Lessons learned

What have we learned from Prisoner 4099?

Photograph of an old judge in court, wearing a big curly white wig, pointing a long feather.
Getting into character

The Prisoner 4099 project has made a big impression upon staff at The National Archives. We have firm guidelines on how to make things more accessible but our learning is far wider than this. We now think more creatively about the design and content of our workshops, web design and printed materials. We have learned that a visual response to our products and services is only one response. By using our imaginations, we can make our users’ experience of the website more rounded and multi-layered.

This learning could not have taken place without the direct involvement of our partners. Their advice, experience and resources have allowed us to learn far more efficiently and their openness has encouraged honesty and debate. Although we thought the students would find the play interesting and fun to create, we had not anticipated that the project would prove to be so enjoyable. For this, we are grateful to the energy and dedication of the students, teachers and youth workers.

If you are interested in doing something similar, we hope some of our key learning outcomes will help:

  • Trust to professionals! Work with partners who have direct experience of your intended audience
  • Design the project in consultation with partners and participants
  • Don’t be dissuaded from working with visually impaired audiences just because your archive comprises mainly paper records. Use your imagination to bring those records to life.
  • You can make history accessible for visually impaired audiences through a number of different media; storytelling, producing documents in Braille or large print, making recordings on minidisk, describing photographs or producing tactile drawings.
  • Partner organisations may be prepared to help you to produce documents in accessible formats free of charge or charge you a nominal fee for the use of their equipment.
  • Encourage colleagues to identify items that could make up a handling collection. For us, this included seals, items of clothing, tally sticks, coins and medals. However, we also learned that it is not just the tactile nature of the item that matters, but the story behind that object.
  • Read documents with your ears as well as your eyes. Sometimes, written passages just demand to be read out loud!
  • Be imaginative in how you read historical documents in order to encourage investigation and interpretation in others.

The design and development process.

Martyn Green works at The National Archives as a multimedia designer and developer. He was responsible for the design and production of the site.

From the start it was clear that this project was going be incredibly interesting. There are plenty of standards, technical guidelines and recommendations for how to produce web content that is accessible to visitors with disabilities. With Prisoner 4099 we wanted to try and go beyond that, working with some of the people we wanted the site to reach.

At every stage we consulted with a number of visually impaired, blind and sighted people and made constant improvements based on their comments. At times we had to make compromises based on time and resource constraints but overall this worked really well. The best advice I can give for anyone doing a project is to ask lots of people for input all the time and base decisions you make on what they say.

Our goal was to make a site that would bring the project to life for everyone who visited. Because our audience was so diverse in how they would experience the site we had to think very carefully about how we wanted to write and present things. To meet all of our requirements the site had to look great, be well written and be put together in a clear, logical structure.

We have put a lot of thought and hard work into creating the site and have learned a great deal. Hopefully we have made something that many people will visit and enjoy.

This isn't the end of the line though. We've not been able to test every piece of software or computer configuration that visitors might use. We hope to hear from people with ideas and suggestions for how we can make things even better in the future.

A note from Darren

Darren worked with us early in the project to help us understand how blind people interact with the web, and how best we could build the site so that it would be easy for everyone to use.

Hi. I'm Darren, and I'm here to tell you a bit about me, and some of the things we've all done towards the Prisoner 4099 web project. I'm one of the people who worked on designing this website. I don't work full-time at the National Archives. In fact, I'm still at university. So, what am I doing here?

We wanted anyone to be able to see and hear our work, which was where I came in. As a blind person, I am unable to read what's on a computer screen by looking at it. Instead, I use a piece of software called Window-Eyes, which reads any text displayed on a computer out loud through computer speakers or headphones. There are lots of other programs like this too.

Window-Eyes is fantastic, but it can't read text that's not there. For instance, it can't describe a picture on a web site unless the designer of the page includes a description of it. Part of my job was to help make sure every page of the Prisoner 4099 project could be read by absolutely anyone.

I've learned most of what I have so far from the Internet. I am still studying Computer Science, but much of what I've read is on the internet somewhere, so if you want to know more about how Computers and the internet work, I'd say there's no better way than to use them to help you on your quest.

Anyway, I must go. Bye, and thanks for taking the time to learn more about us. We hope you enjoy your time delving into the mysteries behind the life of William Towers as much as we have.