Paper presentation: Getting the Bigger Picture: An Evaluation of Media Exploratory Search and Narrative Creation

Sabrina Sauer co-presented a paper with Berber Hagedoorn at the DHBenelux conference hosted by Utrecht University  on the 4th of July. The paper, titled Getting the Bigger Picture: An Evaluation of Media Exploratory Search and Narrative Creation, is partially informed by insights gained during MediaNow’s second user panel meeting ( 24th of May 2017).

Abstract: Digital Humanities centres on questions that are raised by and answered with digital tools in the Humanities. At the same time, it interrogates the value and limitations of digital methods in Humanities’ disciplines. While it is important to understand how digital technologies can offer new venues for Humanities research, it is equally essential to understand – and therefore, being able to interpret – ‘the user side’ of Digital Humanities. Specifically, how Humanities researchers appropriate and domesticate search tools to ask and answer new questions, and apply digital methods. Previous user research in Digital Humanities concentrates on assessing, for example, how and why Digital Humanities benefits from studies into user needs and behaviour (Warwick, 2012), user requirement research, as well as participatory design research (Kemman & Kleppe, 2014).

Exploratory search is crucial for Humanities researchers who draw upon media materials in their research. Audio-visual, online and digital sources are in abundance, scattered across different platforms, and changing daily in our contemporary landscape. Supporting researchers’ explorations becomes even more important when scholars study media events. A ‘media event’ is an event with a specific narrative that gives the event its meaning, and is in contemporary societies increasingly recognized as non-planned or disruptive. Disruptive media events, such as the ‘sudden’ rise of populist politicians, terrorist attacks or environmental disasters, are shocking and unexpected, making them difficult to interpret. This leads to problems for media researchers who analyse how narratives construct different political, economic or cultural meanings around such events. Previous research argues that media events should always be viewed in relation to their wider political and sociocultural contexts. Events, as they unfold in the media, may correspond to long-term social phenomena, and the way in which such events are ‘constructed’ has particular connotations (Jiménez-Martínez, 2016). Specific actors (newscasters, governments, institutions) use media events to build narratives in line with their own political, economic or cultural purposes. Media researchers also build narratives around events; prior research underlines the importance of visualizing, constructing and storing of narratives during the information navigation to contextualize material (Akker et al., 2011; Kruijt, 2016; De Leeuw, 2012). Offering media researchers the ability to explore and create lucid narratives about media events therefore greatly supports their interpretative work.

This paper proposes to add to this body of research by presenting the insights of a cross-disciplinary user study that involves, broadly speaking, researchers studying audio-visual materials, in a co- creative design process, set to fine-tune and further develop a digital tool that supports Humanities’ research through exploratory search. This paper focuses on how researchers – in both academic as well as professional settings – use digital search technologies in their daily work practices to discover and explore digital audio-visual archival material. We focus specifically on three user groups, namely (1) Media Studies researchers, (2) Humanities researchers that use audio-visual materials as a source and (3) Media professionals. These user groups are the foreseen end users of the tool, because they create audiovisual narratives for their respective work purposes. We set-up co-creative design sessions with 74 participants (group 1: 24; group 2: 40; group 3: 10) to observe and reflect on the practices of media researchers in terms of how they interact with search tools to explore, access and retrieve digitized audio-visual material, in order to interpret, and in some cases, re-use this material in new audio-visual productions.

Methodology: In our user study, we employ a user-centred design methodology to evaluate and fine-tune the exploratory search tool DIVE+ media browser. It offers events-driven exploration of digital heritage material, where events are prominent building blocks in the creation of narrative backbones (De Boer et al., 2015) and links a variety of different media sources and collections. DIVE+ offers intuitive exploration of media events at different levels of detail. It connects media objects, subjects (“concepts”), events, and persons to aid in the formulation of research questions, and to contextualize the former into overarching narratives and timelines. Our main research question throughout the case study is how does exploratory search support media researchers in their study of how media events are constructed across different media and instilled with specific cultural or political meanings? To be able to answer this question, we study how media researchers construct navigation paths via exploratory search and – by means of user studies – evaluate the role of narratives in (1) learning and (2) research. In this process, we compare DIVE+ to other online search tools.

The user study observes media researchers as they use DIVE+ to explore media events, across 3 stages: (1) during research question formulation (2) DIVE+ use; and (3) comparative user evaluations of the DIVE+ browser, compared to other online search tools. The collected data, consisting of both qualitative – observational and focus group – data, as well as logging data gathered during user testing, provides insights about how media researchers search and explore digital audio-visual archives. We utilize a case study approach, which combines grounded theory (that fosters an understanding of how researchers interpret and create narratives) with usability methodologies, such as work task evaluations. This, first of all, allows us to draw conclusions about how search tools and digital technologies co-construct the researcher’s professional practice. Second, the data helps us probe the question how the ‘digitality’ of search and retrieval shapes the practice of media research, and, in extension of this, creative processes.

The research presented in this paper takes an interdisciplinary approach: it combines insights from Media Studies, as well as from Information Studies and Science and Technology Studies and integrates ideas about narrative creation, search practices, and overarching notions about how users and technologies co-construct meaning. Therefore the presented research does not focus on how Digital Humanities’ tools have an impact on researchers’ practices, but rather analyses how researchers make use of search tools. We subsequently (1) draw conclusions about scholarly practice and the role of search technologies for digitized audio-visual materials therein; and (2) present lessons learned on how to optimize the search tool that is used, in order to improve its performance.