If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that remote access is integral to our future. But publishers face an uphill battle when it comes to accessibility, usability and user experience.
Our international sales manager, Kieran Prince and technical consultant Adam Snook look at the pertinent issues. They discuss what needs to change to create seamless access in an online world full of obstacles.
According to Experience Dynamics, if content is not optimized, 79% of users will search for another site.
User experience (UX) has become a buzz phrase in recent years. However, understanding how true UX works and serves audiences is an ongoing job to ensure that access to information can be achieved easily and efficiently. In effect, UX is never finished.
Ask any student or researcher, their experience is not always positive when trying to find, and access, online materials.
“You only have to hop on Twitter to see how many people resort to using other means to get to the information source they want,” says Kieran.
“Pirate library site Sci-Hub exists because of these frustrations. It’s a known fact that if a user has to click more than three times to get to their online destination – they will give up.
“However, they won’t actually stop looking, they will likely pursue other sources. Therein lies the problem. It’s easy to see why someone will use an easier route to get to information they need. Even if it means using an illegal site.”
It is estimated that Sci-Hub, which started in 2011, has in excess of 400,000 daily users. Some academics claim any research paper published anywhere, at any time, can be available at the click of a button through the Russian-backed platform.
According to cybercrime expert team DataProt, “Internet piracy isn’t ethically justifiable, but it is convenient.”
The site claims: ‘illegally uploading or downloading copyrighted materials takes up nearly 24% of the bandwidth used in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific and consumers who make pirate downloads are 28 times more likely to get their device infected with malware’.
In an age where it’s seemingly impossible to stop the prevalence of piracy, to accept it is not the best course of action. Policing online is an insurmountable task but positive action to remove barriers to access and encourage better practices is where the effort should be focused.
The publisher perspective
“On the surface UX can look like a simple problem to solve,” adds Kieran, “but you cannot underplay how important it is. It is the most critical element of what we do – but it doesn’t come into the minds of publishers enough. Authentication is not considered; it should be a higher priority. If a user can’t access content then it’s useless.
“It also has an impact on the reputation of publisher brands. A poor user experience can reduce the likelihood of libraries renewing subscriptions.”
Adam picks up on this point: “We know when people struggle to access the content they want through the official published channel and then seek an illegal route, that this has an effect on the usage statistics which are used by librarians to assess what are the most used sources.
“Illegal access skews the usage reports which are vital for publishers needing to maintain subscribers for their income. It’s become a vicious circle.”
Understanding the user psyche
We know that people feel less guilty about accessing a source through an illegal route if they know their library or institution has a subscription to the service:
“However, this is a false economy. Librarians who review usage stats to make decisions on which subscriptions to attribute precious budgets to will be making spending decisions based on misleading data.”
Turning UX on its head
Looking at it from the user perspective, Adam says: “We should turn UX on its head. Instead let’s talk about federated access.
“Single sign-on (SSO) through a federation helps to make UX consistent. Where you have IP access based on location – you could be using your own network IP and also remote access – how do you then tell the publisher where you’re from? Using proxy servers or a VPN (virtual private network) can mean you still have a few hoops to jump through.
“If you do a Google search and find the content you want, to access it using a proxy or VPN means you have to go back to the library portal. Then you need to know what your proxy server is so you can manipulate the URL. Of course, people will use an easier alternative to them than this if it is readily available.
“With federated access, no matter how you get to the content you simply have to login on that site by searching for your organization and then signing in with your single set of credentials. This means ease of access. Regardless of system or location, this is a tried and trusted, and, importantly, legitimate way in.”
The industry approach – RA21
“The reason RA21 came into being,” says Adam, “is there just wasn’t a pan-industry solution. Everyone was doing something different and that has led to lack of consistency and confusion for end users. This has fuelled the proliferation of pirate materials now publicly available.”
“There is too much focus on the tech and not the guiding principles. We have seen different degrees of uptake and implementation but the user experience is still inconsistent and confusing. This is because we’re not concentrating on the principles which are open to too much interpretation. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Now we have industry stakeholders involved and the major publishers are expressing interest in adopting the standards as they can see the benefits. We have found it has helped for us to be involved from an early stage; we’re seeing more interest from our customers in adopting the standards and buying into the benefits of seamless access.
“However, although there are now recommended practices in place, industry uptake has been slow. There are three confirmed organizations going live with it. But not many want to be the early adopter.
“There was criticism initially that not enough libraries were giving input. This has changed as we have seen advocates in the library sector pushing the message of the need for consistency in the industry which generally needs to take a more holistic approach in my opinion.”
UX in the Covid era
Inevitably the pandemic has hit the publishing world hard as it has with many sectors. Advertising revenues have faced greater pressure. User consumption patterns and behaviors have changed with increased home working and the appetite to access greater amounts of published material online.
This has prompted diversification by some publishers to SaaS models (software as a service). Many have focused on doing more for greater visibility with readerships. Additional content is being made freely available, educational and learning materials have more value to home-educated and blended learning societies.
“There is greater aggregation of content and as publishers look to pivot, adapt and diversify their offerings, which could see the end of the golden age of licensed content,” Kieran explains.
How we are responding to user needs
We have a greater control over UX when publishers use our service; users will experience a consistent journey.
Our Wayfinder product has been adopted by 60 publishers and is now fully functional making single sign-on a piece of cake. Researchers can log-in simply and securely to access the many online resources their organization subscribes to, whilst keeping their privacy intact.
Because we have relationships with both publishers and libraries, we can see first-hand where the pain points are for users and this enables us to test both systems from a user perspective.
We’re also working with publishers to support them in implementing RA21 practices. We can test logins and user journeys, see whether they support deep linking, provide health check services and look at the use of terminology and personalization in the user.
Having been involved with Seamless Access from early on, we sit on both the steering and outreach committees. We have the unique position in having relationships with both libraries and publishers. This enables us to implement the recommended standards.
We are currently in the pilot phase of implementing the Seamless Access service across our own products. Our Wayfinder product will hopefully start supporting Seamless Access early next year. With over 25 years’ experience implementing standards-based software, our technical teams can help publishers support Seamless Access much more quickly.
The last word
The importance of user experience cannot be underplayed. From the surface it can look like a simple problem to fix but it’s the most critical element of what we do. It doesn’t come into the minds of publishers enough and authentication is not always considered. If a user cannot access content, no matter how great it is, then it has no value.
Poor user experience impacts on brand equity and loyalty in users. Publisher reputations will be affected if UX is not up to scratch. While the librarians may be the decision makers when it comes to subscriptions, it’s users who dictate whether they renew or not. Ignore User experience at your peril.
Can our consultancy services help you improve user experience?
With over 25 years experience, we’re leading experts in federated single sign-on services worldwide. We understand the challenges publishers face in delivering access to data and information to those who need it. Leave all the tricky technical work to us!