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Developed with scientists, for scientists

Imagine yourself with an information problem. Not a lack of information, but too much information. How much information is too much? And, how can you easily and quickly obtain the literature you need, evaluate its relevance, and then manage it? We all face the same situation today � particularly scientific researchers, for whom the timely and accurate dissemination of quality information is crucial.

Now imagine yourself with resources and expertise to build a product that would do all this for you; a solution with you in mind, designed to work as you work. It would be like your own personal assistant.

This is just the proposition the Scopus team offered to more than 20 institutions around the globe two years ago. They asked librarians and researchers to:

  • Help them understand the challenges they face in literature research;
  • Show them how they currently search, browse and find the information they need; and
  • Help them build and evaluate a better solution for the tasks they face.

The result is Scopus, a new navigational tool across scientific information, launching in the last quarter of 2004.

What is Scopus?
As one librarian describes it, Scopus is a 'meta-discovery tool.' At its heart is the world's largest abstracting and indexing database, covering more than 14,000 scientific, technical and medical titles. Cutting-edge technology enables users to check their library holdings and link to their subscribed full-text articles in one click. Scopus works with other sources in the library, linking to all available full text in one click. Also, all relevant scientific information on the web is searched simultaneously, via the search engine Scirus. Best of all, you don't have to be a specialist searcher to get the most out of it. It's as easy to use as Google, but delivers the precise results that users need for scientific research.

Why was Scopus developed?
In short, it was developed because librarians and researchers demanded it. The scientific community led the way during the entire product development process, playing a key role from concept to physical development, and working side-by-side with technicians, testers, data experts and user-behaviour gurus. It was hard work, but the participants said it was 'a fascinating process.'

How did the scientific community get involved?
The Scopus team conducted countless surveys, interviews, seminars and colloquia with a wide range of researchers and librarians. But the success of Scopus' evidence-based development lies in zealous user-testing.

Every month, hundreds of scientists played with the product. They changed the design, queried why certain features worked or did not work, praised and complained, made suggestions and set priorities. They were the bosses.

Some of the Scopus team with some of our librarian partners at a colloquium in November 2002

Throughout, the Scopus team closely observed how a researcher wants to look for information, what they're hoping to find and what they're surprised to come across along the way.

The team painted a rich picture of what a scientist wanted, and then they built a product to mimic the cognitive model of a user. (See 'It Just Feels Right', below)

In the first sessions, the team watched how participants use currently available products: what they like, what is missing, where their deeper frustrations lie, and what they desire. They learned a lot about a scientist's search strategies, as well as how scientists and researchers analyse and synthesise information.

A Question and Answer session with librarians who helped develop Scopus at the Special Libraries Association, Nashville, June 5-8, 2004

Most of Scopus' underlying concepts were driven by these observations and insights from these sessions. The team found that scientists want to:

  • Start with a simple search box, and search broadly;
  • Be able to quickly evaluate an overview of their results, and then refine it;
  • Choose their own method to sort long result lists; and
  • Immediately get to the full-text article.

Sometimes, however, the Scopus team found that its ideas simply didn't work. By way of an example, initial market research had shown that everyone wanted citation information straight away: 'How many other articles have cited this article I'm interested in?'

To show this, the team added a nice, clearly visible button � and no one used it!

Afterwards, the team decided to test a different box, which displayed the titles of the most recent articles citing the paper the particular scientist was interested in, and it became one of the most popular features of the product.

What's the response to Scopus now?

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Many institutions are now trialling Scopus with their users, and feedback has been very positive. Examples of positive feedback include:

  • 'I found articles in Scopus that I couldn't find in other databases';
  • 'I'm always thinking: what would save me time? This would be a very useful tool!';
  • 'Why didn't they have this when I was doing my PhD?';
  • 'The way the results are presented is superb';
  • 'You get exactly what you want, and you have the full-text link included.'

Scopus is not just the finished product. It is the process and the people involved in the whole development. For both the technical team and the scientific community, it has been a rewarding experience.

If you had the chance to develop a tool that would really make a difference to your work, you'd take it . . . wouldn't you?

'It Just Feels Right'

You want to perform a search for an overview article in a new research field. How will you begin? Will you type in a few keywords and hope for the best? What criteria will you use to evaluate and refine the results? Is design a catalyst or obstacle to locating the information you need? These are some of the questions the Scopus team asked as they sought to understand the various cognitive, psychological and physiological processes going on when users search for information.

For the Scopus team, the process starts with understanding what a typical user's goals and tasks are. This knowledge helps to determine factors such as: what needs to be given visual priority in the user interface, what needs to appear 'above the fold', and what default settings are appropriate.

The Scopus team acquired this sensitivity to users' behaviour through 15 (and they are still going on) rounds of user tests. These tested prototypes at a conceptual level (Is this the right feature to offer?) and at a usability level (Does the design of this feature result in error-free and efficient interaction?). For the actual visual design, the team employed their knowledge of how the brain and the eye scan and process information.#

The overarching goal for the Scopus team is to hear users say that 'It just feels right.' When they say that they mean that Scopus naturally fits the scientist's and researcher's way of working, and it only takes a minimal effort to achieve their goals. The team know when/if they have succeeded when the user no longer notices the interface design, but just can get his/her work done efficiently, effectively and even with enjoyment.

contact details

Harriet Bell, Scopus
Tel: +31 (0)20 485 3858
Fax: +31 (0)20 485 3222