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Professional edge: eyes on the users.

It wasn't long ago that professionals had simple tools for their jobs: a typewriter for journalists, a card catalog for librarians, and a Rolodex for salespeople.

OK, those may be sweeping generalizations, but you have to admit that the times and tools have certainly changed. New digital technologies have ushered in myriad solutions that have made workflows easier, faster, and smarter. The emergence of iPads, all things mobile, and increased user expectations have raised the bar in the types of high-caliber tools infiltrating just about every professional niche.

In today's professional markets, content and solutions are all working toward a common goal of increased efficiency in navigating through the robust playing field of information at our fingertips. While the goals may be similar, each profession--whether medical, news, legal, or academic research--is responding to its own pain points. Product developers are now working with multidisciplinary teams across the corporate landscape, from marketing and editorial to sales and IT, to build agile workflows and platforms that can accommodate changing user needs. And users have become the driving force in creating these new tools.

The Pulse of Healthcare

Karen Abramson, president and CEO of Ovid Technologies, Inc., connects content, tools, and services designed to improve productivity for researchers in the scientific and healthcare communities. A part of Wolters Kluwer Health, Ovid Technologies' star platform is OvidSP, a bridge to more than 4,500 ebooks, 1,600-plus journals, and more than 100 bibliographic and full-text databases for more than 13,000 institutions and millions of users.

"The biggest trend we're seeing is the need to access content at the point of use," says Abramson. "Technology is enabling greater speed, efficiency, portability of access to content, and we see this in terms of our products needing to deliver the value of the content however the end user needs it." The customers are now driving the changes in workflow and in the product development process, she says, echoing the mantra that focuses on the users: "How you need it, when you need it, and where you need it."

Ovid relies on extensive user-based market research, multicontextual design research, and studies about what products its customers are using and how they are using them to determine the evolution of the company's product line.

"We will make the decision to utilize a device or type of technology with an iPad or export to social media site depending on what we see our members needing and using and where they are using our products," says Abramson. For example, when a physician is reading a print journal article that highlights the availability of supplementary video content, chances are the physician will not go to his desktop to view the video. Ultimately, he will miss that content.

"We recognized that we would be able to deliver a much more advanced experience, replicating the intimacy of everything that was delightful about the print experience on the iPad that the physician wouldn't get otherwise," says Abramson.

The iPad has become a more dynamic interactive experience for the reader, says Abramson. "None of our apps require you to be online, which was a conscious decision we made to differentiate our apps from the others," she says. It's mobile, but it can still be used in the same way as print without users needing to be tethered to Wi-Fi while they're on an airplane, for instance. Once a journal from Ovid is downloaded, the physician can read the entire publication, including accessing the video content. In fact, Ovid has released 50 apps since the beginning of 2012, and there are more on the way.

New product rollouts and enhancements are released to the market when it makes the most sense, says Abramson. Since Ovid is embedded in most client sites as part of a course curriculum, new releases are in sync with the school hiatus when university faculty and librarians can update the course materials without interrupting the classwork.

"I think our biggest successes have been around the richness of our productivity tools that we play to the researchers' workflow in our platform," says Abramson.

Raising the Bar

The past few years have ushered in plenty of changes in the legal arena, but many aren't really surprising, says Joel Hurwitz, director of new product development at Thomson Reuters. One of the biggest was the need for "unimpeded access to whatever software or information we're providing," he says, including via mobile and computing-hosted solutions that had previously met with resistance from the legal community due to concerns about security.

For Erik Lindberg, also director of new product development at Thomson Reuters, the iPad was a real game-changer. "I was working on WestlawNext when the iPad first came out, and we were a little skeptical that attorneys would embrace it," he says. "But it caught on dramatically with our customers, especially its ability to integrate research with your desktop and have access to that content wherever you go."

Lindberg sees part of WestlawNext's success resulting from being built on an agile development platform, where enhancements and tools were "testable and functioning every 2 weeks." If the results didn't measure up to expectations, only 2 weeks were invested in the process instead of 6 months, he says. Hurwitz concurs, noting that the internal development teams were far more engaged as a result in getting the products to market.

"Time is money, and we're definitely aware of that," says Lindberg, who points to the importance of efficiency in the process. "Anything that we can do to make attorneys more efficient doing their tasks and make them work more efficiently for their clients is extremely important to us and to them." Talking to customers on a regular basis helps the development teams channel user needs into actionable results. Not all products are going to work on old browsers, he says, and there's a reason for that. With WestlawNext, for example, "If we scaled everything down for use on the oldest browsers, we wouldn't have been able to produce the functionality that we wanted to and to push the technology forward. It's a balance."

Drafting Assistant, a processor plug-in that helps attorneys create legal documents and briefs, is one product that has had a quick adoption rate because it alleviates some of the more frustrating aspects of drafting these types of documents, says Hurwitz.

