The ‘Met’ experiment

INN533 – Information Organisation

WEEK TWO: Reflections on a user journey.

Observing a search effort by M. Stevens attempting to locate information about a work in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art (“the Met”) confirmed for me the main themes of the foundational readings for INN533. The Met online search function is limited to text and curatorial categories, no “advanced” search functionality, and no “help” section explaining how to search. Stevens, not an expert in art or search technology, faced what I regarded as a serious challenge in locating the print and information on it, working only from an untitled digital copy (figure 1).

Figure 1: the image for which more information was being sought.  Honoré Daumiere's 'The Connoisseur', c. 1860-1865.
Figure 1: the image for which more information was being sought. Honoré Daumiere’s ‘The Connoisseur’, c. 1860-1865.

My preparation included a limited set of questions about search methodology and responses to results, followed by prompters to continue addressing those questions throughout the search, as was suggested for a phenomenographic approach in Yates, Partridge & Bruce (2012), p.102. Moving from an initial optimism, apparently “using the tools as a filter” approach (Edwards and Bruce, 2006, pp. 362-364) to frustration about unhelpful results, Stevens exhibited a tenacity I had not expected. After 20 minutes of fruitless searching, she enlarged the image to try and decipher a signature she had spotted in the lower left corner, entering the first three letters, “dau”, and observed that the Met search marquee offered an autocomplete for a single name: Honoré Daumier. On selecting the offered name, and narrowing the search to results with images only, she finally found the work after a total search time of around 25 minutes (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Mood was matched with disappointing results and personal initiative in resolving the problem.
Figure 2: Mood was matched with disappointing results and personal initiative in resolving the problem.

Improvements to the Met search functionality might arise from “incorporating user evaluation into the design process first through a heuristic evaluation, followed by usability testing with a redesign of the product after each phase of evaluation” (Manzari & Trinidad-Christensen, 2006, p. 164). Better results might even have been achieved by “simply talking to people and attempting to recognize patterns” (Bell, 2008, p. 47).

The challenge for the Met in catering to inexpert searching is what Weedman (2008) referred to as an ill-defined or “wicked” problem (p. 114) in that matching free-form descriptive text (perhaps via meta data) to images is a proposition of the kind Rittel and Webber (1973) described as having no “definitive formulation” (pp. 161-162), no “stopping rule” (pp. 162), and no “ultimate test of effectiveness” (p. 163). In this wicked context it may be that the Met’s database and usability designers retreated from what Snowden and Boone (2007) described as “complicated” or “complex” task environments, instead addressing their task by customary methods, and allowing a desire for a quick resolution to overcome inclusion of non-expert user perspectives (p. 73) in the design and implementation stages.

So, while the existence of literature that points out these conflicting dimensions in information design and use is positive in that it directly demands a synthesis to resolve such conflicts, I am nevertheless inclined to side with Morville (2004), whose observation that he was “not convinced UCD [user centred design] exists outside the realm of theory” (para. 3) seems to remain valid almost ten years on.


Bell, S.J. (2008). Design Thinking. American Libraries, 39(1/2), 44-49.

Edwards, S.L., & Bruce, C.S. (2006). Panning for gold: Understanding students’ information searching experiences. In C.S. Bruce, G. Mohay, G. Smith, I. Stoodley & R. Tweedale (Eds.), Transforming IT education: Promoting a culture of excellence. (pp. 351-369). Santa Rosa, California: Informing Science Press.

Manzari, L., & Trinidad-Christensen, J. (2006). User-centered design of a web site for library and information science students: Heuristic evaluation and usability testing. Information Technology and Libraries, 25(3), 163-169.

Morville, P. (2004, June 21). User experience design [Web log post]. Retrieved from Retrieved from

Rittel, H.W.J., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Snowden, D.J., & Boone, M.E. (2007). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.

Weedman, J. (2008). Information Retrieval : Designing, Querying, and Evaluating Information Systems. In K. Haycock & B.E. Sheldon (Eds.), The portable MLIS: Insights From the Experts (pp. 112-126). Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.

Yates, C., Partridge, H., & Bruce, C. (2012). Exploring information experiences through phenomenography. Library and Information Research, 36(112), 96-119.

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