Last post I wrote about how Litmaps has changed focus in the new year. Today, I’ll show how these changes have been reflected in our designs.
Litmaps has been around for longer than you may expect. We started out in 2018 producing an experimental interface that featured all of the scientific literature on a single map. This was a pretty spectacular piece of work – we wrote an algorithm to cluster articles into “regions”, allowing a form of serendipitous browsing and discovery.
This was incredibly cool, and didn’t really work. The vast scale of the literature – even when zoomed in – was too much for our poor human brains to parse.
In our attempts to make The Map more accessible, we made citation-based analysis tools to run across our dataset. These tools were so effective we ended up ditching the “one map to rule them all” concept entirely, and refactored our visualisation tools to work on smaller sets of articles. This has led to the present-day Discover.
In my last post I mentioned how our original goal for Litmaps was to be the “home base” for your research. We envisioned that researchers would use our platform to maintain their collections of literature, as well as their notes.
Because of this, the old UI was very organisation-focused. When you entered the site you were prompted to, in order:
Our onboarding took you through this “top-down” introduction to the product, giving you a sense of how everything should be organised, and setting you up to use it as your home base.
In 2023, Litmaps no longer aims to be your literature organisation tool. Instead, we want to get you to the useful bits much more quickly: in the onboarding flow above, you have to do a lot of stuff before you can get to explore –one of our most valuable tools!
With our new priorities:
We're currently investigating ways to make getting started even easier – keep your eyes peeled for this!
Veterans of Litmaps will remember its functionality used to revolve around maps – maps were where your articles were stored, visualised, and explored. This approach had an elegance to it – you could freely transition between different functions. However, it tied us in knots:
We came to the realisation that although the interface had an appealing “do-what-you-want” fluidity, it wasn’t respecting that researchers are doing different tasks when they’re engaging with these different functions: You’re in a very different frame of mind when you’re discovering, to when you’re organising.
We decided to break each of these functions up, into its own place. That way we could decouple the actions of organisation, exploration, and visualisation. We could also develop UI and visualisations that are more targeted to the job that you’re trying to do.
A lot of these new pages are still maturing, but we’re really excited about the space it’s opened up for us in future. We’re no longer squeezing features onto the same canvas: we can continue to roll out new functions into fresh pages that give us space to respect new UX workflows.
We introduced the Collections concept. We try to avoid introducing concepts – they provide more things for people to understand, and we have enough of those already! However, Collections have been important for two reasons.
Firstly, there needed to be a common organisation structure that could link maps and discovery.
Secondly, since we’re not looking to be your reference manager any more, we need to work better with your actual reference manager! The collections structure is intended to mimic what you’re used to seeing in your reference manager, which makes it easier to digest as a concept, as well as… well, see The Future, below!
I can’t announce any official timelines just yet, but we are working towards reference manager integrations. We know that reducing the friction from switching between tools is really important, especially (as I posted about last time) as we acknowledge that we’re a part of a broader ecosystem of tools.
Reference manager sync also opens up an incredibly powerful interaction with Monitored Searches that we’re really excited about. I’ll have to wait until we’ve built the feature to go into details… but it basically means you’ll forever be up to date with the literature and you’ll generally be happier and less stressed and more successful. It’s going to be great, trust me.
The new version is a scaffold that unlocks a lot of design potential, but I'm happy to admit we're still catching up on ironing out some creases. We're working at making sure each workflow is segmented and focused, while enabling some of the fluidity that was present in the previous design. We've rolled out QoL improvements every fortnight since release, so keep tabs on Litmaps and our Twitter for upgrade announcements as they come out.
Of course, our feature backlog is much, much longer, and we look forward to sharing the successful candidates with you in future. For now, please send us a message if there's anything you think would make Litmaps needs. It's really important to us that we're making software you actually want!
That wraps us up for this reflection on our 2023 design changes. We're really excited to continue to improve our usability based on these new concepts. As mentioned earlier, this is just the beginning of The New Litmaps, you should expect to see some big enhancements roll out over the course of the year. Stay tuned ✌🏻
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