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Understanding students’ behaviour and expectations: When bad user experience becomes a barrier to content

Vee RogachevaBy Vee Rogacheva
Category - Blog

Thursday 21st June 2018

Understanding your users’ experience is key to the success of any content platform. However, academic publishing seems to place a lot of emphasis on the quality of the content, and only a few platforms invest the same amount of energy and rigour in making sure that their content is easily accessible to students and researchers.

Our studies of students’ behaviour show that good content is often defined by how easy it is to find and access and not necessarily by its academic quality.

We share some of our recent findings at our webinar on Tuesday 3 July and discuss what publishers need to do to make it easier for students’ to access their content.

Time is everything

You may think that students’ journey to content is straightforward.

Ideal user journey to online content

But this is very rarely the case. Students often don’t know where to start their research, they have no idea what they are searching for or where to find it.

The academic community also tends to assume that, once enrolled at a university, students immediately gain excellent research skills, they can tell when a piece of content is of a good quality, and they will invest the time and effort needed into writing their papers. However, that too is very rarely the case.

This is a more realistic image of students’ journey to content:

Actual user journey to online content

Although students really invest in their studies, they have to deal with all sorts of competing priorities, like writing multiple papers at the same time or working whilst studying, or building relationships. Often they work under a lot of pressure to complete and submit their papers on time.

This means that the limited amount of time they have to do research has a huge impact on the way they do that and the type of content they find. Sometimes ‘golden’ content may never be found and ‘ok’ content will have to do the job.

Students’ approach to research

Here at OpenAthens we study students’ behaviour to improve our single sign-on products. Our research into university students in the UK and the US provides an insight into the way they approach academic research.

Students approach to academic research

Their starting point for research is often the university online library portal. And that is mostly the case when students are researching online resources on campus or at the library. However, we found that sometimes users get frustrated with the library portal experience and continue their search on Google.

Some students start their research with Google using the full range of content discoverable by the search engine. Scholarly articles or not, images, videos, infographics – students use all of those to speed up their research.

We also talked with some students who browse publishers’ websites directly to access journals or databases that are a well-established source of reputable content for their specific area of study. For example, law students may search legal case databases or medical students may read medical journals.

Students’ experience and expectations

Students and the overall academic community are not immune to the changes in human behaviour triggered by the advance of the digital age.

The attention economy

Companies have been competing for our attention since the dawn of advertising, but technology has made it really easy for individuals and organisations to capitalize on our attention.

The Centre for Humane Technology argue that technology is hijacking our minds and society by tearing apart our common reality and truth, constantly shredding our attention. This makes it difficult to concentrate and deal with big picture issues.

The result is an ever-shrinking attention span and an inability to remain focused on anything for a prolonged period of time.

Other content platforms

Academic content is just another form of content and inevitably users’ expectations will be shaped by their interaction with other content platforms. When interviewing students in the UK and in the US we hear references to Amazon, Netflix or Spotify. Some of the functionality that students take for granted is:

• Surface other relevant content in Amazon
• Show recommendations based on search history in Netflix
• Search for images in Google


With some regional variation, the expectation is that content should be available at all times, on all devices, and on the go. And academic content does not make an exception.

Pain points

Good user experience is when the student does a search, finds relevant content amongst the search results, clicks on a link and gets the ’golden’ content. It all happens in seconds.

But what if the content is behind a paywall? That slows down the process, those seconds become minutes. Some students would not even try to log in they simply hit ‘back’ and look for the next link on their search result list.

What happens when student reach a paywall

The students who try to log in often have to navigate confusing inconsistent interfaces with no guarantee that the content is even right for them. Under pressure and with a short attention span, they look for other options.

Breaking down the barriers to content

When bad user experience becomes a barrier to content it is bad news for everybody. Students don’t get the most out of their studies or receive the great experience they are paying for. Librarians struggle to justify investment in valuable resources. And publishers are under increasing pressure to provide open access to content.

Initiatives like Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA21) recognize the change in user behaviour and expectations and aims to optimize protocols across key stakeholder groups. Their goal is to facilitate a seamless user experience for consumers of scientific content that is intuitive and consistent across varied systems.

Single sign-on is also a part of the solution as it gives students and researchers a simple and secure way to access online content. The OpenAthens federation and other access management federations around the world promote international technical standards and best practices, providing reliable and secure connections to content.

For ideas on how publishers can better even further their users’ experience, read my Top 5 tips for improved academic research experience and join our webinar ‘When bad user design becomes a barrier to content‘ on Wednesday 3 July at 4pm BST.

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