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Cross-cultural User Research: An Example From Finland

By Molly Schwartz

Large-scale cultural heritage aggregations are designed to open up access to library, archives, and museum collections on a massive scale by making them freely available on the web. Professionals in the field, active enthusiasts, and members of the general public have already been building up and benefiting from digital platforms that reduce physical or geographic barriers to collections and scale to accommodate millions of users. But despite the promise of reaching users across vast geographic distances with the click of a button, most large-scale collections remain tied to institutions with a location-based identity (such as countries or regions): the Digital Public Library of America (USA), Europeana (EU), Finna (Finland), and Trove (Australia). So the question becomes, can institutions that traditionally served and were funded by populations that have certain linguistic, cultural, and civic commonalities create truly transnational digital portals that serve a diverse global audience? If so, how? This is what I went to Finland to explore.

As a Fulbright grantee stationed in Helsinki at the National Library of Finland and the Aalto University Media Lab, I have been studying and observing Finna, a web portal funded and managed as part of the Finnish Ministry of Culture and Education’s National Digital Library (NDL) project. There are several factors that make Finna unique among comparable services.

The aim is to provide access to all the materials and services of Finnish libraries, archives, and museums through one interface. Partly because of its small size and centralized structure, Finland is taking a more holistic and comprehensive approach to its work than are other digital collections. The possibility of a one-stop shop where visitors can access materials in any library, repository, or museum in Finland through a single search service has an obvious appeal for users who want access to high-quality trusted materials with the ease of access that commercial search engines provide. As the service only launched in October 2013, not all Finnish organizations have been incorporated yet, but the aim is to add all organizations as development continues.

Another major benefit of creating a more centralized service is that patrons can perform actions that they normally conduct on the websites of individual libraries or library systems, such as renew materials or pay fines, through one site. It is also possible to see if materials are available in physical format at branch locations through the portal, making it less focused on purely digital artifacts.

These design decisions, though ambitious, were strategic and core to the Finna concept. According to Heli Kautonen, head of services at the National Library of Finland, what makes libraries, archives, and museums special and useful are their treasure troves of trustworthy content. Therefore, it is important that Finna make it a priority from the beginning to create a system that incorporates all the content in Finnish cultural heritage institutions. The back-end standardization and interoperability work is considerable, but it is crucial to Finna’s raison d’être.

The possibility of transcending national and geographic borders to reach audiences across the globe is an especially rich opportunity for Finland. Physically remote, small in population size, and advanced in technical and civic infrastructure, Finland is the perfect candidate for innovative digitization. Finna makes it possible for users anywhere to access Finnish materials online that they would not be able to access in person, and it allows Finnish libraries, archives, and museums to reach audiences that would have otherwise been equally inaccessible.

I chose Finna as the testing ground for my Fulbright grant because I believed that Finna has the potential to meet the usability and accessibility needs of a diverse global audience. Usability, user experience, and inclusion have been fundamental values of the Finna project since inception and these values are enforced with regular testing, a usability working group, and two full-time interaction designers on staff. With a mandate to provide all services in both Finnish and Swedish, and a nearly ubiquitous practice of also providing English language translations on most websites, Finland is more advanced than many other countries in creating a multilingual digital environment. Therefore the goals of my project were to determine through user research where barriers to access exist for Finna users who are not Finnish natives and to identify particular strengths of the Finnish web portal that other projects could adopt as best practices.

Through a round of surveys and interviews with students and professors of Finnish studies at universities in the United States, it became clear that portals such Finna make it easier to find open content from a particular region and reduce legal and technical complexities, such as geo-blocking, that students have experienced.

While conducting remote user-experience testing on the national view of the Finna interface, it was fascinating to observe that U.S. students struggled with the language barrier. Despite the option to view the site in English by clicking links located in the upper right corner of the homepage, one student exclaimed “Ahh, all Finnish, scary!” and another never found the link, having grown accustomed to the seamless, automatic translate feature of Google Chrome. A professor explained that she has to teach students that they can access English language options on Finnish websites by clicking on a British flag—an action that many Americans do not find intuitive.

The promise of unfettered access to cultural heritage in new ways has injected the cultural heritage field with a sense of promise, excitement, and hope for the future akin to the efforts to create a universal library at the turn of the twentieth century or the widespread adoption of the Internet in the 1990s. The digital library model is a balance between the curated, centralized, structured model of traditional libraries / archives / museums and the freewheeling, decentralized, distributed model of content creation and discovery on the web. Different countries or regions are navigating the balance differently.

Finland’s model is markedly different from the decentralized content hubs that make up the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). It would be interesting to conduct a reverse study on how Finnish students experience DPLA and compare the results. For projects with broad user bases that are striving for digital inclusion, further transnational user research studies and collaboration could be a part of the solution.

Molly Schwartz is a Fulbright scholar in Finland at the Aalto University Media Lab and the National Library of Finland. She first traveled to Helsinki as the 2012 recipient of CLIR’s Rovelstad Scholarship in International Librarianship.

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