Finding Aid User Research for the University of Maryland Libraries

TL;DR: The University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives was changing to a new finding aid, ArchivesSpace, for users to search through available materials. As part of a team for a class project, I conducted user research, including an interview, a usability test, analysis for the surveys and usability tests, and creating a persona and journey map.

Challenge | Approach | Results | Tools + Methods


The University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives was changing to a new finding aid, ArchivesSpace, to replace the current homegrown system not-so-affectionately called “The Beast.” (A finding aid is how users “search” a special collection or archive, as they can consist of a wide range of materials from photographs to diaries to letters and musical scores, and so there is no uniform way to catalog them as there are for books.) Prior to the public launch of the tool (planned for early 2019), the University of Maryland Libraries sought to conduct usability testing but lacked the staff resources.


I was part of a team that needed to conduct user research for a class project (INFM605: Users and Use Context, at the University of Maryland’s iSchool). Two of our team members worked at the libraries, which is how we came to take on this project. The team included Carlos Alvarado, Anne Hendrick, and Melissa Wagner-Riston.

The class project required the following components:

  • Surveys (5 responses)
  • Interviews (2 participants who had not completed the survey)
  • Usability tests (3 participants who had not done the survey or interviews)
  • Personas (2 primary, 1 secondary, 1 excluded)
  • Customer journey map (1)
  • Research Report
  • Presentation

As a team, we decided to use the surveys and interviews to better understand our primary and secondary users—their research goals, processes, and behaviors. Development of guides, questions, and many aspects of this project were very iterative and we split up many tasks as well either based on background experience or contacts and so that everyone had a fair share and equal opportunity to gain experience with various techniques.

My specific contributions to the project included the following:

  • General project management – I set up a team Slack channel, created an initial project timeline, and scheduled and facilitated some of the team meetings.
  • Recruiting – I recruited one of the interview participants.
  • Surveys – I helped draft the survey questions and set up the online survey in Google Forms. I also analyzed the survey data for the final report and presentation.
  • Interviews – Together with a teammate, I conducted one of the interviews virtually using Zoom.
  • Usability tests – I conducted a remote usability test, again using Zoom. I also created the template for collecting data and observations on usability tasks.
  • Personas – I developed one of the primary personas, for a graduate student.
  • Customer journey map – I developed the content for the customer journey map, although a teammate designed the visual.
  • Report/Presentation – I wrote the sections on the participant profiles and the usability test results.
  • Presentation – I created the slides for the participant profiles and the usability test results, in addition to presenting.


Overall, we found that the ArchivesSpace finding aid was headed in the right direction, but that there were still opportunities for improvement in how easily users could complete certain common tasks. We shared a number of recommendations with the UMD Libraries, although we are not sure how many are feasible for the planned early 2019 rollout.

Here is the persona I developed (visual design by Anne Hendrick):

I also developed much of the content for this journey map (visual design by Anne Hendrick):

And here are some of the slides and analysis I did for the presentation (visual design by Anne Hendrick):

Tools + Methods

  • Project management
  • Surveys
  • Interviews
  • Usability tests
  • Zoom