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Ari’s Interface Critique: FindAGrave.com and User Group Activation

Screen Shot 2014-04-09 at 1.57.41 AMFor my interface critique I examined a purposefully rather outdated web archive called FindAGrave.com. This site is a massive database containing  location data, photographs, and basic biographical data of actual physical graves from cemeteries all over the world. Much of this data has been further enhanced with user-created additions, called “memorials” that contain even more biographical data and photographs of the person when living. Users may also “leave a flower,” usually an animated .GIF image chosen from a massive database of different signifiers available, including sparkle flowers, snowmobiles, and horses.

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FindAGrave.com is not a beautiful web site, or even one streamlined for simple use. They have a staff of seven. But they have millions of activated members who use the site regularly and have for years with only very basic functionality. How has FindAGrave.com managed to engage so many users to create and promote content without giving them the cushy plush design,  optimized for the modern web? Many archives yearn for this level of user engagement. What can we learn from the design and format of FindAGrave.com that we can apply to our projects with the digital humanities for use cases where we want to get our user involved with our content.

1. Find the personal (or famous) connection.

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A large part of what FindAGrave.com does is provide something like an online social media profile for the dead, with an open wall for the bereaved to post. One of the biggest reasons for posting on a friend’s wall on Facebook is their birthday; FindAGrave provides the post-mortem equivalent. It also allows fans to interact with people they never knew, but as every fan club leader knows, the illusion of knowing a famous person is often felt just as , if not more deeply than actually knowing them.

FindAGrave.com also allows users to collect groups of graves together and call them “virtual cemeteries,” giving users the opportunity to organize their lists by any sort of criteria they determine. Many people make lists that resonate with them personally or that they think might be popular with or useful for the informaton-seeking public, i.e. “Victims of the Deepwater Horizon Tragedy.”

How can other archives use this to their advantage? First of all, they could prioritize metadata as it relates to names of people, attempting to categorize that more fully, and making sure that objects are searchable by person name. In online platforms, people could also have a sort of landing page, even if they are connected to several different types of objects; these landing pages could be collected in a light box or other individual categorizing device.

2. Integrate text into navigation, especially for tools.

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Without directly contacting the people who run FindAGrave.com, I can’t know why they don’t update their look and feel. It’s possible that they would very much like to, but have focused their funds on server space and staff. Perhaps they don’t see a need to redesign: if people are still happily using the site, why does it need an update? The latter idea is rather counterintuitive to many professional web development teams today, who emphasize agile, lean, iterative development, where new features are introduced constantly, one at a time, all over the site, so that users can become accustomed to them.

What we can know is that the completely text-based navigation on the site works. There are no images or icons used for tools anywhere on the site. Every button is either a browser standard button or a slightly stylized tab. Text links are used to navigate from category to category.

It may seem obvious, but as we saw in the demonstrations of the New School’s Digital Archives site, icons can get easily lost in the shuffle. They can be too small, or blend in with other site features. Their functions can be unclear (“Does the magnifying glass make it zoom in, or does it show you the metadata?”).

The downside is that you have to be careful with word choice and make sure to choose words that will matter to your audience. Since both physical graves and FindAGrave.com have a rather limited set of actions, this isn’t as much of a problem, but in more complicated archives, finding these activating words should probably be a process in which user testing plays a significant role.

3. People create content with the hope that others will find it.

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Users can submit their own graves to FindAGrave.com, and on the page that allows this interaction, the administrators of the site have found it necessary to issue a pitch:

“Why submit names to Find A Grave? In a word: Exposure. Over 3 million people per month are searching our database so the names you submit will definitely be seen, visited and remembered for years to come.”

This promise, that the sites will be visited and seen by others, is inherent to the success of the site. It’s a rather empty promise; other people will only look at the new grave if their search sends them there.  But this small amount of encouragement is apparently all that some people need to put in massive amounts of legwork. Some of the top users of FindAGrave.com have created hundreds of thousands of memorials, apparently only in exchange for “exposure.” What these users also get is the opportunity to be a part of an online community that forms around the hobby of obtaining this specific type of exposure.

I don’t think that archives should promise that their users will obtain great notoriety and/or great riches simply  by interacting with the materials online. However, emphasizing in site copy that user-generated content will be seen by someone – even just a digital archivist or site administration – might persuade many people to curate, create, and submit content to digital archives.