Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

An interview with Brian Hughes, digital strategist

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This week is National Library Week in the United States. Oxford University Press is celebrating the contributions of these institutions to communities around the world in a variety of ways, including granting free access to online products in the United States and Canada. To better understand the work that goes into these reference works, we sat down with Senior Marketing Manager Brian Hughes to discuss the challenges and opportunities of the digital space; how Oxford strives to provide knowledge to students, scholars, and researchers; and the hidden considerations that must be made.

What do you do here at Oxford University Press?

I’ve been with OUP for 14 years now and have seen many of our products develop from ideas on paper to the dynamic research and teaching tools they are today. After working in academic marketing for well over a decade, I moved to the global online team and I’m extremely lucky that my current role is diverse and ever-changing. That’s the exciting part of working with digital products.

Much of my time does involve working with the User Experience Platform Management (UXPM) Group, which looks at the functionality and design enhancements for our digital products. I’m also very involved in the Future Business Models Group, which looks at how we can better serve our customers in the near and distant future. The group discusses options and scopes out pilots that will help the business make evidence-based decisions about viable new sales models. For example, later this year we’ll be piloting a Pay-Per-View option on some of our products. In this case we are partnering with a third party but we will have reliable data that will aid us in determining whether building the option ourselves would be feasible. I’m also working with a group that’s looking to make our presence at academic conferences more efficient and further integrate our digital products in the day-to-day discipline marketing. It’s rewarding to work in so many areas and see how the digital program impacts them in a positive way.

What’s the dynamic of the product marketing team?

The biggest difference from my previous positions in academic marketing is that my daily interactions are strictly with those within OUP. Each of the groups and teams that I work with now are made up of an impressive cross-section of the organization: sales, market research, technology, finance, and design. Whether it’s deciding on a site change to Oxford Bibliographies or testing a new price for Grove Art, there’s a team of people helping to ensure the decision is the right one for the Press, both now and in the future.

How do you choose which enhancements to make or prioritize?

There’s a small assessment group that reviews all enhancement requests that come from different parts of the business. First and foremost, we think about how the enhancement is going to help the user. We ask ourselves a lot of questions:

  • Will this change improve the user journey?
  • How will it impact users coming from other Oxford digital products?
  • Are users expecting this functionality because it’s common on competitors’ products?

Of course, we always have to look at the cost. Generally the business case is strong and the benefits will outweigh the cost and the enhancement is approved. But when that’s not the case, it’s important that we in the assessment group provide context for the rejection and provide feedback. Just saying no isn’t fair. But in the end, if it’s good for the user and is cost effective, the change does get approved. Implementation isn’t always immediate. We have to design, test, and schedule the enhancement, which can take a few months, so it’s also important to explain that timeline to my colleagues throughout the business.

What makes excellent online reference from a user experience or web perspective?

Users expect digital products to be intuitive, information to be served up quickly, and finally, information to be as relevant as possible. It’s important once a user engages with any of our digital products that they are able stay within the OUP ecosystem. They came to us as a trusted resource, so we try to create connections between our online products — giving them all the information they need. We have a very short window in which to capture the users’ attention before they move on in their research. We are constantly working to provide them with the best online experience possible. It sounds like a simple task, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of people to make it happen.

What kinds of new tools or technologies would you love to explore further?

One very exciting tool we’re looking to implement within the next six months is an A/B testing system. This will be a very important piece of business intelligence that we’ll be able to use when it comes to enhancements and product development. Currently, we’re unable to test in a live environment, and being able to serve up attributes like availability markers or style changes to different groups will help us make the right decision for our users. I think this is going to be one of the most exciting and important pieces of UX in the next year for the digital program.

What should new users of Oxford’s online resources should know?

Oxford digital products are extremely dynamic. Not just when it comes to functionality or technology, but also content. Our content is being updated on a regular basis; we don’t just replicate the print in an online environment. New types of content are also being added, for instance, we’re adding timelines and commentary to supplement what has appeared in print.

Is there anything loyal users would be surprised to learn about our online resources?

One thing I was surprised to learn is just how much goes on “behind the scenes” to make our digital products better for users. Helping students and researchers along their digital journeys involves a lot more than site design. The team of people working to improve search results, linking, and deliver the best and most relevant content to our users. There’s a lot more than data feeds and style sheets when it comes to digital products.

Professionally speaking, I come from a print background and until I started in my new role, I had no idea how much work and effort went into any one of our products. In 2003, when Oxford Scholarship Online launched, there was nothing like it in the market. Someone once commented that “Oxford has the ability to see around the corner” when it comes to digital publishing. I think that’s pretty telling when it comes to our development and commitment to academic research.

Brian Hughes is Senior Marketing Manager for Oxford University Press’s online program, and oversees advancements on over 40 online products. He has worked at Oxford for 14 years.

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