Welcome to the experience economy

Share this on social media:


Esther Harris

Esther Harris explains why publishers need to rethink user experience and experiment relentlessly

What’s a content business to do when the world tells it: rip a hole in everything you thought you knew about your users and start again? And again? There is a sense in 2022 that the sector is still reeling from this and feeling its way. 

For years societies and academic publishers focussed on producing exceptional content and occasionally lifted their heads to service a core user group – librarians.  

The other stakeholders – researchers, reviewers, authors, academics – were largely an afterthought and their user journeys – manual, time-consuming, laborious – reflected that. But it remained pretty much standard practice until 2011 when SciHub launched, and suddenly denial or ignorance was no longer an option.  

Sam Herbert from 67 Bricks discussed this at a recent NISO event: The user experience - just fix it: ‘SciHub emulated Uber in the sense that they took an existing process for accessing something – in Uber’s case taxis, but in publishing, finding and accessing academic content – and they dramatically improved upon it, using technology. They made something hard, really easy. There is no change in the actual outcome for the user – they still access their article, but it's significantly quicker and easier. Scholarly users said: yes actually, we’ll take this.  And if I have not accessed the content through my preferred scholarly brand and I don’t have so many bells and whistles attached to it… so what? I have what I need.’  

Now this simple and automated user journey has become the everyday ‘gold standard’, there is no going back. Publishers are catching on. With a renewed strategy to be a data-driven, open access society publisher, the Royal Society of Chemistry has had some success.  

Nikolay Timofeev, developer at 67 Bricks, said: ‘The Royal Society of Chemistry had an author submission system that was typical of a lot of publishing systems. The user went through a long process to submit something; they waited; they hoped; and half the time they got rejected.  It was a poor user experience, but normal for publishing. One day RSC were like: hang on, let's forget what we have done before, let's see if we can try and make this process better and faster for people.  They created the Manuscript Tracker.  

‘An author submitting a manuscript now receives an email with a personal link to a new online platform, where they can then track the progress of their manuscript as it journeys through the peer review and production processes. The author can also get information such as which editor is overseeing it, how many reviewers have returned their reviews, and similar features.  This tool is highly used and the ‘self serve’ approach has massively reduced the number of queries. While this made some reviewers feel more exposed than they are used to, the authors became much more empowered and feel valued as a user group.’

Emerald Publishing, which won Best User Experience Award for OpenAthens in 2020 for their platform Insight, decided user experience was going to be how they differentiated in the market. They have found continual experimentation, testing and regular open dialogue with their users is working well for them.  

Damian Stewart, head of UX, Emerald said: ‘We look to place the user at the centre of our UX work and create a continuous feedback loop which informs the design decisions we make. The accessibility of our platforms is extremely important to us. However, accessibility is a journey, not a destination, and we are working to ensure all our users have the optimum experience.  We aim to run experiments on our platforms on an ongoing basis, which allows us to obtain “in the moment” feedback using tools like Google Optimize and Hotjar, which enables us to be lean and agile.’   

However, nothing is straight-forward where consumers are concerned; user experience is a collective term, and at the same time highly personal and subjective.

'When you are building a product and you ask people: What do you do? How do you use it? Everyone lies!  They’ll say ‘Oh I do X, Y and Z’ and you observe them and they don’t do any of that,’ Scott Williams, VP platform and technology at De Gruyter said recently in an interview with Against the Grain. De Gruyter has recently rebuilt its entire content platform, in a way that means they can make up to the minute changes around what is working and what isn’t. Scott added: ‘Watch, listen and learn from the data.’ 

Tim Inman, formerly product manager at Bloomsbury admitted they often learned more from the users that didn’t sign up to a new product and why that was, than the ones that did. And Sam Herbert remembers building one of his first platforms years ago, and working on the user journey: ‘There was a massive button in the middle of the screen that said ‘pay here’, you couldn’t miss it.  But users regularly fed back to us that payment online was hard, they couldn’t find the right button to press, etc.  You have to accept that they are never wrong. What is obvious to you, is not always to them.  It's their experience, not yours!’

These offer great examples of why user experience is so hard to get right. But getting it right more often than not is what matters, and what these publishers and societies seem to have in common is a willingness to ignore the ‘normal’ ways of doing things, a commitment to keep watching the data and asking: ‘Where are the sticking points and how can we make it easier?’ over and over again.  

The ante is being upped even further. American editor of Learned Publishing Lettie Conrad, who is currently undertaking a PhD in information science and delivered the opening presentation at the recent NISO event, said: ‘We are living in an experience economy. Consumers' lives are taken up with digital and hybrid experiences; with a lot of brands competing for our attention. Users are constantly assessing; is this worth my time? What am I getting back from this transaction or experience? Publishers need to widen the lens of user experience and take a holistic view of how their offering fits into people’s lives.’ 

Esther Harris is a PR and communications specialist at 67 Bricks