Combining discovery tools with good design

BMJ Publishing is of course best known for the British Medical Journal, but alongside this flagship journal is a flourishing list of over 70 other titles covering many of the major medical specialties, such as heart conditions, anaesthesia, diabetes, digestion, and ophthalmics.  However, even with 50 medical areas to subdivide the vast subject of medicine, researchers and practitioners still face the perennial problem of finding the content they want.

Last year, BMJ created the first in a range of recent articles (described in a blog post of July 2019) showing most recent articles in a subject.

Currently, BMJ is extending these collections to provide an easy way for researchers to identify relevant content.  But the challenge with website navigation is reconciling a long list of topics with navigational ease.  For classification purposes, the more subheads, the better; but for information retrieval purposes, the fewer the headings the easier it is for the researcher to find what they want. Humans are simply not good at scanning a list of more than, say, 15 items, without some kind of subdivision to break up the list.  Much of the history of Web design has been about reconciling these two opposing principles.

As a consequence of this challenge, it is refreshing to see the simple but elegant solution implemented by BMJ for one of its veterinary journals, In Practice.  This journal covers most of the vast area of veterinary practice, ranging from clinical content on the small animals you would see at the veterinary surgery to farm animals such as cows, horses and poultry, as well as articles on the business side of running a vet practice. An index of articles by subject area was very necessary, and using UNSILO Classify, BMJ has been able to build a page of subject collections. As the list of collections grew larger, however, the need for navigational simplicity became more pressing, and recently BMJ introduced a number of subheads with accompanying graphics to subdivide the topics. The topics can be seen on a dedicated page on the In Practice website (shown above).

Laura Honey, Associate Editor, In Practice, talked about how this very effective layout was arrived at:

We know, from conducting extensive research with vets working on the ground, that they want easy, fast solutions to accessing the content they are most interested in. Many vets use In Practice articles as guides to inform their clinical work, and so it’s important that they are able to access this information quickly – that is why we have used UNSILO Classify to create these specific topic collections to improve browsability on our website.

The topic headings (Companion animals, Farm animals etc.) are used throughout the print copy of the journal and so we wanted to mirror this for our topic collections page. It also makes sense to divide the content in this way as we know this is how the vet profession is structured; for example, if you are a farm animal vet, it is very unlikely that you will ever treat cats and dogs, and so therefore won’t be interested in content published in this area. We recently designed some logos to signpost the different content within the journal, and so again we have mirrored this by using them for each of the different collection categories on the website – it has made the page much more appealing for users!

To come up with the lists of specialties, we looked back through our archive to see what areas we covered most often. We also asked veterinary students undertaking work experience placements with us and our veterinary contacts what areas of practice they would like to see captured for each of the different species. This work is ongoing, and we will continue to add new collections based on the feedback we receive. Our current focus is to build up the collections under our Practice Management topic – this is a big area of practice covering everything from staff wellbeing and practice finance, to client communication and health and safety.

Reaction to the new topic collections page has been really positive. We have seen increased engagement with our articles from users who access the content via this new page, proving that it is helping to highlight articles to them that they otherwise might not have come across in the archive.


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