UX: simplification and matching customer’s expectations

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Dan Mayers

Dan Mayers, head of product development at OpenAthens, unveils the secrets to a first-class user experience

Delivering a seamless user experience is difficult, some might argue even impossible. But aiming to achieve it is key to creating leading products. Organisations need to make sure they deliver what their users want, need, and expect and the response to this apparent utopia lies in having user-centred principles. 

To deliver a top-notch user experience you need to “provide simple and intuitive tools that allow users the ability to complete their goals as quickly and effectively as possible”, says Mayers. The principles to ensure a great UX are, in theory, straightforward: “Whatever the changes or improvements we make, they should be as simple and intuitive as possible for users to reach their goals.” He explains how the product team at OpenAthens uses user-centred design principles to understand customers and their audience, users, behaviours, needs and pain points: “It is the only way we can make sure that all of the products that we build serve their needs.”

It is increasingly important, explains Mayers, to make sure the content is accessible across platforms and be aware that UX is constantly iterative. Designers need to “test their prototype and ensure it reaches their goals.” They can do that by doing experiments, A/B tests or, in a sector like OpenAthens’ a granular level experimental approach “is really useful because we have a really tight community of great librarians that we work with”, says Mayers. “It's much easier to sit down with them, talk through what their challenges, problems and issues are, and design ways in which we can improve their working life. They're the key.”

The “feel-good factor”

When working on a product for a librarian, it is important to understand the library administrator might be dealing with tens of thousands of user accounts. “You don't want to feel worried about what you are doing, you want to trust the software to do the right thing and to help you complete the job without having extra concerns”, explains the head of product development. “We need to think about how people feel about what they are doing in their day-to-day lives and the associated emotional experiences. So, they will feel good about doing something, instead of worried about it.”

It is important to be aware of the type of product you are dealing with, Mayers recognises the highly technical space where OpenAthens sits: “It is important that we up our game in our sector to ensure we match the librarians' expectations. It is a very complicated space, , which doesn't mean we should shy away from trying to achieve seamless, intuitive, and enjoyable experiences for people.”

Embracing user-centred design processes

On occasions, designers get disappointed when they share their work, and the audience doesn’t understand it. “The problem is never the user, but the designer that has to make it work and mitigate the risk of getting something wrong”, explains Mayers. There is always room for less costly mistakes by testing before going into the development phase. “The best practice is to have user-centred design processes, a UX flow from the research phase through to the prototype, as well as understand the pain points, personas and customer journeys to build designs that can be tested with users.”

Finding the pain points before starting a new project is fundamental: “We do research to understand where the friction is because it could generate problems that bubble into a full product design.” The information comes from multiple feedback channels such as the product data feed, advice from the service desk, surveys, external research. “Our product team aggregates all the information, works out the most important points to focus on and generates product designs or enhancement requests for existing users”, explains Mayers. “We want to improve the user experience, and it is the experience of people that will guide what those changes are going to be”.

A product for international audiences

User experience is the star around which product development gravitates. This poses a challenge for products designed for international audiences, targeting users with very different backgrounds and needs. For Dan Mayers, there are two different strategies to achieve success: make sure that it is as international and simplified as it could be to reach as many people as possible and think about it as an international product”, to which localisation is fundamental: “We are looking at doing more localisation. I think it is important because we are a global company, and our focus is removing barriers to knowledge. If language is a barrier, we need to make sure that we are overcoming it.”

Looking at the future of the industry

If there is something in the near future for the industry, it is the upcoming browser changes, which will affect authentication providers. “One of the things that OpenAthens has is a technical team with a lot of experience in this sector and area. We are aware of the changes being proposed and are continually doing research and development to make sure we are ahead of whatever those changes are, so our customers have a minimal impact”, Mayers explains. “It is important that our customers can trust us to be ahead of the curve on technical changes given the complexity of the sector.”

Trust is in fact another important factor linked to user experience, coming to the spotlight more and more as AI impacts product development. “AI will provide opportunities across the academic sector, but also challenges, particularly around trust”, says Mayers. “Researchers need to be able to trust the research they are getting hold of, and some elements of AI struggle at making sure that all the information is absolutely correct."

The OpenAthens head of product development looks at the future and reflects on the company’s more than 25 years and how important the relation of trust with its customers is. “Over that time, many customers have required features and enhancements, which has generated a lot of specialisation in the product. We are trying to look at the current experience from a user perspective, focusing on making improvements that help librarians in the way they work within OpenAthens. It is all about simplification. The first thing will always be making the product easier to use for them.”

PETE HILL – UX Designer at OpenAthens – the voice of the UX expert

For Pete Hill, UX designer at OpenAthens, the fundamental principle behind user experience design is to “mitigate risk by making sure that what you are building is, in the first instance, desirable and useful as well as usable.” He explains: “Products need to bring value to users and have a solid purpose. This is done by validating with users at every step of the way, to make sure that what we deliver fits the needs of those people.”

To succeed with UX not everything lies in the design and research. It is important that the group of stakeholders are on the same page when it comes to user-centred principles. “It is important not to assume that only the people with 'UX' in their job title are the ones who conduct user-centred design. Both, user-centred design and UX, are a collective responsibility of the whole team”, Hill explains. He adds: “You have to be realistic and bring everybody along. It's a constant conversation, an iteration with fellow stakeholders and users to incrementally implement small improvements testing and course-correcting as you go along.”

The approach to UX has not really changed in a long time: “It's been the same since people started making products. Humans haven't changed, just the tooling changed”, explains Hill. One fundamental thing that did impact UX over the past years was COVID and moving to remote work: “It was the biggest change in recent times”, says Hill. “The fact that we couldn't do in-person interviews in the way that we used to, technology had to move on extremely quickly.”

There are also external challenges and pressures: “People are spoiled by using Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which are really polished, really mature, and they expect even small organisations like OpenAthens to reach those levels.”

Ironically, everything on the Internet looks similar to a certain degree. “One of the beautiful things about the Internet and web software is that, in order for it to work as a whole, everybody has to do things the same way to a certain degree. If every website had different navigation, the Internet would be unusable”, explains Hill. He adds: “To a certain extent, a lot of the work is done for us, and a lot of the evolution is done collectively. It is just about being receptive to it, and knowledgeable enough to recognise improvements, and adopt them in your work.”

He concludes: “The most important thing is to have empathy and humility to accept that you are not your users, and allow them to guide the process. What a team thinks might work, just might not fit actual users. Finding that out sooner rather than later is fundamental.”