Early last year, The New York Times Innovation Report noted that of the Times’s monthly digital readership, 30 million were desktop readers and 20 million were mobile. Patterns are shifting steadily. Last month, The Times noted that “more than half of our traffic…is on mobile.” Presumably seeing that employees are insufficiently engaged with the magnitude of this shift, a senior editor then announced that The New York Times was making its homepage unavailable to users inside its headquarters building for a week. It sought thereby to force a large portion of its employees to share their readers’ actual user experience. Scholarly publishers and academic libraries can benefit from adopting similar techniques to ensure that they understand the limits of the experience they currently provide to researchers.
For those publishers and libraries that track the platform usage of their readers, mobile may in many cases not appear to account for such a high share of usage. I believe this figure can be misleading. In the absence of other evidence, it is probably safe to assume that low levels of mobile usage are caused by a scholarly information ecosystem that is actually driving usage away to alternatives. Google has recently imposed search result penalties on sites that perform poorly on mobile. Everyone needs to be serving mobile effectively – and developing strategies for exploring its unique affordances.
I have written about some of my own experiences as a user of scholarly information resources. Publisher platforms, libraries, and various intermediaries have cobbled together an ecosystem that has real limitations. Among these limitations, changing information consumption patterns are vital. Where The Times focuses on mobile and typically authenticates based on an individual user account, our scholarly information community must must grapple with an experience that can be not only mobile but also off campus relative to an IP authentication model.
Publishers and libraries alike have told me that their staff, like those at The Times, do not completely understand how changing information consumption patterns should affect their product, infrastructure, and acquisitions strategies. Here are some suggestions for how to follow a Times-like approach to help our communities consider these issues more directly.
It is not always easy for a publisher to experience the mobile and offsite use cases fully. Turning off access to your content platform for desktops in the office, and routing your colleagues to use it on their phones via your office WiFi, is a good place to start. It will force your colleagues to engage with the user experience for your site on mobile. They will soon discover mobile interfaces with limited functionalities, mobile sites with lags in content updating relative to the desktop version, and the practical limits of the PDF, among other things. Everyone from the CEO down can benefit from spending a few days experiencing the joys and frustrations of tapping their way to scholarly content. Almost every publisher has improvements to make at this level alone.
But this provides only a small slice of the full experience, since you won’t be able to provide your colleagues with the full “on campus” experience. If they navigate directly to your homepage, they won’t experience the frustrations of working through some of the typical research workflows – starting from an email alert, or a tweet, or a Google search, or a discovery service. And they won’t experience the pain points that many researchers (and the growing numbers of distance learning students) experience when working off campus, which yields confusion and extra steps in order to seek authorization through a proxy or Shibboleth. To seek out this full set of experiences, you may want to encourage your colleagues to register for a course at a local university or online, thereby gaining access to library resources and experiencing their use in a curricular setting. This type of first-hand experience is invaluable. Or, at least, bring your senior leadership to watch some high-quality holistic user research.
It is in some ways easier, and in others harder, for librarians to gain these experiences. It is easier because when on campus you will be able to access the full set of tools and thereby experience the full set of research workflows, while your university user account will typically provide complete offsite access. But whether librarians use mobile interfaces and offsite access sufficiently widely to understand the limitations of the service environment for researchers is another matter. You will immediately realize that turning off in-building access to library resources on the desktop would be a non-starter, since it is unlikely to be possible to do so in staff areas without also impacting public areas. At some libraries, you would be able to encourage staff to use an extension for their browsers that would block access to various common publisher platforms and key library services, forcing them to be used via mobile. You might also find it effective to encourage library staff to take an occasional research day from home, experiencing off-campus authorization the same as other library users.
Limiting access to desktop versions, and encouraging engagement with the off-site experience, could be a very good way to startle one’s colleagues into an improved understanding of researcher needs and opportunities to improve the services offered to support them. The point though is not to cause pain, but rather to have the whole team engaged in the types of improvements that can be made.
In some cases, these improvements will be incremental: making a given task a little easier, less confusing, more successful. But opportunities should also be seized to develop new approaches, new services, and perhaps even new products, that take advantage of changing workflows and new sensors. There is a process required beforehand to prepare your colleagues for both types of contributions. To ensure that feedback and opportunities are systematically gathered and where feasible utilized, you should put in place some formal system for gathering and evaluating it. And prior to forcing colleagues away from their desktop computers even temporarily, you might wish to determine the share of your staff that have a modern smartphone. If that number is not very high there are some more basic issues to be addressed first.
Beyond enticing your colleagues to experience researchers’ varied processes, there are also opportunities for very productive partnerships between libraries and publishers in support of changing information consumption patterns. User experience researchers at publishers should have very deep understanding of these patterns on their individual platforms. User experience researchers at libraries should have very broad understanding of these patterns across platforms and intermediary infrastructure. On an ongoing basis, they have much to talk to one another about.