What happens when you bring together a civil engineer, an animator, an information technologist and an industrial designer? At Elsevier, the result is a dynamic, skilled and responsive team of women who are transforming the way people use research metrics and digital technology to showcase their research and find collaborators.
Elsevier’s SciVal User eXperience (UX) team is responsible for developing the research performance platform SciVal to meet the needs of academics, research managers, librarians, journalists and many others around the world. SciVal, which uses advanced data analytics and super-computer technology, allows users to visualize research performance, benchmark relative to peers, develop collaborative partnerships and analyze research trends.
On the UX team, the women’s different backgrounds gives each a different perspective, resulting in some very innovative thinking.
“Three brains on a design problem are always better than one,” said Simoné “Sisi” Nutt, the User Experience Lead for SciVal. “We have our different ways of working and different ideas, and that helps us when we’re brainstorming to find the best solutions.”
Sisi brings a wealth of creative experience to her role: a classically trained animator, she worked for a children’s publishing company before moving into more technical roles at various non-profit organizations. She left a lead user interface design role at UNICEF to join Elsevier, where she could combine her arts training and technical experience in UX. With a foundation in classic animation – not a computer in sight – Sisi’s thought process can focus on stories:
My training in animation feeds into the storytelling elements of my work – using storyboarding to think about the way users navigate the platform. These days I don’t actively sketch out storyboards, it happens more in my head.
Sisi is one of four women working on UX for SciVal: Product Manager Barbara Zalac and UX designers Anne-Sophie Muller and Julia Malyk complete the team. They are tasked with taking user feedback and translating it into designs that the developers can build, managing the flow of work to make sure the most important updates are done first.
The SciVal team, which also includes three product managers and works closely with nine developers, works using a process called Agile – a software development method that involves running “sprints” of a week or two, where the whole team works on achieving incremental goals and focuses on many small releases. As a product manager, Barbara is responsible for organizing the sprints and managing the UX team’s work priorities. For her, Agile is the right approach:
Agile development makes lots of sense for users – it means we can address their needs quickly. One recent SciVal example is the development of reporting functionality: people were telling us they wanted to produce reports easily, so we prioritized the development of that functionality.
Although she started out studying civil engineering, Barbara soon changed direction and worked in a technical support role for Elsevier’s Helpdesk. This put her in an excellent position to turn feedback into “use cases” that the UX team can use to design new features. For example, this could be a new metric users are looking for; Barbara would determine how they want to apply that metric and explain it to the UX team.
Speaking technical languages
Once the UX team receives a user case, they need to find a solution and design it in a way that the developers can understand and turn into code. Although they’re not required to code, one of the strengths the UX team has is the ability to understand what the developers need in order to build a new feature.
Having a technical background has certainly helped Julia do this. After studying information technologies in education at ITMO University in St Petersburg, Russia, she started working as a front-end developer, working closely with designers. Although she had designed her first website at 14, she made the switch into design some years later, studying UX design in 2012.
Seeing the process from both perspectives gives Julia a unique view of the work, as she explained:
My background helps me see what I want to build in a better way. I can build what I design and I think that’s really cool. I can see what works and what doesn’t on the technical side, so I can provide guidance to the developers to understand what I want.
The content of the work is also technical; the team designs ways to visualize complex data. SciVal is all about data, so being able to understand that and respect the data is key to making the data more understandable and improving user experience.
Their work makes a difference to SciVal’s users: 86 percent of research organizations that responded to a survey in December 2016 agreed or strongly agreed that SciVal is intuitive and easy to use. One librarian commented: “The best feature of SciVal is the clarity of visualizations. When I’m presenting information to the faculty, instead of me making the visualizations, they are already done!”
Anne-Sophie’s training and experience in digital design, specializing in 3D for industrial design, gives her an ideal perspective on the data. Anne-Sophie started 10 years ago as a freelance designer and then, contacted by her former school, the Industrial School of Design, she moved to India, where she trained students in graphic design and 3D design for two years at the DSK International Campus. Her 2010 master’s degree built on her art direction knowledge, and she started a UX role that included brand management. At Elsevier, she can focus on UX, keeping a toe in the technical and design worlds. The contact with users is also appealing, she said:
It’s good to see how user-focused our work is – it’s not just about the business. We do a lot of testing and we’re in touch with the sales teams that are very close to the users. This means we can keep tracking user needs. We’re also a small team, so we are all working very closely with each other, with a lot of communication. I think that’s why it works so well.
