When I attended the Association of Subscription Agents conference, held 16-17 February at the British Medical Association in London, where attendees were given the opportunity to participate in one of five recurring workshop sessions. The User Experience group was of particular interest to me, so I joined a number of other individuals who represented publishers both large and small, intermediaries and librarians, and worked with them to identify the most prominent challenges we face as an industry when it comes to User Experience in its current state.

In order to address this broad topic, we were tasked with focusing on the following question: What kind of user experience around content discovery and consumption is appropriate and how should that be delivered?  We came up with what we believe are the four main issues surrounding this topic, as well as our suggestions for what should be done to improve User Experience in the future.

1)      Web Accessibility

Web accessibility refers not only to the websites themselves, but also to the publisher’s content. Publishers often convert all graphics as well as tables and equations to bitmap, which creates an image that is unreadable by machines – an issue for the visually impaired who rely upon text to speech translation. Platform providers should ensure that a site can, for example, be navigated without a mouse or can be read via third party assistive technology program. The United States has made an effort to combat this issue by creating Section 508, a set of standards aimed at making software accessible to users with disabilities. Publishers and platform providers would be wise to not only comply with such standards, but to also ensure that all users can access not only their site, but more importantly, its content.

2)      Different Users

Graduates, post grads, corporate researchers, journalists – who are we trying to provide the ‘experience’ for and how do we meet their unique needs? While publishers and platform providers are segmenting the User Experience and ensuring additional features and functionality tailored to these individual users, many of our library colleagues suggested we rethink this ‘user persona’ solution altogether. For these librarians, the issue of accessing the content itself is still the most problematic matter at hand and should be addressed as a top priority.

3)      Stakeholders

Publisher stakeholders are also influential when it comes to User Experience. The author, the editor, and even Society management themselves are users, so publishers are often pressured to incorporate their feedback when it comes time to make platform changes. However, these powerful influencers do not always have all end-user experiences in mind, and as a result of this, publishers and platform providers are often put in a difficult position when they are expected to present a valid business case for the changes demanded.

4)      Standards

As an industry, there are already a number of standards that exist that platforms and content are expected adhere to, however many of these standards are not fixed and as a result, a number of different versions of compliance are in existence, which in turn impacts user experience. For example, some universities are still using Internet Explorer 7, despite it being over nine years old, which means that a publisher’s website needs to be able to support this version of the browser if they wish to license content to it. Another example would be the standard use of DTD, where in some cases there are incorrect tags or a special version of the DTD is created, which often leads to unique user experiences in many different circumstances. Publishers also create several licences, so actually determining who can access the content, when it is available and what they can do with it can vary for every publisher, which again contributes to issues with user experience.

Suggestions moving forward

The most salient takeaway from this workshop was how important the issue of content accessibility still remains from the librarian perspective. Platform providers and publishers need to continually remind themselves of this and should strive to keep an open dialogue flowing. As an industry, we should aim to ensure content XML is correct and future proofed, provide single sign-on within browsers and provide a consolidated approach to platform design, such as similar icons and agreed signposting.

Through research collaboration and the sharing of best practices, User Experience can become more uniform and better structured. Users expect a ubiquitous content experience, and while many attempt to deliver it in anticipation of the user’s needs, there is still much to be done to improve User Experience across the board.

by Rachel Henning, Client Project Manager, pub2web