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Information Today

Vol. 29 No. 1 — January 2012

FEATURE
Building a Better User Experience
by Alexa Mantell and Amanda Mulvihill


In an era when information over­ load has tipped the scales to “infobesity,” content aggregators are faced with the challenges of delivering more content across more channels. And satisfying the need for a richer user experience and the latest technology has content aggregators busier than ever launching new platforms and finding new ways to push and pull content.

To provide the best user experiences (UX) for customers, many content aggregators such as Dow Jones & Co. are leveraging research garnered from user studies. Its Factiva platform aggregates business information from thousands of sources across several industries and delivers it to users in 26 languages. And to keep pace with changing user needs, Factiva collects customer feedback from all of its users. “We’ve really focused extensively on bringing customers into the fold in terms of prototyping things,”says David Chivers, vice president of product for Factiva.

The resulting research has helped Fac­ tiva develop personas (IT, December 2011, p. 13), which categorize users based on how they interact with the product, not on job descriptions. “Regard­ less of their job roles, people collaborate with one another around digital information,” says Chivers. The personas are designed to deliver a customized experience tailored to each user’s work habits.

Gale, part of Cengage Learning, also focuses on user profiles. The company provides e-research and educational publishing products and services—including more than 600 databases—to libraries, schools, and businesses. Gale conducts several types of user testing studies, inclu­ ding observational research, which is then transformed into personas and scenarios. Product features are tested with end users during the development cycle of each product. “[Users] are informing [us] what products we should make, what content should be in [them], and how that content is expressed,” says David Forman, vice president and publi­ sher at Gale.

Marcus Woodburn, vice president of digital products at Ingram Content Group, Inc., refers to his company as a “behind-the-curtain” pro­ vider of services for the book industry. The company uses its business model to create a smooth user experience. Ingram distributes content from more than 850 publishers to a global network of booksellers and libraries while supporting print, print on demand (PoD), and digital distribution. Because it acts as a middleman between publishers and retailers who hear feedback directly from customers, Ingram is in a unique position to communicate with both sides of the book industry, he says.

“There’s a slight sense of a sort of crowdsourcing in that with so many publishers and so many retailers served, we can actually start to observe best practices … and try to share that information with our other side,” says Woodburn.

At Newstex, real-time aggregated content from news sources, blogs, Twit­ ter, Facebook, podcasts, and videos is pushed to distributors that then deliver that content to end users. All of these feeds are delivered to distributors via an XML fire hose, which can then be incorporated into distributor-built apps. Newstex also creates mobile apps for its clients, mixing feeds from the client’s content, original News­ tex content, and third-party content.

While UX is an integral part of development, News­ tex co-founder and president Larry Schwartz says that changes to the user interface happen rapidly in the mobile space. News­ tex ap­ ­ plies its commitment to the latest in­ roads in technology (the company is totally virtual and does all business over Amazon Cloud Drive) to its custom­ ers by anticipating their needs and building apps to accelerate their business.

Going Mobile

One of the biggest chal­ lenges for content aggregators intent on offering a robust UX is delivering content over a range of mobile devices. “It adds a layer of complexity that we didn’t have 10 years ago,” says Chivers.

For book publishers, delivering digital and mobile content has revolutionized the concept of distribution. Because Ingram delivers ebooks to retailers around the globe, it has to take into account how text, images, and charts will appear on all devices.

To accommodate the growing number of mobile devices and reading apps, Ingram is formulating a standardization solution. For its trade titles, Ingram adopts the EPUB format to give all of its users a high-quality reading experience regardless of device or location.

As with Ingram, Chivers says the product development team at Factiva believes that flexibility and standardization are the keys to serving customers across all devices. Offering a mobile-optimized web solution and a native iPad app (a mobile web app will be rolled out this year), Factiva made a strategic decision to develop a mobile-friendly web service using HTML5.

Users of Factiva’s mobile-optimized web solution can perform quick searches, retrieve articles, and get mobile-friendly email alerts. The native Factiva app for iPad also lets users save articles to view offline and includes Snapshots, Factiva’s customizable module-based dashboard that delivers industry-specific content.

Newstex also designs its clients’ apps to meet use standards. Schwartz notes that since consumers leverage phone and tablet apps differently, users “snack” on content via their phones and spend more time with apps on their tablets.

Focusing on Content Quality

Content aggregators have essentially raised the bar in delivering quality content for increasingly demanding end users. “End users’ perceptions of credibility on­ line are very different from traditional measures of trust and expertise,” says Derek Poppink, Gale’s UX manager. “Today’s users evaluate the credibility of content by the appearance of the web­ site, the lack of errors, and how recently the site has been updated.”

