Module A3: Who is the project designed for?

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Designated Communities

Since the late 1990s, the professional digital preservation community has been working with, and iterating on, a large-scale reference model for their work called OAIS (the Open Archival Information System). OAIS offers a “10,000-foot” view onto the process of producing a professional-grade preservation infrastructure designed to maintain digital assets under the strictest standards of persistence.

Many of the activities we ask you to perform in the course of the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap have the OAIS model in mind. While we certainly do not expect digital project managers to undertake, or even to keep in mind, the full scope of activities assigned to digital preservation professionals within OAIS, we believe that the more your work aligns with it, the better.

One of the central concepts embedded within OAIS is that of the “designated community.” Designated communities are those groups of people that are proactively kept in mind while making the inevitable onslaught of decisions it takes to preserve digital information for the long-term. Effective digital preservation is often a case of making informed decisions about what should be preserved and what can be left to the past, and it is best to be very mindful of who you are making these decisions for. You will be introduced to another OAIS concept, “Significant Properties,” in Module A4 that confronts these issues directly.

Within the OAIS model itself, the concept of designated communities is not without issues. While there is little resistance to the notion that it is not feasible to design a system that will effectively serve every single person on the planet equitably forever more, the very act of intentionally excluding any possible audience is a less-than-ideal state of affairs for a profession as committed to accessibility as digital preservation.

Nevertheless, through the concept of designated communities, OAIS acknowledges that the task at hand simply cannot be to design a system that meets every single possible person’s information needs, present and future. Indeed, from the point-of-view of a project creator, the notion of designated communities aligns well with the notion of a user-oriented digital humanities design process.

You will almost certainly have a certain audience in mind as you design and develop your digital project. The purpose of this module is to ask you to put words to your assumptions about who you would like for your audience to be, and to articulate what you would like for them to get out of your work.

It is also worth noting that, at the end of the day, should your project eventually be transferred to a professional data steward, they will be very interested to hear what you believed your own designated communities to have been, and will be able take that information into consideration as they design their own ongoing preservation plan.

Usability Testing

We have found that users are relatively flexible and adaptable, but they can also be agents of change. That is, their expected and unexpected needs can indeed end up changing your approach, making your work more accessible, impactful, and attuned to current audiences. But this positive feedback loop can easily remain invisible to project managers unless you end up with very vocal new audiences.

In order to find out how people are interacting with your work, we suggest you perform consistent usability testing on your site, perhaps even on a similar three-year cycle to the Roadmap. While this work is beyond the scope of the Roadmap itself, we highly encourage you to learn more about what it takes to run such a study. It need not be incredibly time- and/or resource-intensive. Some work can be done through an investigation of the web analytics you may be already gathering. Other types of information can be gleaned by survey, and yet further details can be gathered by interviewing specific people with particularly intriguing uses of your project.

Two fantastic resources for learning about the process of usability testing are:

  1. Barnum, Carol, Usability Testing Essentials – Ready, Set…Test! Elsevier, 2011. Online version available at:
  2. “User-Centered Design Basics,”, last modified June 21, 2017,

Unexpected Communities

However, as is so often the case, what we predict will come to pass rarely equates to the reality of our lived experiences. Especially if your project is web-based, it is common sense that unexpected audiences might very well engage with your work for a variety of reasons you cannot predict.

Indeed, user studies performed as part of the research for the Socio-Technical Sustainability Roadmap have suggested that the more varied, and sometimes unexpected, the audiences for web-based projects are, the more sustainable they might become. In brief, this is because the ongoing engagement of different user communities spurs additional thinking on the part of the project team, driving attention towards what the project needs. These findings are consistent with those published by Fred Gibbs and Trevor Owens in 2012 in their work, “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools” (see “Survey of Existing Practices”).

Additional Resources

Barnum, Carol. Usability Testing Essentials – Ready, Set…Test! Elsevier. 2011.

Bettiva, Rhiannon S. “The Power of Imaginary Users: Designated Communities in the OAIS Reference Model.” ASIST 2016 (2016).

Gibbs, Fred and Trevor Owens. “Building Better Digital Humanities Tools.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 6 (2012).

Lavoie, Brian.”Meeting the Challenges of Digital Preservation: The OAIS Reference Model.” OCLC Research, 2000.

Rubin, Jeffrey and Dana Chisnell. Handbook of Usability Testing : How to Plan, Design, and Conduct Effective Tests. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2008.

“User-Centered Design Basics.” Last modified June 21, 2017.

(Module last updated March 2018)

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