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7. Users

This article has highlighted some of the many web-sites that provide content about the historic environment available to users (see the examples in sections 1, 2, 4 and 6), and initiatives which are beginning to enable the development of web-portals. Standards, protocols, semantics, terminology control and agreements between people, all support interoperability and aid systems development but the systems themselves are used by people and understanding their needs is an important factor in the development.

Despite the importance of the human-computer interface to IT systems development, until recently little was known about the actual users of on-line systems. Significant sums have been invested (by government agencies, the National Lottery, the Higher Education Funding Councils and the European Union) in digitising content to make it available on the Web, and increasingly organisations are recognising that they need to know more about what the users of this content actually want (Miller et al. 2002). HEIRNET members also recognised the need for information about their audience (see Baker et al. 2000), and in 2002 consultants were commissioned to undertake a survey of 'Users and their Uses of HEIRs'. This useful and informative study benefited from the quantitative and qualitative data that has been collected by individual HEIRs about their users (the data included web-site user statistics, the results of on-line and off-line questionnaire surveys, focus group studies and direct user consultation) identifying common messages, trends and issues that are of importance to HEIRs (Cultural Heritage Consortium 2002). Importantly the report makes recommendations for developing understanding of users, and non-users, in the future.

The findings of the HEIRNET user study will play a part in the future development of HEIRPORT. This is, after all, a relatively new service (HEIRPORT was launched at the British Archaeological Awards lecture in January 2002) and is still viewed as a working prototype. In its first nine months as a live service HEIRPORT received about 100,000 'hits' from users, a relatively low number which reflects low-key advertising of the site. HEIRPORT's audience is expected to increase with time. In comparison, in the same nine-month period the ADS catalogue received around 2 million direct 'hits' and the other web-resources made available through HEIRPORT each have significant independent audiences. Analysis of web-statistics for these sites reveals how their audiences have developed and shows that the user-base has grown at rates of 70–100% per annum (Cultural Heritage Consortium 2002). Although this growth is not expected to continue to increase at the same rate there is evidence to suggest the potential audience for historic environment resources is potentially very large indeed. For example, when the 1901 census was launched on-line by the Public Record Office it is reported to have received 1 million hits within a few days.

HEIRPORT is primarily intended to serve specialists rather than a popular audience and HEIRNET does not anticipate that its audience will grow to the same level as that of the 1901 Census. HEIRPORT is designed as a research aid, providing an index to data and collections that are held by others, and HEIRNET anticipates that it will become increasingly valuable to users as the number of databases that are targeted increases. However, HEIRNET recognises the need to find out more about HEIRPORT's users and their needs and is currently considering ways of evaluating the service. In the meantime, readers of this article are invited to send any comments about HEIRPORT (or the HEIRNET Register) to Kate Fernie.

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Last updated: Tue Feb 18 2003