all down.

Anyone Can Do UX Research, On Any Budget

As a discipline, User Experience (UX) design is relatively new, but examples of “proto-UX”—such as ergonomics—appear as far back as the fifth century BCE. Even today, modern UX still shares many of the same principles as ergonomics.

Whether you’re building the optimal workspace for a fifth-century stone mason, a website for provenance research, or a greener hybrid car, everyone and everything benefits from good UX design. The methodologies behind and the intent of UX mean that, in all three of these examples, UX designers want the user to not only easily navigate and use the product, but also to feel good using it.

Both the user and the organization benefit when you invest time into identifying what your users need, so it’s never too early to start generating feedback.

Qualitative user feedback extrapolated from the user interviews and user testing of early prototypes can tell you whether your product is something people will actually use. Take Google Glass, for example. The technology was impressive, but Google expected users to just incorporate the glasses in their everyday life without identifying what problem it was they were trying to solve. Had they tested an early conceptual prototype on their users to gather and analyze qualitative data, engineers at Google would have figured out pretty quickly that the glasses were cumbersome, aesthetically unappealing, and more surprising, that people found them to be a pretty creepy invasion of privacy. Knowing these pitfalls early on, instead of waiting until your product is released, will ultimately save you and your organization time and money—while also getting you closer to a product your users actually want.

At this point you might be thinking that user research and testing sounds great, but you don’t have a lot of time—or you are wondering how to budget for this on a shoestring. Let me reassure you, you can accomplish a lot with virtually no budget. The first project I worked on at the Getty was under a tight deadline, so some of my insights had to be taken from user interviews I had done for other projects, when they were applicable. But most of my user research was done simply by reading: pouring over Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think and scanning many of the UX blogs I follow (Smashing Magazine, UX Booth, and, of course, Nielsen Norman Group, to name a few) to get examples of successful user interface features and designs. Perusing online systems like the one I was tasked to design also proved invaluable—and was totally free.

A ven diagram showing two sets - things on the front page of a university website, and things people are looking for. Only the university's full name is common to both sets.

Every UX designer’s favorite cartoon:
University Website by Randall Munroe. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. Source:

What if you have an existing product and you’re wondering why something that was previously successful has stopped working as it did a few years ago? To that I say, user expectations change as technology advances. Something that is good and exciting and fast today might be old and boring and slow tomorrow. You do not know things until you know things. The design process is there to shed light on problems with your product and system, and to tell you what your users want. If you are only able to talk to one user for just one hour, you will still get insights that can yield significant results. One test is better than no test, so focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot.

The top 5 things to know before getting started in UX research are:

  1. Enter with a beginner’s mindset.
  2. Be curious. Ask “why” for everything.
  3. Have empathy for all users and colleagues affected by or involved in the project.
  4. Collaborate with your team.
  5. Ideas are disposable: generate and test as many as possible.

At the end of the day, people do not want to think about how something should work or what it is meant for. They just want to complete a task and feel good about it. The best, most in-depth explanatory text will never help them as much as an intuitive user interface will. After all, people will not remember what you say. They will remember how you make them feel.

Easy Techniques for Qualitative Research in Digital Art History Work

When working with virtually no budget, I recommend utilizing what’s around you. More likely than not, you are surrounded by potential users. While you can do a lot of basic user research online, you really need a physical person to look at your product or prototype. So ask a coworker or scholar if they would be willing to take some time to look at your design and give feedback. You will be amazed at how many people are willing to do this. As potential users, most often they want their voices heard. Buy them a coffee, ask them questions, and show them designs if you have them. Spend as much time with them as they are willing to give.

