CUA of the Month – November, 2009

John Napolitano
"When you're in a design meeting, people have lots of opinions. My role as a CUA is to represent our users and say, 'Let's ask the users first'."

"Besides myself, four of my colleagues are Certified Usability Analysts. This is great because we have a common knowledge base and language. We can discuss design with common terms. Simply put, we all 'get it'."
John Napolitano
User Interface Designer
Thomson Reuters

A World of Knowledge Made Usable: Bringing user experience to an academic research database platform

by Douglas Gorney

When you're part of a small team that makes the ISI Web of Knowledge usable, you'd better be good at what you do. And John Napolitano, User Interface Designer in the Healthcare & Science business of Thomson Reuters, is good. He has won awards for design and online communication, making him an important member of the team that designs the world's largest citation environment for the highest quality scholarly literature.

"The ISI Web of Knowledge is today's premier research platform, and one of Thomson Reuters' flagship products," says John. "We index roughly 10,000 journals, with all references and citations – some of them going back to 1900. So that our customers can quickly find, analyze, and share information in the sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities, we spend a lot of time and resources on design and user experience. We are in a competitive market, so usability is a major product differentiator."

The user-centered design skills that John gained as a Certified Usability Analyst have been important to his success on the ISI Web of Knowledge project, and to ensuring its continuous usability. Usability studies helped John and his team discover that some of the product's most useful and powerful functions were not easily recognizable. They changed the design of the features so that users could better find, understand, and use them.

Vast as it is, being part of the ISI Web of Knowledge team is only one of John Napolitano's responsibilities. At any one time, he has multiple projects for which he is directing user experience. For instance, John is also helping develop, an application with which researchers can acquire a unique ID and build a profile linking all their publications – from multiple, international publications – and a complete and dynamic CV (professional resume).

Tasked with designing the user interface for multiple, web-based products like these, creating the HTML and graphics to hand off to programmers, and writing the interface specification documents, John needs to be able to communicate with colleagues and partners with clear and standardized language.

"The systematic understanding and terminology of UX that I gained from the HFI's CUA training definitely allows for better communication," says John. "Four of my colleagues here are CUAs, but using a standard terminology is invaluable for explaining user-centered design features to non-CUA colleagues with clarity and precision. That's important, because there's no room for interpretation when it comes to vital features."

"Being a CUA also helps give you credibility, which is valuable when making clear to other stakeholders how important user-centered design is. When someone in my department discusses with programmers or business owners the need to change the interface, they really listen. Further, we don't just use the UX buzzwords; we are able to back up what we say by quoting research, citing reports from our user tests, and showing the results of heuristic evaluation."

John points out that the Healthcare & Science business of Thomson Reuters has a long history of user-centered design. They built a usability lab in the early 1990s with the assistance of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, and have recently been incorporating UX tools like ethnographic studies and persona development early in the product development cycle.

"We also work with our market research department to create a front-end, customer strategy." John says. "User-centered design is totally integrated into our development process. But on a day-to-day level it has been my manager, Kathy Borton, who has really championed user experience here. She has spearheaded much of the up-front UX work that we've been able to do on our flagship products."

Kathy has been an advocate of HFI training and Certified Usability Analyst certification. In fact, she encouraged John Napolitano and four Thomson Reuters colleagues to take advantage of the CUA program.

"The HFI training courses I took were fantastic," says John. He frequently refers to the course materials he received – particularly "The Science and Art of Effective Web and Application Design" and "User-Centered Analysis and Conceptual Design" – for inspiration and to refresh his memory on how to approach a new project. Or to relaunch an old one.

"A good example of that is when we completely reworked ISI Web of Knowledge a few years ago," John says. "Every detail was carefully inspected, designed, and tested. We developed personas, performed task analyses, created and tested HTML-based prototypes, and finally worked on the GUI and graphic design. And we did all of it before our programmers got to work.

"Since the launch, we've have very positive feedback and a dramatic reduction in the number of UI-focused questions. That kind of achievement is noteworthy for such a large release. I attribute our success in large part to the commitment made by every person on the project to the user-centered design process."

For John Napolitano, Thomson Reuters and the research community, the knowledge of usability is making knowledge usable.

CUA of the Month

Each month we highlight the successes and achievements of a different member of our CUA community. If you are a Certified Usability Analyst and would like to be considered for CUA of the Month recognition, please send a brief professional bio to

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