The Postcodes Project from the Museum of London

The Museum of London, which I visited for the first time a couple of months ago (see my photos on Flickr tagged museumoflondon, has recently launched a new mini-website called 'The Postcodes Project'. As someone fairly interested in London, history, museums and websites, I though I'd have a proper look through it, and write up a brief critique.

Screenshot from the front page of the Postcodes Project website

The Postcodes Project site is connected with the Museum of London website via a logo at the top left, but other than that it's a fairly standalone website. I mention this because working out the level of commonality and shared navigation across a disparate range of content on a large website is a major challenge for big organisations.

Across the top of the Postcodes Project site, the main navigation buttons read 'Home', 'Places', 'Themes', 'Write story' and 'Recommend'. Along with the site logo (which annoyingly isn't clickable to the home page), and the tagline, 'London's neighbourhood stories', these bits of information are crucial in quickly communicating to visitors what the website is. I like that the tag refers again to 'London' - communicating the scope of the site (the region of London) is important on the web, where visitors often won't know anything about the organisation behind it. However, 'stories' is a fairly vague term that museums like to use, but which seems to mean something different to actual users. 'Stories' can refer to news, fiction and the tales your mates come out with down the pub, but the things you can read on the Postcodes Project site are historical stories. Whilst museums are traditionally about history (or 'old things'), this isn't a given, and where they are talking about historical objects and stories, it's worth spelling this out, especially on a website, where the link to a physical museum is more subtle.

The 'Places' and 'Themes' buttons in the main navigation are the two main ways that the site uses to divide up its collection of stories. This idea wasn't immedietely obvious to me. After initially scanning the homepage and seeing that the site was something to do with 'stories' (from the tagline and the 'write a story' button), I wanted to go straight in a read some examples, to get a feel for the site. With no examples linked to directly from the homepage, it took me a few clicks to realise that the stories were contained with places and themes, and that these were means of navigating rather than destinations in themselves (there's no generic content about either the themes or the places). In my experience of user-testing websites, it has always proved better to label links according what the end content is, rather than the meta-information about how it is organised.

The Places/Themes division is further confused by the fact that within 'Themes' there are also tabs which divide the content up by 'objects' (which is really 'type of object' and 'periods'. Perhaps places and themes were thought of, in developing the site, to be the two most important/useful means of dividing up the content, but it seems odd to bury the 'objects' and 'periods' navigation options beneath the 'Theme' button.

Choosing the list of 'themes', when they form a major way of dividing up your content, is always a difficult, and often political, task for museums. Curators, the physical collections of objects, and the physical galleries, are usually all divided into subjects, with careful thought behind the selection of each. As such, they can sometimes represent the history of the types of objects that the museum has collected over the years, the specialist research interests of curators, and the agenda that the museum has in what stories it wants to tell and the ways in which it wants to tell them. When it comes to a website navigation system, however, a whole different set of criteria come into play, the most important of which should be what makes sense to your users, followed by what best matches up to the interests of the users and the content that is available.

The Postcodes Project's list of eight themes seems to do okay to me. 'Food & drink', 'fashions old & new', 'politics & policing' and 'transport' all read as pretty simple and easy to understand (though i'd shorten 'fasions old & new' to just 'fashion'). 'Caring for life - and death' seems like an odd, and fairly vague subject. I expected it to be something to do with medicine and perhaps funerals - which seems to match up fairly well with the content - which includes a grave slab and a funeral photo - although the 'human skull' and 'child's chair' (which turns out to be from a doctor's waiting room) are a bit random. 'Social life' and 'working life' work okay together, though I found it difficult to anticipate what was going to be in those categories. 'Views of the city' is an odd one as although it's illustrated with a painting of a literal 'view of the city', the category also contains a contemporary painting and a 'stone corbel', amonst a few other seemingly-misplaced items. So all in all it's a mixed bag of subjects. My gut instinct - without having done any actual user testing - is that some of these will work better than others, but I know that getting good lists of 'themes' is pretty tricky. Luckily, it's also clear that for this website, places are ranked as the more important 'way in'.

The Places can be navigated by either postcode area (to the granularity of the first bit of your postcode, eg E17), area names and boroughs. I like that there are these different options. Whilst everyone knows the postcodes of the places they've lived and worked at, for other parts of London you're usually more likely to know the area name rather than the postcode. Even better though is that there's a clickable map of London with all the postcode areas marked out. This map is prominantly linked to from the homepage at museumoflondon.org.uk/postcodes, but somewhat confusingly fills up the whole page if you click on home, which I suspect is a bug.

The clickable postcodes map is built in Flash, and takes a while to load (during which a logo for 'zoomify' bafflingly fills the screen), but has some of features that we've come to expect from the new Google and Yahoo style of online maps: dragging to move and 'zoom in'. If you zoom right in, streets and other details start to emerge, although as you can see all the areas clearly enough in the default zoomed-out view, I'm not sure exactly why you'd need to go in this far. Clicking on a postcode takes you to the same destination as clicking on a postcode within the text list - a page containing a street map of the postcode area, an object from the area, a description of that area, and some links to related objects, adjacent postcodes, local amenities and stories submitted by the public. All in all, whilst you clearly need the map to help locate areas of London that you don't know the postcode of, I'm not quite sure what's being added by having a zoomable map built in Flash.

Moving onto the content, and perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the site, from a new media perspective, is the call-to-action for people to 'write stories'. The story submission pages, amusingly titled 'Storyteller', guide you through a simple form in which you can type in a story, add a few pictures, give it a name, select a relevant postcodes, and submit. I liked that the form elements were broken up into a few pages, and were simple and obvious, with no overblow rich text editor or anything to distract you. The ability to upload photos is a nice feature too, and will no doubt improve some of the submitted stories.

One of the biggest difficulties with trying to collect this kind of user-generated content (UGC) is how you explain what kind of thing you're after. The storyteller pages do this fairly well, by giving some examples in a bulleted list (although it's easy to miss), including ideas like "write a poem or short story showing why the area is special". The second potential difficulty with UGC is how big a task it is that you're asking of the users. This is something I learnt whilst working on the BBC's Book of the Future project, where we asked users to submit their 'visions of the world in 2020'. The entries didn't need to be that long, but the imagination required to think of what to write made the task actually quite difficult. By contrast, the 'games gone by' storiea that I've been collecting from people on the Science Museum site (more about that soon), seems like an easier thing for people to write - reminiscing the past is easier than predicting the future. The Postcodes Project call-to-action seems to fall betwen these two, requiring a fair amount of effort but not being that tricky.

Some of the stories that have been submitted so far make for fun reading. Something that frustrated me though was not being to browse all the stories submitted so far very easily. Whilst they're linked to from the postcode pages, there's no page collecting them together. As well as being frustrating, I think it's harder for people to submit their own stories if they can't easily read a load of other people's.

The Postcodes Project takes a simple idea - presenting stories about local history in London and allowing people to contribute their own - and implements in a fairly plain but mostly effective way. Aside from the usability issues I've mentioned above, I think the overall concept could do with a little more clarity, either by narrowing the scope slightly (perhaps to a particular time frame or theme), or by better explaining what the aims of the project are. This might help to both improve understanding of the website, and to encourage more people to contribute.