My Favorite Questions for User Interviews

While user testing on prototypes and other designs can be done almost anywhere, it’s ideal to conduct user interviews in the user’s workspace. If that’s not possible or they’re located off-site, you can interview them over Skype, or whatever screen-sharing tool you prefer. It’s important to see where your users are and how they interact with their environment. They will feel more relaxed in their workspace and it will be easier for them to show you examples of their workflow, the tools they use, and the issues they encounter. Before you leave, get a tour of their space. Point out the notebook you spotted or the their drawer full of scans they closed as you walked in, or the printouts taped to their walls. You just might find an interesting habit, tool, or resource they forgot to mention or didn’t think was important when they were going over their daily workflow.

A computer screenshot shows a window with a smiling woman at a desk over a list of interview questions.

User interviews can be performed remotely with video-conferencing software to see how members of your audience interact with their environment.

In user interviews, your goal is to find out as much as you can about what they do every day. What they are trying to accomplish? How? And what are their pain points? Some of my favorite questions to ask, that can be used in almost every interview, are:

  • “What was the first thing you did when you sat down today?”
  • “What makes a good day?”
  • “What tasks currently waste your time?”
  • “If you had a magic tool that could help you with your work, what would it do?”

And then continue to ask why. Ask “why” until it’s uncomfortable for both of you. Dig as deep as you can, without being disrespectful of course. The goal is to develop an empathetic understanding of the user as a whole person and their goals, motivations, frustrations, and digital habits.

Testing Design Prototypes Step by Step

The next important step is getting feedback during the design phase. It’s important for the user to know that you are not testing them; rather, you are testing your design to make sure it’s usable and desirable. As soon as you show them the design, ask, “What is the first thing you notice?” This will tell you the dominant part of the screen and what draws their eye.

Now move on to questions such as, “What do you think you can do on this site/app?” Here you are trying to deduce what their first impressions are and if they know what they’re trying to do on the system you designed.

Paper with a sketch of a website appears through a cardboard model of a tablet device and hands tap items on the screen and move the paper.

A paper prototype is an inexpensive and agile way to allow users to test an interface design.

Once first impressions are captured, you want to figure out if the interaction you designed is what they expect. Ask them how they think specific elements on the page would work and what they mean, what they can click/tap and why, where they expect a specific element would take them if they clicked on it, and what they would see on the subsequent screen—but don’t tell them how it “should” work. If they don’t know how something will work, it’s likely a lot of other people won’t, either.

Remember, you are not teaching them. Your goal is to approach your product with a beginner’s mindset in order to learn how a potential user thinks it will work. From there, unpack the feedback, get down to the need behind the requirement, iterate, and repeat.

Keep in mind that users only know what they know. I often hear from users, “I wish I were able to _________, but that seems impossible.” And I always like to say, in theory, anything is possible. As a product creator, it’s your job to show them what is possible.

Here’s a small example of this. We are currently working on remodeling the Getty Provenance Index, a system that has existed for 30 years and is used by thousands of researchers. Every user we interviewed in our user research praised the Provenance Index for being such an invaluable resource. I do not disagree. It offers a wealth of important and useful information. But the system itself is outdated, and every one of those users had their own workarounds and hacks to find the information they needed. For example, when they searched for an artist’s name in the “artist name” field, they did not get the results they needed. But if they entered the artist’s name into the “keyword search,” they got results. The users mostly wanted to “fix” the non-functioning field. When I showed my initial design with a single search bar where you could enter as many keywords as you wanted and retrieve the desired results, they were thrilled.

Top 5 Tips for UX Research

Based on my experience with user research, here are my top five tips for getting started, on no budget.

  1. Speak to someone. Getting feedback from a real human being is essential for understanding what users need from and think about a tool.
  2. Prototype your idea. Don’t invest a ton of money and time developing a fancy model to show people. In reality, a paper prototype should do the trick. Use them for online tools or products when possible, and test these out with potential users.
  3. Compare your project to similar, successful projects. Most likely the makers of that project did user research and got the feedback you might not have time or money for. Learn from their failures and successes.
  4. Utilize free, web-based design tools. There are lots of resources available online. For example, Balsamiq is a great, open-source wireframing software.
  5. Read UX blogs. Knowledge is power.