My Summer at JSTOR Labs

My Summer at JSTOR Labs

My name is Xinyu Sheng and I’m a master’s student from the School of Information at University of Michigan. This summer, I worked as an intern at JSTOR Labs in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s an innovative environment and I gained invaluable experience from a very nice team.  My job involved both user research and web application development, and I’d like to share a bit about my experience here.

In the eleven short weeks I spent here, I worked on a number of different projects, applying a variety of user research methods to different products in various development phases, capturing user needs and translating findings into design trade-offs. I assisted with user testing on the Sustainability site that Alex wrote about a few weeks ago. I also helped with a redesign of the Labs Site you’re currently reading. For this redesign, which you should see on the site soon, I helped the team as it brainstormed design ideas and conducted a various user tests to identify usability issues and gather user preferences. We conducted five-second tests, cupcake testing (a quick version of a usability test with a cupcake as the reward), and A/B testing.  These tests allowed me to observe the context and user behavior, and to get firsthand user feedback that could be consolidated in our next iterations. They also helped me better understand the priority of each issue so as to make reasonable decisions with limited time and resources.

I spent most of my time creating an open and public API to the data within Labs’ popular Understanding Shakespeare.  I conducted a series of five interviews with Digital Humanities scholars to collect detailed information about use cases for the API and inspire me with design ideas for the visualizations I would build on top of that API.  Working closely with Ron, Labs’ lead technologist, I started with a data cleaning task to understand the process of "quote matching" between the text of the plays and JSTOR articles. Then I added the rest of plays: the site now has all 38 Shakespeare plays (available on our redesigned website, here).  Also, I did some data processing with XML, parsing to rebuild the data structure and generate extra fields for indexing. To further prepare for the API, I learned how to use Django and the Django REST framework.

With these preparations behind us, we began to develop the API.   The Labs team plans to release the API soon, but I can give you a sneak preview of how it was built and share a visualization I made using it.  The API uses a REST framework combining indexed data with a SOLR search engine. The SOLR server enables customized data queries that allow data retrieval for every possible need. The data it returns has a clear nested structure in JSON format, which makes it easy to manipulate and efficiently helps users with data mining, or building their own applications/visualizations. For example, I built a visualization, a pack of zoomable circles that you can see here, using D3.js to show a hierarchy of all the plays.

To navigate the visualization, think of the largest circle as a representation of the “universe” of Shakespeare’s plays and the smaller circles labeled Tragedy, Comedy, History, and Romance as “galaxies” within that universe.

Within a galaxy, there are plays and within plays, there are circles representing the acts in that play.

Finally, within the acts are circles named for characters, with the size of circle used to indicate the number of times each character’s lines are referenced in an article on JSTOR.

The API will be available soon, and I look forward to seeing what others create using it!

In addition to honing my technical and UX skills, I’ve also learned a great deal during the internship about how organizations function in the real world, such as how different departments cooperate and support each other.  More importantly, despite the high level of diversity in Labs team members, we collaborated effectively with nice team chemistry. I really enjoyed working with the whole team who are so professional, interesting, and super supportive. It’s been a great summer at JSTOR Labs. Thank you all!

Xinyu, left, with Kate, Jessica, Beth, and Ron.

I wish JSTOR Labs every success in the future.