An Interview with Derek Poppink, Director of User Experience, Cengage Learning.

Derek Poppink has been helping to design great experiences for users of Gale library and research products for the past three-and-a-half years. He leads a team of user experience (UX) specialists charged with paying attention to the unique requirements of online library solutions. Jeanne Heston had an opportunity to speak with Derek recently about his design philosophy and the research methods that are critical to his team’s innovation and design processes.

Jeanne Heston (JH): What was it that inspired you to get into this field in the first place?

Derek Poppink (DP): I was studying at Stanford University, in the Computer Science department, when I became interested in the intersection of human behavior and technology. I soon realized that the desirability of a technology product – the emotional reaction that its interface evokes in the user – is in many ways more influential in terms of driving product adoption than the technology itself. If users are in a positive frame of mind, emotionally engaged in the product experience, they are more apt to be patient with products, to use them for longer periods of time and to take the time to explore more of the features.

JH: Tell me a little bit about your design philosophy.

DP: I think of the overall user experience as something that everyone in the organization – not just the UX practitioners — should think about, doing their part to improve it. It is similar in many ways to healthcare. The patient’s overall health and wellness is not solely the responsibility of the doctors. It takes the participation of everyone on the hospital staff – including administrators, technicians, nurses, and lab personnel.

I am a big fan of Peter Morville’s User Experience (UX) Honeycomb model. According to his model, usability is only one of the many facets of the user experience that contribute to the overall value of the product. The solution must also be useful, desirable, findable, accessible, credible, and possess other qualities. For online library resources, it is frequently the “findable” cell that is most important because our content is not currently available on the open web. Once a user finds the library site that contains the information that she is seeking, she then needs to navigate to the correct database page, select the appropriate database within that page, and finally search for the specific information that she is seeking.

JH: How do you and your team ensure that the voice of the customer is incorporated into each library-focused product and service?

DP: The team uses a mix of research methods in order to inform the design process, including usability testing, surveys, heuristic studies, ethnographic research, and sales analysis. The monthly usability tests are moderated and conducted remotely so that all team members – developers, designers, managers, and usability testing specialists — can sit in, watch, and listen. The results are often surprising, resulting in profound insights that enable team members to make dramatic improvements in the overall user experience. Team members advocate on behalf of users. We are organized in such a way that we can quickly create prototypes of new and improved interface designs on a small scale, using a highly-collaborative process; then we scale-up when we are satisfied with the results.

JH: Do you have any examples that you can share?

DP: When we released the current version of the Gale Virtual Reference Library (GVRL), it was based upon research that was acquired through a variety of channels and research methods. We discovered — through usability testing — that our customers were not always aware that the lists of search results consisted of eBooks because the lists looked like ordinary hyperlinks. When we changed the display so that the book cover images appeared in the result set, the rate of click-through increased along with the overall quality of the user experience.

At the same time, we utilized customer survey data and analytics to assess the impact of various changes to the interface. In all cases, it was clear that improvements to our search and content selection algorithms would make more of a difference to users in terms of overall satisfaction than changes to the screen layout or additional features.

JH: Where do you see this technology going? How will the user experience for the web-based library evolve in the future?

DP: We are looking at ways of making library resources more discoverable – to help users find the primary sources and other content that they are looking for as quickly and easily as possible – through our partnerships with OCLC and other organizations. At the same time, we are working on concepts for making library resources available from within online course solutions, so that learners can access library content more easily from within their online study and homework solutions. Lastly, we’re looking at designing new types of library user experiences as we partner with major cultural institutions, such as National Geographic and The Smithsonian Institute, to bring their archives online.

We are excited about the role that library resources will play in the rapidly changing culture of learning. Our goal is to do whatever we can to make the learning experience as enjoyable and productive as possible!

What capabilities would you like to see added to library and research solutions in the future? We would love to hear from you. Please share your suggestions using the Comments box below.

Interested in learning more? Check out this behind-the-scenes look at Gale’s development process.