Our publishing website is changing, and our goal is to create an experience for the site's users that is beautiful, simple, effective and fast. What began with subtle adjustments to the styling of the site will continue with further and more marked improvements towards the end of this year and in 2017.
For a number of years our publishing website remained essentially unchanged in terms of the way it worked and the way it looked. However, we are now at the start of a journey to create the best possible platform for research and publishing, based on input directly from our users.
The challenge for the team is to understand our users’ behaviour, priorities and pain points in order to make changes that deliver a genuinely better user experience. To do this we have been working with Modern Human, a design and innovation consultancy, to find out more about what our users need and how they use the current website.
We started by looking at existing research on how academics typically approach their work and collecting anonymous data about the typical journeys that users take through the website. We then approached our users directly, to develop a more complete understanding of the jobs they are trying to complete when they are using our site.
Pulling all our research together, we found that visitors to the publishing website are usually there for one of two reasons: to find specific literature related to their current project or to keep up to date with recent research in their field. Working with Modern Human, we used this understanding of reader goals to create some design concepts, based on user needs rather than our own assumptions of how it should look.
The next challenge was to start making changes to the website as soon as possible. This approach to website development – continually making small positive changes rather than trying to redesign the entire site in one go – is called ‘agile’, and allows us to ensure that every change we make to the site is as beneficial to our users as we hoped it would be.
‘Agile’ is a software development philosophy for approaching a large piece of work – breaking it down into the smallest parts that have value for a user and then releasing an iterative series of improved versions. In other words, while in traditional project management the goal is to be ‘done’ at the end of the project, in agile software development the goal is to be ‘done’ as often as possible and then create increasingly better versions of the finished product as time goes on.
In the case of websites, the agile approach is to ‘deliver a working website frequently’ and to get new styles or functionality into the hands of users as soon as possible. This allows the only reliable judges of the usefulness of the website – the users – to immediately indicate whether the most recent changes delivered the predicted benefits.
Our publishing website will thus evolve over time, with no switchover date and no launch, and its users will be able to see and interact with new elements of the site as soon as they are ready. Every time we add new functionality we will assess how well it is received, and be prepared to reverse the change if it does not improve the site. This continuous process, led by user feedback, will prevent the site becoming ‘stuck’ in a suboptimal design, and ultimately make the platform better and more user-friendly.
James Stevens, Product Development Manager, emphasises the significance of this new way of working: "We’ve really focused on improving our development processes and are now changing our website once a week instead of once or twice a quarter. This rapid iteration allows us to meet expectations and better serve our customers, who access the site through the latest browsers, phones, phablets or robots, and keep up with the ever increasing pace at which technology evolves. With over one million users per month we need to get this right."
Evidence based approach
In agile project management, good prioritisation is crucial. To make sure we are working on the proposed changes in the right order, we rely on qualitative and quantitative data continually gathered from our users. For example, the pages that show details for a single article and allow that article to be bought or downloaded (the ‘article landing pages’) are by far the most commonly used pages on our website, so we will be prioritising improvement to these pages. This will be followed by book chapter landing pages and journal landing pages.
As well as prioritising certain areas of the site, we can prioritise changes that will affect the largest sections of the site’s audience. For example we found that users in China, which sends more traffic to our website than any other country, typically have to wait a long time for our pages to load. This negatively affects user experience, so we have made changes to improve loading times everywhere in the world. This change will be subtle from the perspective of users in the UK but will make a big difference to users in, for example, China, India and Latin America.
The first phase of our redesign project was to upgrade the technology that powered the publishing platform, to help us make frequent small improvements. This key preparation has allowed us to follow an agile philosophy in improving the site.
Since then, you will have seen the beginnings of a cleaner look and feel on the site. We have altered background styles, the main header section and our buttons, icons, tabs and fonts. This work is intended to prepare our users for bigger design improvements – making the key functionality of the site easier to use. Over time you will notice that it is easier to read articles on the site, easier to log in via your institution remotely, and easier to find the resources you are looking for.
We are excited to transform the publishing site into the best possible tool for our users by focusing on user experience and beautiful, simple design. Follow our publishing innovation blog for more updates.