A multi-disciplinary approach to create a unified user experience

By Kat Palmer, Innovation Manager, Emerald Publishing

At this year’s Society for Scholarly Publishing Annual Meeting, Emerald shared its experience with communities along with practical tips on how information providers and intermediaries can create or improve the communities in which they engage.

If you thought UX was all about digital product development—think again. It’s about creating holistic experiences that all your users will return to time and time again because they want to, not because they need to.

Community is the human desire to connect with others and share a sense of belonging. It’s easy to think of the communities that form our social lives—the gym, a circle of friends, fellow dog walkers.  But it’s also important to understand how your professional communities work. Some are formal communities, like your team; some are informal, such as peers you choose to spend time with.

At Emerald, we believe that in a global competitive and connected world, research needs to demonstrate credible impact on business, policy and wider society. We have seen that connected and informed communities help create change towards this goal. So we’ve been experimenting with creating formal communities which bridge the gap between ‘the publisher’ and ‘our authors’.

This community-based approach has informed how we embarked on a transformation of our brand, and how we strive to be a partner with our authors to help solve their problems, not just act as a service provider. User feedback and two-way communication certainly also plays a role in how we deliver our products. So how might you create and foster a community of practice in your organisation?


In an early experiment, Emerald created an internal community to tap into that emotion users feel when they find a product or service which solves their burning problem. We knew it wouldn’t work with an established team; we needed different skills from across the business where all were accountable for ensuring the user was at the heart of our decisions. We enlisted a facilitator, a decision maker and sponsor. Using the principles from Emily Webber’s book Building Successful Communities of Practice, and bringing in design and tech experts, we were ready to start.

Marrying the principles of a shared community with a rapid prototyping approach—adopting Jake Knapp’s design process from Sprint: How to Solve Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days to create ‘Spark Labs’—our cross-functional team created a new service to solve a user problem.

The sprint process involves five steps:

  • Listen and observe your users
  • Find their frustrations
  • Monitor with analytics who else it impacts
  • Rapidly prototype a better experience
  • Test it

The user problem, identified at a global management summit, reiterated the pain points faculty face when conducting research. Company representatives prioritised problems to identify the best opportunity for Emerald to come up with a solution and test it. The problem ultimately turned over to the sprint team was: How can we facilitate communities to help researchers bridge the gap between published research and the impact this has in practice?

Colleagues from Product, Marketing, Design, Research, and Innovation took the problem and came up with a solution with little time and no money. They worked in an incubated environment, with regular catch ups with the user to ensure the ideas and proposed solution would help give our users that positive emotional connection we were seeking.

The prototyped solution became Ask an Academic, which envisions an online space that connects authors with the real problems faced by business communities, giving researchers an opportunity to connect with both industry and other like-minded academics and facilitating a forum for applying research to solve business problems.

What did we take away from this endeavour? Our first foray into multi-disciplinary community UX development yielded several insights that anyone can apply:

  • User experience is not just about your website, it covers all aspects of your customers’ journey
  • Stakeholders can become communities of practice to support the growth of your products and services
  • Take an agile approach to problem solving—iterate and test!
  • Celebrate everything you learn and the successes you achieve

As Innovation Manager at Emerald, Kat Palmer is responsible for investigating user problems and experimenting with solutions to support new product development. Follow her on Twitter, @KatPal24

On September 27 from Noon US Eastern Time (5pm UK), Kat will be presenting on the webcast, Smoothing the Path of the Research Journey: Designing for User Experience Excellence in Academic Libraries, in partnership with Library Journal.  For more information or to register for this free webcast event, please visit the link.