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Evaluating First Generation LTER Site Web Sites: Assessing our audience, meeting their needs, and making recommendations for the future.

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Issue: 
Spring 2005

- Nicole Kaplan (SGS), Corinna Gries (CAP), and Eda C. Meléndez-Colom (LUQ)

The first Long Term Ecological (LTER) sites were established in 1980, and in the 1990s existing sites seized web technology to publish information about their research, sites, data, personnel, publications and opportunities to the ecological community and general public. Over the past decade the National Science Foundation and the LTER Information Management (IM) community has addressed expectations for web accessible network-wide data and information, data release and access policies, and recommendations for tracking data usage. Since our first generation LTER web sites were launched, our users’ expectations, information technologies, and design techniques have evolved. Our challenges today are serving gigabytes of metadata and data for hundreds of data sets from a federated system of LTER web servers, updating backend databases with dynamic content, and keeping up with drifting standards and media in which to publish data in various formats.

In a recent survey, LTER sites identified their web site audience, reported on how they tracked usage of information from web sites, and evaluated the effectiveness of various web site components. Twelve sites responded to the survey and the results suggest that LTER sites that have created successful web sites went through a process to identify their user groups and included input from those groups while developing web sites and tools. Sites measure the success of their web sites by assessing whether people can easily find usable information, data and metadata. As web users (and reviewers), we tend to measure the success of a web site by the number of clicks it takes to query and reach downloadable, well-described, and useful data and metadata. More detailed survey results and links to successful LTER web site tools may be found here: http://intranet.lternet.edu/committees/information_management/im/webdev_questions_summary.pdf.

Based on the experiences with first generation web sites, several challenges have been identified. Web tools and web sites have been developed independently at each LTER site. Therefore, each has a different look and feel reflecting the individuality of each site within the network. Categories of information are not well-defined and do not contain consistent information across sites. A user finds different content arranged under various categories from web site to web site. Data are updated at irregular intervals, and may be presented as screen shots or in a downloadable format. Data are not necessarily related to projects or publications. Publication of news bulletins, exciting new findings and products is handled differently at each site and are generally difficult to find. Finally, LTER web pages do not have design elements, links, or text to portray themselves as being part of a larger network or connect to other LTER sites easily.

A working group was formed within the LTER IM community to address these challenges.   The group plans to create recommendations for developing new or second generation web sites that will allow sites to maintain their own web tools that fit in with their local organizational structure and meet the needs of their local site users.  The working group is currently developing LTER web content guidelines, considering a controlled vocabulary for keywords, under which the datasets may be found (http://knb.ecoinformatics.org/index.jsp), and elements and links for homepages that may create the feel of a network identity across LTER web sites.  A workshop will be organized at the 2005 Annual IM Meeting in Montreal to discuss recommended web design techniques to make navigation of individual sites and connections to network cohorts easier.  Approaches to get more feedback from web site developers and users on the successfulness of our LTER web sites also will be discussed.

Here are some useful resources recommended by Marshall White, LNO Web Developer, for designing web sites that meet the needs of their users and incorporating good design components:

Web Design in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0596001967/104-1363550-8711147?v=glance

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1565922824/104-1363550-8711147?v=$

Customer-Centered Design: A New Approach to Web Usability
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0130479624/qid=1105646463/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_xs_ap_i1_xgl14/104-1363550-8711147?v=glance&s=books&n=507846

Usability for the Web: Designing Web Sites that Work
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/1558606580/ref=pd_sim_b_2/104-1363550-8711147?%5Fencoding=UTF8&v=glance

GUI Bloopers: Don'ts and Do's for Software Developers and Web Designers
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1558605827/qid%3D1105646210/sr%3D11-1/ref%3Dsr%5F11%5F1/104-1363550-8711147