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Our history, up close and personal

April 15th, 2013 By Zef Fugaz

Lifelines, the National Library’s massive touch table, gathers a vast collection of documents, artworks, videos and photographs, and makes them touchable.

The idea was to create a way for the public to connect with the content housed in the various Library collections. It centred on presenting the content in ways that are personally relevant to the user, in order to first get their attention through triggering memories and making connections with them.

Here we explore how Click Suite, working in collaboration National Library of New Zealand, turned the idea into reality.

Unidentified man inspecting a photo finish record with a magnifying glass
Unidentified man inspecting a photo, 1959. Ref: EP/1959/0917-F.

A star feature is the table’s deep zoom interface, allowing you to reach into New Zealand history in a whole new way. For now it’s as close as you’ll get to the Esper photo analysis scene in the sci-fi classic Blade Runner.

Lifelines doesn’t have an Esper-like refraction bender, but the richness of the Library’s collection – coupled with the ability to explore the images in detail – makes the table a unique experience.

Take this old photograph of a royal visit to Wellington in the 1920s. It’s a huge crowd waiting to see the Duke and Duchess of York. At first glance it’s a mass, not a collection of individual characters.

Peer into the throng of people and you’ll soon spot the man on a ladder. Is that a dog or a cat? What’s the name of the hotel? Someone looks like they’re about to climb a post. And is that little girl biting her nails or sucking her thumb? Maybe your grandma or grandpa are also somewhere in this great sea of anticipation.

It's a journey of discovery in high resolution.

Photograph of a crowd during the visit by the Duke and Duchess of York.
Crowd during Royal Visit, 1927. Ref: 1/2-203384-F.

Back when we began the Lifelines project we realised this was a rare opportunity to work with amazing subject matter, backed with technologies straight out of science fiction. The result is a short step into the future in the form of a 3-metre long touch-table, designed for all hands-on and where several people at once can share the experience.

The table can operate with up to three simultaneous users, and there's also plenty of room for casual observers. It’s our attempt to get away from the culture of people staring into their personal devices, and instead sharing the exploratory nature of the web with colleagues, or even strangers.

A cartoon depiction of interaction work-spaces.
Interaction workspaces, 2011. Graphic by Click Suite.

My role on the project was to help people feel enriched by the experience of discovery, and draw incidental observers into becoming participants as well.

Paper prototype testing.
Paper prototype testing, 2009. Photo by Click Suite.

We began the research process by simply listening to people’s responses as they explored and handled paper printouts from the collections. During usability testing we observed that our various audiences had different approaches. Some wanted to find their ancestors or a famous person. Some wanted to visit their favourite place. Others wanted to relive events from their childhood. So we built Lifelines to do all this and more.

It was evident early on that anyone who engaged with the collection items was enthralled and enriched by the experience.

Profile of the Rummager, 2011.
Profile of the Rummager, 2011. Graphic by Click Suite.

The primary exploratory behaviour we kept in mind was that of our user persona, Liz – “The Rummager”. Liz represented a person who might be curious about New Zealand culture and history, including their own family history. We expected that Liz might only have a few minutes to explore but that she would find something of personal interest in that short amount of time.

The table’s interface caters to the various rummaging behaviours we observed. Some people sought a definitive path – such as a subject or place name. "Take me to Timaru!" So we let them do that. Meanwhile, some people were more adventurous and just wanted to explore.

Then there were others, who had an inkling of what they were interested in but needed a starting point. So Lifelines gives them a helping hand by asking questions and presenting up pathways to explore.

Whatever pathway anyone takes, there's no dead-ends. You can always start down another track, and find another story.

Our other goals included making Lifelines fun, inclusive for all age groups – and something novel – yet a technology that visitors could master quickly. We wanted people to soon forget they were using a giant touch-table and be absorbed by the content.

As the experience designer I researched just how people would prefer to interact with Lifelines, (which feels somewhat like a giant iPad). We observed that some people would timidly touch the controls with the tip of a finger, while others would involve both hands and all fingers! It was a challenge designing gestures that worked well for as many people as possible.

Usability testing the Lifelines prototype, 2012.
Usability testing the Lifelines prototype, 2012. Photo by Click Suite.

Since opening at the end of 2012, Lifelines has had over 20,000 visits. That’s around 100 people exploring the table every day.

To date the most popular year is 1974 and the most request place name is Wellington.

The most viewed piece of content is a video from NZ On Screen featuring Robert Muldoon. In the video journalist Simon Walker interrogates Muldoon about his assertions regarding the Soviet naval presence in the Pacific, and New Zealand vulnerability to Russian nuclear attack. Muldoon grows increasingly annoyed and bullish at being asked questions that are not on his sheet: "I will not have some smart alec interviewer changing the rules half way through."

Muldoon’s legacy lives on in Lifelines, and one of the first people to try the touch-table was his office inheritor, Prime Minister John Key.

Now it's your turn!

Prime Minister John Key exploring the Lifelines touch-table, November 2012.
Prime Minister John Key exploring the Lifelines touch-table, November 2012. Photo by Click Suite.

See more about the user experience design behind Lifelines

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