End users know what they want and are provi­ ding input into what content goes into the mix. For example, Factiva’s users are quick to recommend sources that they would like to see added to the platform, says Chi­ vers. Last year, he says Factiva added 4,000 new authoritative blog sources based on customer feedback.

Newstex, as with other content aggregators, provides authoritative content by sifting through the ever-increasing number of online sources and deduping content published across multiple internet and mobile platforms, says Schwartz. “We edit, we vet it, and we make sure we get the best,” he says. “What people are really looking to read is the commentary … and you get that from social media.”

Customizing Content

Another critical element of UX is letting customers tailor content for their individual needs. After considering user research, Gale moved beyond providing narrative content with its recent rollout of Gale Business Insights: Global to offering sup­ plementary statistical content, structured data sets, and economic statistics. The program lets users compare businesses or industries side by side within the application while providing deep links so users can find the most relevant information for their needs, Forman says.

At Ingram, publishers can use its CoreSource digital asset management platform to distribute, manage, and store digital content. From there, Woodburn says that books can be distributed to the publishers’ pick of retailers and libraries. Booksellers and providers can work directly with the publishers through CoreSource, or they can use Ingram’s wholesale fulfillment service to let retailers choose from a catalog of 400,000 titles.

Factiva’s users have access to all 31,000 sources automatically; users can customize which source updates they receive and can opt to use existing lists of sources based on subject or industry, says Chivers. “They can also create their own source lists, use our advance alerting capabilities to set up alerts around those, and set their default search experience” for the sources they’re interested in, he says.

A New Depth in Search

At Newstex, “search is everything,” says Schwartz, “because when you have a lot of content … you have to have a really good search and notification to do it.” Users are more interested in receiving mobile alerts when content is published across online platforms that are relevant to their interests, he says.

Factiva also offers options for searchers based on the devices they are using. The mobile solution has a Simple Search tool that lets users consume content and take an occasional dip into search, says Chivers. Full-time researchers and information professionals still use their desktops/laptops for extensive sear­ ches since mobile interfaces cannot support that level of sophistication at this point, he says. Those users tackle complex searches with Factiva’s Search Builder tool.

But content can only be used if it is findable, which Poppink says is one of the biggest challenges in delivering content to Gale’s users. Features such as autocomplete and a search assistant to suggest other terms help users find the right results. This layer of support can assist students, faculty members, or public library patrons who are familiar with the functionality of Google and Wikipedia, he says, and he reports that there are more tools, such as tagging, on the way.

To improve mobile’s rich user experience, content aggregators are offering enhanced content that leverages multimedia, interactivity, and social tools.

“The format and the quality on a mobile platform, like an iPad, is so much better because I can look at a story, I can watch a video, I get all the multimedia aspects of it,” Schwartz says. When the PC first arrived, distributors had to adapt their content to a desktop and then to an internet platform, he says. “Now they all have to figure out how to adapt to a mobile platform.”

Infotrieve: Research On-the-Go

Infotrieve is busy adapting to changing times in a changing industry. The global information management company didn’t set out to become a content aggregator, but that’s just what happened. It started out as a full-service solutions provider for content, technology, and personnel, and it has been stepping up its offerings with new products, tools, and services ever since.

Apps were one of the biggest game changers in the information industry, says Lynn Schlesinger, vice president of marketing and communications at Infotrieve. Since end users have grown accustomed to mobile, they now want the same applike functionality on web platforms. In response, Infotrieve’s development team went back to the drawing board to create a host of new innovations that will be rolled out in 2012.

Infotrieve usually doesn’t sell directly to end users; it partners with more than 140 of the leading global STM publishers to provide comprehensive, up-to-date content for organizations and institutions. Many of Infotrieve’s content users are scientists and researchers from R&D-focused organizations and access content via Infotrieve’s Mobile Library.

End users can easily customize Infotrieve’s Mobile Library platform. While all clients can access its pay-per-use store that offers more than 50 million citations, clients with licensed content from scientific journals and copyright-compliant licenses can integrate those licenses with the platform. That way, end users have one place to access their internal collections as well as Infotrieve’s pay-per-use store; they don’t have to visit multiple sites.

End users can also customize their content via personal and shared libraries. “What’s unique about Mobile Library is that it checks the rights on each piece of content and makes sure users can compliantly access it, before allowing them to do so,” says Schlesinger.

When Infotrieve launched an iPad app for its Mobile Library in September 2010, the company made sure the app offered the same quality experience as the desktop or laptop.

“Professionals don’t expect to be chained to a desk anymore to do their work, they want to be able to do it when and where they see fit on any given occasion,” says Schlesinger.

Barbara Brynko


Alexa Mantell and Amanda Mulvihill are assistant editors at Information Today, Inc. and work on several publications. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.
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