"We've come a long way in a few years"

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Alan Maloney

Alan Maloney talks all things UX after winning OpenAthens’ best publisher user experience award this year

Where is UX practice at Sage now, and how did you get there?

We've come a long way in a few years! There wasn't even a UX team here until 2018. Before then we were relying on a couple of UX experts across different teams, with the occasional contractor. Our first step was to bring these roles into the same team with a mission to evolve and mature the practice across the business, and our numbers have tripled since then.

One of the first changes we made was to move away from an internal agency model, with various teams competing for a central resource, to embedding designers in product teams. This is a delicate balance because embedded designers can easily feel isolated, so we make sure that we also operate as a unified community of practice with embedded designers who are also part of the central UX team.

Sage is unique among publishers in the variety and diversity of content and products that we create, so this 'centralised partnership' model has been a huge success. It creates a virtuous circle where designers benefit from immersion and specialist knowledge of their product and its users, and product teams benefit from having UX expertise in their daily conversations.

How did you get buy-in to grow the team to where it is today?

Three things I think helped in particular. First, UX is no different to any other function in that building relationships with other teams and delivering value to them is essential. We never refuse to work with another team at Sage, even if we don't 'officially' resource for them. Building trust and laying the groundwork by delivering initial, small pieces of value is the first step to getting a department or a business unit their own UX resource.

Second, UX must deliver value that a publisher can recognise and quantify. There can be a perception that UX work is mostly about flashy visuals or delightful features, but an underrated feature of UX how it supports delivery by standardising, simplifying and reducing needless complexity. In 2020 we built a design system to improve consistency and reuse of work not just for features and interactions, but wider principles such as tone of voice, and diversity and inclusion (a huge area of focus for Sage). That spotlight on enabling quicker, better decisions that are rooted in user research has helped us deliver record numbers of new products and redesigns.

Lastly, UX teams have incredible untapped potential to be the home of specialist expertise that cuts across products, and this knowledge can open doors. One of the things that our UX team has been known for since the early days is our obsession with treating accessibility as a fundamental aspect of the user experience. Over the years, accessibility became a calling card for us and a ticket into conversations that we otherwise might not have been a part of, and there are opportunities to do this with other areas of in-demand expertise such as analytics and data.

So UX isn't just wireframes and prototypes?

Not at all! So many more things make up the quality of the user's experience than just layout, structure, interactions, and visuals. I just mentioned accessibility -- you can also add performance, security, discoverability, and content of course. This is why as well as general design roles we also have specialist roles in the central UX team, offering expertise in inclusive design, information architecture, discoverability and more. One of the analogies I like to use is a multidisciplinary team in a healthcare setting, involving conversations between doctors, nurses, therapists and dietitians. You have to treat the whole patient.

This need for collaboration to create a great user experience extends beyond our team. We need to work closely with developers to make sure that our designs are possible to implement without adding too much complexity, technical debt or loading times. And we need to work with our editorial colleagues to make sure not only that we're doing justice to the content by making it usable and discoverable, but that they're supplying content that is accessible and useful.

Here, the most important UX tools aren't Figma or Hotjar, but PowerPoint and Zoom: tools that facilitate conversations and knowledge sharing that help everyone drive better user experiences across the organisation. And because Sage’s independence is now guaranteed, we’re able to think longer-term and not just ruthlessly optimise for the short term.

Are there any UX challenges that are unique to academic publishing?

The power of UX is that it's a generalised set of practices that can be applied to any industry, so everything that is true about UX is also true about academic UX. That said, good UX is all about context and there are some unique aspects of doing UX work in our industry. 

We have to be conscious that we're a publisher, so at the end of the day it's our content that users are interested in. And there's so much content to organise, make sense of and make discoverable. You can't put an interface on top of that thoughtlessly. We have to think not just about search and browse but about serendipitous discovery, information seeking behaviours, and how our platforms fit into the scholarly ecosystem including library discovery services, or identity and access management services. Information architecture work like this is an important competence in UX, but arguably the challenges in our industry are more complex, and interesting!