MESL Critique


Sarah Manyika, Young Paik, Selina Sou


Seven universities have archived an identical set of 10,000 museum images and accompanying text. Each university then produced it's own search engine so that users may retrieve this information. As individuals, we went to different Museum Education Site Licensing Project (MESL) websites. All three of us performed different searches at the different sites.



A general critique that all of us had about all the websites had to do with the user interface. All the sites but one, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign , lacked a persistant area for the user to search for an object at any time. Some of the sites actually had the search page nested three to four levels deep within the website hierarchy. We all believe this to be a symptom of poor design because it is inconvenient for regular users. This inconvenience reveals that either many people do not search or perhaps that the site designers want to make it difficult for users to search.

Keyword Search

The general conscensus that all three of us came up with was that all of these search engines assume that the user is familiar with the body of images that are stored. Searching with the "keyword" parameter, using a concept like the word "education" and a world renowned painter "Picasso" produced unexpected results. Basically, the keyword parameter looks through the "keyword" field within the database to see if the queried word is match with any word within the field. The main problem with this is that there is no intuitive way for any user to understand what kinds of words end up in the "keyword" field, especially users who are unfamiliar with the items in the database. This is true for all MESL the websites. We believe that this can be a useful approach if keyword searches produce a result set which can trigger other helpful keywords to aide the user in reaching their final goal. None of the sites do this.

Title Search

We were then interested in seeing how well and consistent search results were for other parameters. The "title" parameter was used with the word "birth". We thought this might bring us expected results since a painting usually has only one title. It was interesting to note that each site had returned a different set of images and one site did not return any.

Although basically, the MESL sites of all Universities are pretty much the same --- type the search key word(s), then, look at the images, and then more detail information about the art-piece, I observed many differences in how different universities design theire sites. Some have special feature that others do not have. Let's go ahead and see how different (whether better or worse) they are.

University of Maryland

In terms of the search criteria, University of Maryland has the option for ADVANCED QUERIES. It benefits users who are familiar to Structured Query Language (SQL). Since I am not one of the people, I decided to do the Simple Search. However, I found out that the Simple Search is quite inadequate in terms of the searching criteria. We could only search by Artists, Title, Keywords and Location. So, if we are interested in any kind of paintings in 1880, we are not going to get them all right away. When the search is done, only the names of the artists, titles and links (in code) of all art-piece show up. It does not offer any image thumbnails to click. So, I would have to really read the lines to look at something that I am interested. But I think that it would be a lot more fun if I can have a visual image of the works.

But one thing that's neat and distinctive about U of Maryland's website is that at the bottom of its site, it indicates the number of visitors who have explored their sites since it first began to operate.

To be honest with you, I am not really satisfied with the search. At the beginning I thought that paintings from late 18th to early 20th century would have a whole lot of ballet stuff. Surprise, surprise! Ifound nothing! The only things that I found in the site are other kinds of tribal dance, ball dance and so on. When I search "flowers", it gives me a huge cushion with prints of an elephant. I really don't see anything in it that's related to flowers. It gives me things that I don't want, and fails to give me things that I want. So, I decided to go visit other sites to see what happen...

American University

First, I am impressed by the design of American University. It is simple, and the instructions are clear. I don't have to read a lot and still know what I have to do. But one little flaw is that its search tips is still under construction. It is also the only University that does not give the number of searches found for specific queries.

It is the only University that sorts out the searches by collection, e.g. FOWLER, LC2,etc. But it would be great if it also provide thumbnail for the queries.

Cornell University

The seach options in Cornell University consists of three types -- Simple Search, Full Search, and Text-Only Search. I find out that the [Full Search] gives me tons of "definition of..." various things to fill in. It saves users' time if they know exactly what they are looking for. However, I do not always find what I want because sometimes, the search engine doesn't even know the answer of the things that it asks me. For instance, the creation place of some pieces of art is actual unknow. So, it would not be effective to search by creation place.

The web-site also offers users to select the number of images to be displayed on each page. It certainly shows a kind of respect to the users!

University of Michigan

I feel like looking at the Grand Prix ad when I first look at the MESL site at Unviversity of Michigan. Sometimes they are checkers of yellow and blue, sometimes they appear in long horizontal stripes. It is very sharp, but I get a little bit confused by its lack of integrity and uniformity.

it has two types of searches --- Quick Search and Power Search. However, there is only one Search botton to click located in the Quick Search section. So, it's a kind of confused which key I have to click when I do the Power Search.

The thunbnails all appear together when the search is found, with their titles, names,etc below. It is quite inconvenient since I would have to scroll the mouse in order to see which image corresponds to which title.

The search findings are weird, too. Just like what I did with U of Maryland, I search "dance". It gives me a sculpture! I finally realized the reason after reading the "Concepts".

Despite its setback so far, I discover something interesting. After choosing the image that we want to look at, I am given choices of the size of the image to view. They come in Small, Medium, Large, and Max. I feel like choosing the Small because then I could view the whole image without having to scroll the mouse.

University of Illinois

University of Illinois has designed a "frames version", and a "frameless version". I like the frameless version better because it is simple. There are just too many explanation in the frames version. It looks pretty at the beginning, but the pictures and the words distract and confuse me. I just don't like the idea the things on the left may not correspond to things displayed on the right.

University of Virginia

University of Virginia gives users additional choices after doing the Simple Search. The further choices are --- 1.thumbnail with brief record; 2. thumbnail with checkbox; and 3.brief record. Of all three choices, I like "thumbnail with brief record the most, because the image and brief record are placed side by side, with the link to "Full record display". It is clear and nice to look at.

I get a little frustrated with the images that I found in "dance." There are just way too many image thumbnails in the option of "thumbnail with checkbox." It reaches a point where I found the search engine a bit redundant. This is what I called, "The abusive application of image thumbnail".

Just take a look at the example. I really think that it is a waste of space to put TEN identical sculptures in TEN different thumbnails. In fact, they are ONE sculpture taken from different angles. You would be given the exact same record no matter which one you choose.

There is a bit of inconsistency between the three options. The sculpture is called, "Dancer putting on Her Stocking." There are ten thumbnails in the Thumbnail with Checkbox. In the full record you click after choosing the Thumbnail with Brief record, you get captions for all ten at once. However, in the Brief Record option, you only get one general title. So, we have no way of knowing how many thumbnails there are for this sculpture. Are there ten? Or is there just one? It is better to provide only one checkbox for this sculputure in the Thumbnail with Checkbox option, and then provide links to other angles when further information about the selected items is chosen.