Springer Materials is an online database, providing information for chemists, engineers and other scientists on the physical properties of elements and compounds. As Senior UX Designer on the project, it was my responsibility to develop the site to improve engagement, reduce attrition, and develop value for customers. In order to achieve this, I engaged a programme of work that would help address these issues.
To start, I conducted analysis of the current information architecture of the site. I mapped out typical user journeys, based upon feedback in user research sessions, and looked at the number of steps involved in each journey:
As the example above shows, users have to take a large number of steps to locate a simple piece of data. This was an example of classic “experience rot”, continued added functionality without overall scope degrading the overall user experience. This was combined with the fact that much of the data had been provided on scanned PDFs, not as clearly defined data. Other journeys showed that the user was often taken away from the site, often causing them not to return.
I also conducted in-depth research with a number of users, to explore these findings further. Key discoveries included:
I also discovered a clear summary of user needs and actions on the site:
I therefore presented these findings to stakeholders, with four recommendations for addressing these problems:
The first step was to start a program of digitising the data in the PDFs. This was not an easy task, as it involved getting subject matter experts to sort through, analyse and curate the data, making it ready for inclusion in the site. Getting stakeholders to buy into this idea took time and persuasion, but I was very pleased when they announced that they were ready to do so, as I could then engage on the next steps on my plan.
This digitisation process also allowed the production of a series of interactive pages. These pages presented the data in visual graphs, as well as tabular data, meaning that users could view the data, select a desired slice of the dataset, and download it for use in experiments, or writing papers.
“This is awesome. I don’t think anyone else is doing something like this. Where do I sign up to get this for my university?”
Student researcher at ACS 2016
Through my previous analysis, we managed to examine the areas where unnecessary steps were involved. Through identifying the problem areas, we could then re-route links and reduce the number:
We tested the site with users before and after the reduction work, and proved that the time taken for users to reach data was significantly lower.
Using the outcomes of the data digitisation, and with the analysis I carried out on user needs and journeys, we could redesign the process to provide indications that the user was on the right paths to the data that they wanted. We did this by combining design with work being done on a new graph search method. This allowed the database to understand the context of what users were searching for, and provided a richer set of search results:
“You need to be able to put the information into the researcher’s hand as soon as possible. If you don’t, you’re likely to lose them to another resource.”
Lecturer from a US university
This also allowed us to improve the process on the search, looking at search methods and suggestions to try and improve the experience overall. This helped to guide users to more valuable result sets, demonstrating the value of the site.
“Oh, I didn’t even know that you had crystal structures on here. I wouldn’t have seen that if you hadn’t pointed it out to me…”
Research student while being shown Springer Materials at a chemistry conference.
The final step was to improve the homepage. The old homepage was proven to be confusing to first-time users, as it didn’t indicate what was available on the site. We therefore redesigned the page to include lists of content, and grouping the different search methods at the top. This helped to show the user identify what could be found, and how to search for it as a priority on the page. Secondary information was also included, including a better description of the content, and a latest updates section. This helped to showcase more content, and recent updates to the site.
“You need to offer more than just what they can get on Google. Otherwise, you have no chance in standing up to a search that everyone in the world uses.”
Lecturer at a US university
“That is so much better – I can see where everything is now, right from the first page”
Librarian of a customer university
We tested each of these developments by holding user testing sessions at the Springer Nature stand at various chemistry conferences:
This process provided useful, as we previously had problems getting hold of users for private testing. Conference attendees could then come and try out the site with the new developments, while we asked them questions about the process they were taking, and how easy they found it. Each round of testing helped us to make fine adjustments on our development process, ensuring that the final product was something that suited user needs.
After several years on the project, I feel that my work has made a positive impact on Springer Materials. As ever, there’s always more to do, but I feel proud that my efforts have improved the overall user experience of the site significantly. This was demonstrated by the favourable feedback from users throughout the testing process.