Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Drama Online: a bespoke XML-driven site that gets under the skin of how texts are used for study

Drama Online: combining simplicity with sophistication

Drama Online, published by Bloomsbury in partnership with Faber and Faber, has been shortlisted for the ALPSP Award for Publishing Innovation 2013. Here in a guest post, Bloomsbury's Head of Drama Publishing, Jenny Ridout, reflects on how the project evolved.

"Drama Online was developed in response to a market need for high quality study materials accessible via HE libraries. The quick and easy route would have been either to license our content to a third party aggregator or simply to put ‘books on the screen’ as PDFs. We chose instead to get under the skin of how our texts are used as study materials and to develop an enabling tool to help our audiences achieve their goals: to study, to perform, to succeed in their exams, or simply to read and absorb. The book is not the end goal, what you do with it is, and so the future of publishing is to recognise the role of publisher as facilitator and service provider.

Character grid
We set about researching how our texts are used and developed a drama-specific mark-up for our content using a bespoke XML data model that drives innovative features. These enable people to view and interact with Character Grids and Part Books, to search on plays to perform by cast size, period, genre or theme and to find speeches by gender. We developed an uncluttered e-reading experience, and a user-friendly way of calling up textual notes.


We kept in mind the student with the marked up text, surrounded by books and post-it notes in the library, and set about replicating that activity efficiently online. We considered the lecturer who needs to point students to key passages and works and we opened up discoverability by locating plenty of content in front of the paywall. There’s even a free feature for finding who to contact for permission to perform a play.

Our research showed that our readers wanted, above all, a platform that is easy to use, so we made that our number one goal. Drama Online is praised for its simple design and intuitive user interface. Our users describe navigation as ‘painless’. This is harder to achieve than it looks. We spent time in development analysing the user journey – why have three clicks when only one will do? We were inspired by some JISC research based on observational user studies and consulted with a user experience expert.

Simplicity in the search function for ease of use
The first release is only just the beginning of what we see as a long and exciting direct relationship with our users. We have ambitious content plans and will open our service to other publishers and partners.

But most importantly we will listen and keep pace with our customers’ needs, invest in new features and content and fulfil our mission as a service provider."

Drama Online is developed by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc in partnership with Faber and Faber. The 2013 content will comprise 1,000 plays with canonical set texts spanning centuries and continents from authors such as Aeschylus and the Arden editions of Shakespeare, to Brecht, as well as contemporary classics and iconic names like Mark Ravenhill and Tom Stoppard. The collection will be continuously fuelled by brand new writing and contextualised with over 100 titles on theatre studies and craft.

Textual analysis
Jenny Ridout is Head of Drama Publishing at Bloomsbury and the Publisher/Project Director for Drama Online. Prior to joining Bloomsbury, Jenny was International Publishing Director for Elsevier’s Focal Press imprint, responsible for the Boston and Oxford Editorial teams.

The ALPSP Awards finalists will be given the opportunity to showcase their journal or innovation in a rapid fire session at the ALPSP International Conference on Wednesday 11 September.

The winners will be announced at the Conference Awards Dinner on 12 September. Book now to secure your place.

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