Springer Materials

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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.

 

Preliminary: improving user flows

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:

Diagram showing the user journey taken to find key data in Springer Materials

My analysis of the original user journey taken to find the boiling point of benzene in Springer Materials

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:

  • We needed to examine user requirements in depth (even beyond the screen) to design the experience better
  • New users often didn’t understand what was offer on the site.
  • Users often couldn’t find the data they needed, due to the number of steps involved, causing them to leave the site.

I also discovered a clear summary of user needs and actions on the site:

sketch outlining the Springer Materials user interaction process

Sketch outlining the overall interaction process for users on Springer Materials

I therefore presented these findings to stakeholders, with four recommendations for addressing these problems:

  • Digitise data, to make it easier for the user to work with, and for us to optimise the site
  • Reduce the number of steps taken to reach important data
  • Surface data and information earlier, to encourage users that they were on the right path
  • Improve the homepage, to allow users to understand what the site offered

 

Digitising data

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.

Sketch showing planned interactivity for the new data page

Sketch showing some of the desired functionality on the interactive page

Screenshot showing the completed Springer Materials Interactive page, with graph and table of data

The completed Springer Materials Interactive page

“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

 

Reducing steps taken to access data

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:

Diagram showing proposed changes to improve user journey in Springer Materials

My proposed revision to the user journey, providing information more quickly, and opening up to the possibility of further functionality later

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.

 

Surfacing data earlier

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:

Sketches of design concepts for Springer Materials data

Sketches of concepts presented to leverage the newly digitised data on Springer Materials

“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.

 

Improving the homepage

Screenshot of the old Springer Materials home page

The old version of the Springer Materials home page

“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

Sketch showing proposed left hand and top menus for Springer Materials

Sketch showing the intended left hand and top menu functions

Sketch showing proposed areas for promotional and latest additions areas for Springer Materials

Sketch showing proposed areas for promotional and latest additions areas

Springer Materials homepage

The revised Springer Materials homepage

“That is so much better – I can see where everything is now, right from the first page”
Librarian of a customer university

 

Evaluation

We tested each of these developments by holding user testing sessions at the Springer Nature stand at various chemistry conferences:

Photo of user testing session at a conference

Conducting user testing at our booth at ACS 2017

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.

 

Summary

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.

Thanks for reading! You can see more examples of my work in my portfolio, read my blog, or get in touch if you need more information.

  • Client :
    Springer Nature
  • Year :
    2017