Scientific database

Improving upon an existing flagship database product, asked to reduce customer attrition and increase subscriptions by enhancing the existing offering and improving the user experience.
Work type
UX, Research, Design, Databases, International team
Continuous, over a period of two years
  • Senior UX Designer (me, UK)
  • Junior UX Designer (India)
  • Product Ownership Team (Germany)
  • Product Development Team (India)


Working from the UK office, I was brought onto the project to help improve upon an already established flagship scientific database product, with other team members spread across two other offices in Germany and India. This product provided an online resource of information for a range of different industries and practices, including chemists, engineers and other scientists, and was based upon a respected series of volumes that had provided high quality scientific data since the early twentieth century. My brief for the project included the following goals:

  • develop the site to improve visitor engagement
  • reduce subscriber attrition
  • develop value for customers

Part 1: Understanding the problem

User recruitment

After being briefed on the product, its history and aims, I then set out to evaluate how users currently experienced it. To do so, I had to get a group of users to talk to, which was not readily available. We needed people with experience with the product, and expertise in relevant fields, and so could not just use the standard recruitment methods to get everyday users. Therefore, I had to take my own initiative, and I tried a number of different methods to collect a pool of users from which I could conduct research. These methods included:

  • Performing searches on LinkedIn to find both academic and corporate users
  • Writing to Heads of Departments for relevant subjects at academic institutions
  • Attending conventions in the USA, where the company would send promotional marketing presences
  • Researching contacts from colleagues within the company

These methods had varying degrees of success, but provide enough people over the several years I was on the project to conduct research when needed.

Conducting research

To start, I conducted research to understand the user’s current experience of the site. My questions included the following explorations:

  • How do you use the website in your everyday work? – this helps me to understand how the website acts as a resource in their working life, as well as giving we a wider context around the requirements and decisions that cause them to use the site in the first place.
  • What kind of information do you look for? – as the scope of data available was quite wide, serving a variety of users, this helped me to understand the different types of users, see what kinds of information was more or less popular for each user type.
  • Can you show me how you get to this information? – providing them with the website to navigate, I would ask them to show me the steps they took to reach the information they needed. This allowed me to observe the routes they too, the steps that they took to get there, and understand the ease which which they found what they were looking for.

(user interaction process image)

Following these research sessions, I analysed the data with the Product team, and we devised some of the more popular data sources on the site, daring user journeys to understand the routes which users took to reach the information they wanted.

(user journey image)

As the example above shows, users had to take an unnecessary large number of steps to locate a simple piece of data. This was an example of classic experience rot – adding more and more content and functionality over time, while not noticing how this affects the overall structure of the site. One of the reason why this occurred was down to the fact that the information for the website still existed as scanned pages in PDF files, from the series of volumes which had originally provided the data (as mentioned in the Introduction above). This meant that, even after this circuitous route, users would have to then download the PDF file, open it up, navigate to the correct page, and then find the information on that page. Suffice to say, a significant amount of users never reached that final step, often abandoning their journey beforehand.

Part 2: Developing solutions

From the research, it was clear that users had trouble locating information on the site, which led to frustration, abandoned user journeys, and ultimately had an impact upon subscription sales of the product. In order to combat this, we devised a three part plan to improve the user experience; improve the search, digitise data, and shorten the user journeys

Improving the search