A novel interface for reading and browsing academic papers

research project
Presentation slides (PDF, 9MB)
Graduated with honours (master thesis project at CIID)


Academic research is primarily made public through papers in PDF format. This print-friendly format made sense when most paper were printed. As screen-based reading is increasing, we should leverage the interactive and flexible nature of digital content.

This project explores the opportunities in treating research work as content whose structure and presentation can be optimized for different users and their individual needs.

Research & prototypes

I researched the topic by reading up on the problem area, talking to advocates of change and analyzing existing solutions. As many focused on building desktop software that worked around the PDF, I decided to focus on the opportunities of using web technologies.

I developed a number of interactive prototypes that explore specific interactions, like a way to filter text while still having quick access to the content around it (see animation).

An adaptive interface

Interviews with experts and users revealed that many find both the content and style of academic papers hard to digest. To improve accessibility of both, I proposed a three-step system:

  1. Find online related content, like video and references
  2. Turn all content into a generic data format
  3. Make data available through web interfaces, fit to the needs of the user

To show the potential of this approach, I developed two web demos of interfaces optimized for two common use cases.

Demo 1: reading groups

This prototype is designed for members of reading groups, providing a screen-optimized version of the paper and ways to collectively highlight and comment on sections to discuss during the group meeting.

It presents a number of features, inspired by earlier experiments:

Demo 2: visual browsing

The second prototype aims at designers: visually oriented users who are often put off by the text-heavy style of academic papers.

The main innovation is the way in which references are displayed. Traditionally one of most unreadable parts of a paper, it instead extracts the first image from every reference and present this prominently. The result is a visual overview of the related work, which works especially well for domains like interaction design.

Looking ahead

After this project, more than ever, I believe that research should be more accessible to a wider audience. Presentation and structure is only one of many hurdles.

But to stay within the scope of this project, I think the separation between data and presentation could bring another opportunity: a tool for building interface templates. By this I mean online tools that allow users to build your own interfaces, and being able to share effective ones with others. It would allow for example teachers to build customized interfaces for their students. Without intending to sound buzz-wordy: crowd-sourcing the design of research interfaces through accessible template builders could allow us to continuously improve access, while the authors' work remains untouched.