Altmetric Blog

Behind the scenes: Product development at Altmetric

Jean Liu, 6th October 2017

Jean Liu (Product Development Manager at Altmetric) speaks at the 2017 NatureJobs Career Expo in London in a workshop on Product Management.

I’m what you might call an Altmetric veteran. I joined the company in 2012, first as a writer for this Altmetric Blog and data analyst. (Somehow, my 2013 post “The Numbers Behind #icanhazpdf” still ranks as one of the most visited on our site!) As one of the first employees at Altmetric, I had the opportunity to be involved in quite a few different parts of the business, including data curation (adding news outlets, blogs, and policy sources), customer support, and marketing. My first few years at the company taught me a lot about what it takes to build a startup and gain traction in new markets.

In 2014, I became the company’s Product Development Manager. My role sits at the interface between the engineering and commercial teams. Besides keeping our company staff in the loop about new developments, I’m also responsible for conducting user research and maintaining the Altmetric roadmap, which takes a lot of things into account, including:

  • What our users want
  • What our markets need
  • Our company goals and values

My current focus is primarily on new product development, and so I lead an engineering team that works on building new features for Altmetric products, including the Altmetric Explorer for Publishers, Explorer for Institutions, Badges, and API. This summer, our team has been extremely busy and productive, having released some major Explorer features for Publishers and Institutions. From June and onwards, we added some powerful enhancements to the Results Analysis tabs (searching by mention outlet or author, exporting mentions, and viewing attention maps or 5 sources). Then in September, we launched the new Shareable Reports feature, which had been created based on fantastic feedback from beta testers and customers. (A recent webinar that outlines the new features can be found here.)


Our development process

To come to a consensus about what we will be building next, we have a little “Product Team”, which consists of myself, our CEO (Kathy Christian), Founder (Euan Adie), CTO (Paul Mucur), and Director of Client Operations (Natalia Madjarevic). Together, we review and prioritise new product ideas. All of us bring different perspectives to the table, given that we usually have more regular interactions with different groups of customers or users. Therefore, we can work together to balance the overall priorities. After the priorities in our roadmap have been set, our engineering team can then actually build the new features (and sometimes new products!).

The engineering team (focusing on new features) follows a software development methodology known as “Agile”. We work in short iterations of 2 weeks, called sprints. Two weeks is actually the perfect duration for a sprint, because it gives us enough time to build a basic feature end-to-end, while also allowing us to respond rapidly to any user feedback we then receive. We build up complexity gradually in subsequent sprints, enriching the feature incrementally while ensuring that it works at every stage of development. By building features in this way, our team is able to respond to user feedback very quickly and avoid the risk of going down the wrong path; this ensures that we’re always building the right thing for our users.


Sara Rouhi, Jean Liu, and Kathy Christian of Altmetric in Washington DC after visiting some users from government agencies.

Engaging with our communities

Product development should never just happen in the office. Since our products must always support the needs of our markets, it’s crucial for us to venture out of the office to listen to what actual users (or potential users) are saying. While a lot of our routine user research happens through Skype interviews, phone calls, and feedback surveys, nothing really beats having face-to-face meetings. This year, I went with several colleagues to Washington DC and Boston to talk with our users from government agencies and pharmaceutical companies. I also met with researchers at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2017 in Vienna and ReCon in Edinburgh, and caught up with the altmetrics (small “A”) scene at 4:AM Altmetrics Conference in Toronto. For me, these kinds of events are always whirlwind tours through the lives of our users, helping to validate ideas that we’re already working on or inspire new ones altogether.

In addition to speaking with users to collect feedback and insights, I personally try to engage with the wider STEM community too, having come from a science background. Two days ago, I presented a workshop with Miriam Keshani from figshare on Product Management at the NatureJobs Career Expo in London. We managed to fill a room with about 60 researchers (mostly early-career researchers), who were all keen to learn about how to translate their science backgrounds to a career in technology. Having left my former life as a neuroscientist to join Altmetric, I was more than happy to talk about how having a systematic, data-driven mindset was incredibly useful for driving the development of new tools for the research community. Our attendees then worked through a group exercise to create an “elevator pitch” for new, fictional scientific products, then draw a “product box” to advertise their ideas. These are actually some of the same exercises that I go through with our engineering team every time we kick off a new project, so it was a lot of fun teaching a new generation of future product managers how to think through product positioning and ways to identify solutions for user needs.


User research programme – participants wanted!

I’m always on the lookout for more people who want to test drive new Altmetric features, so if you are interested in joining the Altmetric User Research Programme, please send an email to let us know.

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