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Five tips for improving users’ online research experience

Vee RogachevaBy Vee Rogacheva
Category - Blog

Monday 23rd April 2018

How publishers can improve their online platforms by focusing on users’ needs

Here at OpenAthens we study student’s behaviour to improve our single sign-on products and we would like to share some of the findings with the wider academic community.

Our research into university students’ journey can help publishers provide more relevant, flexible and timely content.

The student’s journey to content

How publishers can improve their online platforms by focusing on users' needsOur user experience study of university students in the UK provided an insight to the way they approach academic research. Talking to students, it became evident that some of them have better research skills than others, but all students we interviewed start their research with Google.

We also found that students use rich content like video, images and podcasts. They also use the references provided by their lecturers.

The library portal was not popular, even though students recognised that the content provided by the library is of high quality. And finally, some students browse the publishers’ websites directly.

Having that journey in mind, here are my 5 tips for improved experience for academic content platforms.

1. Optimise your site for Google

Since Google search is to most common way students start their research you have to make sure your platform is search optimised.

As search engine optimisation is not my field of expertise, I can recommend SEO is Not Hard as a good article covering the basics.

2. Add rich content to your portfolio

Video, images, infographics and podcasts are types of content used by students to help them in their research.

For example, one of the students we interviewed said that he subscribes to a number of subject specific podcasts and that is how he gets all the references he needs for his course work.

Including rich content to your platform will make it more appealing and easy to find.

3. Make sure your platform provides good experience

This is easier said than done and there are a lot of elements to be considered, which combined will provide that sleek and intuitive experience users are after. But as users’ behaviour and expectations are constantly evolving, it is important to do usability testing on a regular basis.

Usability tests will help you discover things that users are struggling to navigate, functionality that is no longer needed or accessibility issues on your site.

Here are just few things we found publishers need to improve right away:

Easy and quick login

The need for simple access to content is something that came up time and time again during our research. Login is seen as a barrier and some students would not invest the time and effort to overcome it. They simply hit the back button and try the next page in their search results list.

Another thing to note is that students have very limited time to do research. They often leave it to the last minute and because of that, time is paramount. Complex site navigation and hidden login buttons are all barriers that students simply don’t have the time to figure out.

I’m not suggesting removing the pay wall here, but highlighting how important is to make login as easy as possible.

Mobile optimized

It shouldn’t be be a surprise to anyone these days that everybody uses multiple mobile devices. Students would often start their research on a laptop, continue on their mobile and finish on their tablet. They expect seamless experience regardless of the device.

Making your website mobile friendly is just a part of the solution, you also have to make sure that the content is accessible on mobile as well. Publishing academic articles in .pdf format makes it great to print but can be very difficult to read on a mobile phone.


Some students would use subject specific journals and databases in their research. These are for example law or medical students. In that case it is really important that your onsite search works.

This is another very tricky thing to get right because onsite searches are compared to Google, Amazon and Netflix, the expectation is not only for good key words match, but also for suggested content based on previous searches.

4. Promote your platform to the academic community

We also found that some students don’t go beyond the reading lists they were given in class for their research. So if your site is on that list, great.

5. Measure success

  • Google Analytics bounce rates — the lower the better, it means that your content is relevant and interesting.
  • Failed login — if users fail to login often in means there is a fundamental problem with the way your system has been set up.
  • Referrals — understand who points to your content and how you can leverage that.

Do you find our advice on research experience insightful? Share with your network and tune into our webinar recording ‘Quick wins for an easier user journey‘.

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