It’s about communication, not gender
Because it’s unusual for women to have such technical backgrounds, most of the UX team had worked previously in male-dominated teams. Early on in her tech career, Sisi got together with some other women and started a group for women in technology, to teach women how to build computers. They started off with workshops, during which they would break down old computers and teach women how to build them, showing them things like how to change a memory card and what a hard drive is. This developed into the Eclectic Tech Carnival (ETC), an event where programmers and non-programmers get together and teach each other new skills. Sisi recalled:
We were ‘gender changers’ – we supported women in technology. We adopted the name from the device that changes a plug from a male to a female pin. It’s important to support women in technical roles, as we do tend to be in the minority. We’re all quite geeky women here but we all have different strengths we bring to the work.
The team might all be women, but they don’t think it has much of an impact on their work. “We communicate well and we’re honest with each other about our designs – it improves us all as designers,” commented Sisi. “It’s not a gender thing.”
Part of the reason for the women’s commitment to high quality is their enthusiasm about developing a product that helps researchers evaluate their work. SciVal helps users with strategic planning, finding the right new collaborators, benchmarking themselves against the world, and examining research topics in detail. With such a strong focus on user feedback, the team is able to align Elsevier’s vision with what the users need, ensuring they have the right support. This is an important point for Barbara:
I think it’s a very innovative product. We always try to be ahead and responsive to the latest technologies and trends we hear about from customers and see on the market. If you work for a relatively small product like this you have the agility to adjust your direction based on customer feedback. You can tell from users they really appreciate it.
Ultimately, it’s the benefit for users that drives the team, as Julia explained:
Recently I’ve been thinking about the importance of doing meaningful work; Elsevier improving research performance is something I can relate to. Before joining the team, I wasn’t familiar with the STM industry, but now I can see how SciVal adds value by presenting research data in visually attractive ways providing researchers and other users valuable insights into research productivity across researchers, institutions and countries.
Unlike other approaches to software development, Agile does not require full specifications before the development work begins. Instead, there is a main objective with sub-goals that mean the work is flexible and can easily be adjusted to meet users’ needs. The Agile method is a constant feedback and development loop – the UX team can test their ideas as they work, adjusting according to feedback. The process:
- Gather feedback and determine user needs.
- Define how they join together with business needs.
- Work with product managers on conceptual design.
- Develop use cases.
- Carry out conceptual testing.
- Build minimum viable product (MVP).
- Test and gather feedback.
- Implement additional functionalities.
- Test and gather feedback.
- And so on …
The women of SciVal
Julia Malyk, PDEng
Julia Malyk is a user experience designer for SciVal with a background in information technologies. She joined Elsevier in 2014 and is working on a wide range of design-related tasks, from improving the existing interactions to concept design and prototyping to visual design. Currently she is busy with SciVal user onboarding to help new users get up to speed quicker and easier.
Julia studied information technologies in education at the ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russia, and worked as a front-end developer and usability specialist. Shortly after finishing her studies she moved to the Netherlands. Prior to joining Elsevier she studied user-system interaction at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), where she got her Professional Doctorate in Engineering.
Simoné "Sisi" Nutt
Simoné “Sisi” Nutt is the User Experience Lead for SciVal. After recieving her degree in Animation from the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, Sisi began specializing in the design of user-centric products. Working first as internal communications manager for Friends of the Earth International, she went on to lead the user-interface design for a UNICEF project, before moving to Elsevier in 2011. She joined Elsevier as a Senior User Experience Specialist, working on Strata, a SciVal predecessor. With a special focus on data visualization, she endeavors to make all her designs easy to grasp and a delight to use.
Passionate about everything she undertakes, Anne-Sophie Muller has always practiced many artistic activities and has recently started doing sports. As she never does things halfway, she achieved her first Ironman triathlon in 2016.
Anne-Sophie has always been divided between scientific/Cartesian and artistic sides that she has used together to hold an Advanced Diploma in Digital Design, a Multimedia Design & Art Direction Master 2 and has completed HMI ergonomics training. She also loves passing on knowledge, sharing, and guiding others. That’s why Anne-Sophie blossomed as a Branding Project Manager & UI/UX Designer for GSX Solutions in France for five years, after being a faculty of DSK International School of Design, Supinfocom and Supinfogame in Pune, India for two years. She is now delighted to work as a Senior UX Specialist for Elsevier.
Barbara Zalac joined the SciVal team as a Product Manager in 2014 and is primarily responsible for overseeing the day-to-day development activities of SciVal. This includes identifying development priorities based on customer feedback and making sure the development activities keep on track on the agreed release features and proceed towards the goals in the SciVal Roadmap. Before moving to the Netherlands in 2008, she started her studies in Civil Engineering at the University of Rome III but then changed direction and worked in two technical support roles for Elsevier. These contributed to make her a well-rounded people person who can engage and work well across a wide spectrum of personalities and disciplines.