Redesigning the NASA/Astrophysics Data System

Skills used: BackboneJS, UX Design, accessibility

A Simpler UI for Astrophysics Research

When I was working on redesigning the NASA/Astrophysics Data System (ADS), I looked for opportunities to streamline the experience for the scientists, students and other researchers who use the site.

It was very helpful talking to scientists and science librarians about the aspects of the interface they used most heavily. To supplement user interviews, I used Google Analytics custom events to explore which features in the existing interface were heavily trafficked and which were generally ignored. This information combined to inform my decision of which elements to highlight, which to de-emphasize, and which to remove altogether.

Below I provide some screen comparisons of a few of the pages I redesigned and re-implemented in JS, HTML and CSS.

I've also written in more detail elsewhere about rethinking the ADS network visualizations and redesigning the ADS Metrics page.

Search Results

For the redesign of the search results page, I emphasized scannability, situating the search result titles as the main focal point. Since Google Analytics showed that sort operations were the most common operation on a set of search results, I raised the visual profile of the sort selector. Across the board, I increased font sizes.

Article Abstract

This one is cheating a bit, since the predecessor system I'm generally showing in the "older version" tabs was retired before I thought to get a screen shot of its abstract page. Instead, I show the original system's abstract page (the original system is still heavily in use as it is the one that astrophysics researchers are most familiar with, so thousands of people still see this page each week!)

I focused on hierarchy and contrast and added a left navigation panel to bring order and scannability to the page.

User Library List

ADS libraries are a place where users can store their personal collections of papers. They have many purposes and could serve as a quick reading list, a convenient way to generate metrics, or a list intended for public consumption.

In the original implementation, there was lots of explanatory text and the main functions of the library—to explore your library collection or possibly add a library— were not as obvious. My redesign simplifies things considerably, with some of the least-used functionality being removed entirely, or moved elsewhere.

User Library Page

With this page I focused on using hierarchy and alignment to allow a user to, at a glance, understand:

  1. the significant metadata attached to their library
  2. the actions they can undertake on their library (manage permissions, export, visualize...)
  3. the papers present in their library

Search Page Detail: Letter Links to Icon Dropdowns

The Astrophysics Data System's users range from hardcore power users to one-time visitors brought to the site by Google, but the majority of the user base are Astronomy and Astrophysics researchers (from professors to undergraduates), who heavily use only a small subset of the site's functionality. Any redesign has to tread carefully, since power users aren't happy if legibility is increased at the expense of speed or power, but other users are easily scared off by a system that requires a large initial outlay time and attention.

With this in mind, I tried a new format for the "quick links" or "letter links" that you can see in the brackets to the right of the search results in the old version of the site. These links offers researchers quick access to key resources related to the article: scans of the published article, for instance, or indexes of all the astronomical objects mentioned in the text. While a few power users know what all the letters stand for, many users I talked to initially could only identify one or two links, generally ignoring the rest.

Since the links can be grouped under three main types: full-text sources, lists of related papers (citations and references), and links to relevant data, I decided to use three icons indicating these three groups. Users can click on an icon to be taken to the most commonly accessed link within that group. To view all the options within a group, users simply hover over the icon to view a dropdown which shows the available links.

The hope is that this design makes the wealth of information available in these links more accessible to the average user (as the icons require less memorization of meaning than the letters) without greatly inconveniencing power users.