Elsevier designs 'the article of the future'

Jan. 23, 2013 -- Reed Elsevier, a former print trade powerhouse, has been steadily selling off and acquiring businesses to focus on its data and research offerings. Last week, Elsevier B.V., a division of the company that provides science and health information, announced The Article of The Future, an ongoing initiative that "aims to revolutionize" the way research articles are formatted, making it more "dynamic and user-friendly." With many b-to-b media companies following suit and diving deeper into research and data, prototypes from the project have the potential to become a standard in the industry.

The project team for The Article of The Future, User Centered Design, started by interviewing and observing more than 150 researchers, authors, publishers and editors to get their take on how they read, write and share research articles. From there, 13 prototypes were born for seven subject domains. The first realization, wrote Dr. Elena Zudilova-Seinstra, content innovation manager for journal and content technology at Elsevier STM Journals, was that researchers "plainly love their traditional PDF format." This became the design starting point for the project.

After developing three design guiding principles (readability, discoverability and extensibility), the project team created a standard three-pane presentation layout for the prototypes. The middle area holds the main content: the article. The right pane contains supplemental information -- charts, graphics, definitions -- which is often hyperlinked from the main content area. The left pane serves as a table of contents. Click here for a sample prototype.

Elsevier Article of Future
A prototype from The Article Of The Future project

After creating the prototypes, the project team surveyed more than 800 people on the design. Reactions were positive with 75 percent of respondents saying the design helped them better understand the research in the article. Comments ranged from "Improved hyperlinks between references, equations, etc. … are very helpful" to "It will encourage more in depth investigation in order to understand the place of the new research" to "Tablet computing with the Article of the Future is going to replace PDF."

“The Article of the Future project is an excellent example of how design goes much deeper than just a superficial visual layer,” said Frans Heeman, portfolio manager for User Centered Design. “Design drives how people think about our products, so it has to be based on solid user data. In this project, we really harmonized content enrichments with presentation, layout, typography and functionality.”

The team took the project even further by studying online behavior and tracking eye movement. They found that readers scanned the central pane first, before moving to the left area then right sidebar.

Tablets and mobile have directly influenced the project. Like many industries, the number of people using tablets and other mobile devices to read reports are rising. Because of this, the project team wanted to ensure that the layout was "clean, simplified and minimalistic," while content was interactive.

To keep content clean, the User Centered Design team included minimal visuals in the main pane to encourage reader exploration. The interface is also responsive, adjusting to various screen sizes. To encourage interactivity, content in the middle pane often features links to graphics that, once clicked, show up on the right side.

The redesigned article format is currently available on Elsevier's ScienceDirect database of research articles. More information on The Article Of The Future project, including design strategies, survey results and sample prototypes, can be found here.

By Elizabeth A. Reid

Photo credit, with thanks: Elsevier Connect