Mulitmethod research to understand reading behaviors of independent researchers

Project Type: UX Research.
Team: Bess Anderson, Sidharath Chhatani, Mathias Arkayin, Jason Lam.
Contribution: Research Plan, Interaction Map, Survey, Usability Test, and Interviews.
Deliverable: Usability Report.


JSTOR’s Register & Read (R&R) program was launched in 2012 as a fast, lightweight means to access and use JSTOR content for free, without institutional affiliation.  After registering for a MyJSTOR account, users can read up to 3 articles for free every 14 days. Register & Read provides access to a select range of content - approximately 1200 articles from 700 distinct publishers - that would otherwise require paid access. While R&R is currently in Beta, the current process has received less than optimal reviews and there is belief the process could be improved. Through communication with our stakeholders in JSTOR’s User Services team, which communicates directly with users about R&R’s pain points on a daily basis, we learned that active account Register & Read account use has declined significantly in the last 6 to 8 months

Characteristics of the system

The organizing feature of Register & Read is the user’s Shelf. After searching for and finding an article in JSTOR’s database, a user can add up to 3 R&R articles to their Shelf -- which itself can be accessed at any time from the user’s MyJSTOR account page. This feature allows the user to read any saved articles, and also check how much “shelf space” they have left in a given 14 day period. The reading experience for Register & Read is also distinct. Rather that granting users access to downloadable PDFs, users are restricted to online reading only. Article content in Register & Read cannot be highlighted, bookmarked, or otherwise annotated.

Goals of the System

Register & Read is primarily intended to allow independent researchers and individual scholars -- that is people without institutional affiliation -- to gain free access to JSTOR’s digital library. Register & Read is part of JSTOR’s mission to expand access to a greater diversity of people. It also serves as a pipeline to JSTOR’s paid monthly subscription service, JPASS, which offers unlimited reading of a select collection of publishers and journals.  Whenever a R&R user adds an article to their shelf, an ad for JPASS appears. 


Working with the usability team, we defined the key questions we wanted to answer were:

  • What are the critical call to actions that impact a user's decision to register for the program?

  • What UI aspects impact how users search for articles?

  • How do users utilize the online reading program?


highlighting key ui features - Interaction MAp

To familiarize ourselves with the site and better understand the user flow, we began with creating an interaction map. We used three user journeys: browsing, searching, and registering. We created a visualization of the flow to demonstrate all the ways to access a specific interaction point. We also highlighted areas where there were breakdowns and where there were potential issues.

understanding users - Interviews

Through user interviews, we sought to better understand the values, habits, and needs of Register & Read’s target users: self-identified independent researchers. 

examining potential features - Comparative Analysis

In this analysis, we compared R&R with other digital research products to identify relative strengths and weaknesses. We examined how R&R compares to similar products in terms of key features such as search, related search options, browse, filter, labels, onboarding, and previewing text. In particular, we sought to answer the questions: How can JSTOR improve R&R with respect to the competition? and what areas might JSTOR be satisfied with relative to the competition?

baseline metrics and feedback - Heuristic Evaluation

Each group member independently carried out a usability evaluation of the site based on the ten heuristics suggested by Nielsen: Feedback, Metaphor, Navigation, Consistency, Prevention, Memory, Efficiency, Design, Recovery, and Help. In this report, we offer an assessment of Register & Read using heuristic evaluation - a user interface evaluation method first defined by Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen defined ten usability principles or “heuristics.” We used these heuristics to identify major pain points in Register & Read’s interface design and to set forth recommendations based on those findings. 

feedback from real users - Usability Test

The central goal of this study was to identify the major usability issues with R&R. Our team wanted to discover how easy the product’s major tasks were to accomplish for target R&R users. These user tasks were identified in our interaction map (see JSTOR R&R Interaction Map). In our debrief session with each participant, we also asked about our users’ likes, dislikes, preferences, ideas for improvement, and general understanding of the product.


Based on our analysis, we discovered that JSTOR users initially entered the register and read program just to get 1 article, so the registration process was viewed confusing or intrusive. Most participants were unaware that the program existed and was free, so they usually had workarounds to access articles like asking friends, going to a library, or asking their workplace to pay. Since most other publishers did not have a similar program, this meant that the R&R program was an opportunity for JSTOR to gain a competitive edge on others. Our research also discovered 3 call to actions that are critical to getting participants to register for the program resulting in at least 1 major UI change. One of the critical findings we had was that the online reading experience was non-essential for most heavy users as they preferred to print articles. Since the R&R process only allowed users to save a limited amount of articles each month, they didn't see enough value to make a change in their behavior. 


Users can be a powerful source of insight that can help teams coordinate and take action. While working with JSTOR, the user experience team got involved and began conducting their own user tests to improve R&R. The power of UX research is that it is a flexible tool that can be applied regardless of what resources are available and can help push teams forward.