"We're a hub," says Hurwitz of his product development team. "We're the connection between the customer and what products are being built." About two-thirds of the staffers in the organization are attorneys, he says, which helps the team understand the problems attorneys face.

Getting feedback from users via focus groups and market research takes a definite role in defining and creating products, along with data from experts in the fields of user experience and usability studies. Then there are workplace observations where attorneys narrate their thought processes as they navigate a prototype or a new tool. Often, the research process into user behavior includes eye tracking to discover more subtle but substantial shifts in workflow that can affect a tool's efficiency.

"We use personalization where it makes sense," says Lindberg. "With sticky preferences, for example, you set up your preferences, and you don't have to do it again," whether that means delivering results as a Word document or a PDF. "It all gets back to that concept of efficiency and personalization," he says. "We want to tailor the experiences to user needs."

What's Making Headlines

For David Chivers, vice president of product for Dow Jones & Co., news --especially quality news--is important to every key business decision that is being made.

"We really are in a fast-paced technology landscape," says Chivers, who takes a holistic approach in aggregating content for Factiva's customers. "The speed and pace of change has increased dramatically, and we're influencing that by really creating a platform that allows us to release more quickly." Factiva is providing users with sophisticated business search and monitoring tools so they can make decisions faster with more info and context at their fingertips.

Factiva has always been a global provider of business information, says Chivers, but one of the key differentiators is Factiva's breadth of information, especially when companies need a global view.

Several factors have been instrumental in disrupting the flow of information today. "Increasingly, people feel that they have less time to find exactly what they are looking for and less time to even formulate questions," says Chivers. Millennials entering the workforce have also reshaped user expectations. "They are all interacting in some way with the consumer digital experiences that lead to their expectations of how they can get their work done," he says, with a nod to Amazon, Apple, and Google for making tools and services portable and easy to use. The speed of change is noticeable when we consider that the iPad was still on the drawing board 3 years ago, and mobile has become the norm.

To combat the ongoing changes in workflow, Chivers set several initiatives in motion. The use of personas has been helpful in getting closer to customers and their needs, he says. The personas serve to cut across the typical corporate roles and focus on what type of work key personnel actually do within the information gathering-and-dissemination process. Sales teams also play a pivotal role since they are on the frontline, interacting with customers on a daily basis and seeing how the products are actually being used. The client advisory board and the new technical advisory board also provide insights into the road map needed to define product changes over time.

Customization gives users exactly what they want, when they want it. Chivers points to Factiva's Snapshot as a way for customers to tailor their newsfeeds with "alerts for a particular industry, competitors, topics and regions of interest, information that really fosters that idea of serendipity."

Dipping Into History

Gale, part of Cengage Learning, has long been an innovator in teaching and learning solutions for global academic and library markets. With the launch of the Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO), primary source materials are combined with monographs, newspapers, maps, and photographs to provide a detailed look inside the "long" century from 1790 to 1840 (see Product News, page 30).

Ray Abruzzi, associate publisher at Gale, has been working on the NCCO initiative for more than a year. "When I say an interface is done, it's launched, but I don't mean that it's complete," he says. Working with an agile platform means "we're never finished," he says. From a product development standpoint, he admits the process can be frustrating, but the beauty of having an agile system is that changes can be made rapidly whenever and wherever they are warranted.

"One of the early criticisms of databases was that students were only seeing what was digitized and what was available," says Abruzzi. The latest iterations can help researchers "understand that they may need to look beyond these sources, but we provide some signposts to tell them where to go next."

Abruzzi says the first tools are developed according to the most common needs among Gale's collection of key personas.

For example, subject indexing is the latest innovation to provide signposts to navigate students toward different subjects and move them through subject areas that they may not be intimately familiar with and preview material using a simple mouseover. Term clusters can also connect the dots in finding related terms that are statistically relevant near the original search term. The "wonder wheel" tool lets users drill deeper into related information, says Abruzzi. "It's a way of creating contextual relationships to navigate in a subject area."

Abruzzi pushed to make sure researchers at any level of expertise could discover content easily. "What we've found is that researchers don't use Advanced Search and students are terrified by it," he says. So the development team provided a one-click Advanced Search for granularity, which can limit a search to only diaries, financial records, or lyrics.

There's more serendipity in working with primary sources than meets the eye, says Abruzzi. In fact, the materials end up in better shape than they started since conservationists often repair and restore the materials during digitization.

User feedback serves as a critical barometer. "From a product development standpoint, I know what that button does because I helped create that button," says Abruzzi. "But if someone new to the database doesn't know how that works, we've failed."
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Title Annotation:Ovid Technologies Inc.
Author:Brynko, Barbara
Publication:Information Today
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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