How Data Standards Are Vital for User Experience

When using federated access, clean and consistent data can help you save time, money and effort, says Jon Bentley, commercial director at OpenAthens.

When you’re responsible for providing access to research and education resources, you know how vital it is to make user experience (UX) seamless.

Federated access enabled via software such as OpenAthens makes that possible, by helping research organisations and publishers collaborate within a community of trust. 

All users have to do is sign in with their home organisation’s credentials, and they have the access they need.

Under the hood, that seamlessness depends on consistent data – and particularly the metadata exchanged between organisations and publishers using the SAML standard. SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) is the protocol that establishes this trust.

In such a community, we all depend on the data provided by others – and the better the data, the smoother the process is likely to be.

So it pays to be thoughtful when entering data that will be exchanged via OpenAthens – right from the start. Here’s why:

1. Consistent approach to attribute data simplifies setup

Consistent use of attribute data can help organisations and publishers to integrate better, as part of and on behalf of their community.

At its most basic level, consistent attribute data means a more coherent setup experience for organisations. Service providers using the core attribute set enables access to most organisation’s subscribed resources, without the organisation needing to release any additional personally identifiable information.

Data accuracy is just as important as data standards. As a simple example, encrypted attribute data determine users’ eligibility to access material. If attributes are incorrect, then users may be unable to reach the content they should be entitled to view. 

2. Metadata standards support interoperability

One of the benefits of federated access is that it fosters collaboration between multiple organisations and publishers – who may use different, interoperable products to achieve results.

In such a complex supply chain, what these products have in common is that they use the same underlying standards-based technology such as SAML or OpenID Connect. Sharing metadata enables products to easily communicate with one another. 

3. Metadata may be user-facing

Metadata can even disrupt the user journey when technically speaking single sign-on is “working”. 

For example, when users sign in remotely, they may choose their organisation name using an organisation discovery service – such as OpenAthens Wayfinder or SeamlessAccess

Organisation names displayed in these services are often populated from the metadata. For this to be helpful, though, your organisation name needs to be distinguishable from others. If there’s another organisation on the other side of the world with a similar or identical name to yours, this will confuse researchers, adding obstacles to access.

This example shows the importance of considering data from a holistic point of view. It’s important to figure out how the user will ultimately see the data you enter, while understanding that there are other organizations operating in the same space. User testing, of course, can help.

SeamlessAccess provide recommendations on how to improve federated Where Are You From (WAYF) services.

4. Accurate data fosters trust

For federated access to be useful, it’s important for all parties to be able to rely on data provided by others in their community.

This works in many ways. For example, publishers need to trust the data an organization provides that may determine a user’s eligibility to access a resource. 

Conversely, to get value for money, an organization wants to be able to trust resource access statistics – which ultimately make use of attribute data you provide.

Librarians also get a consistent set of data using COUNTER stats. Some publishers enable COUNTER stats in federated access solutions using the eduPersonAnalyticsTag attribute.

The COUNTER standard informs how a publisher can record statistics data consistently and this enables you to read them in a consistent way.

How OpenAthens can help
At OpenAthens, we can help to validate the data our customers provide at initial setup. For example, we can help to spot issues with ambiguous organisation names, which could cause confusion for users.

And we’re also sharing our work with federation communities around the world, to understand, share and execute standard methods of practice – and make federated access even more reliable for all.

Visit the OpenAthens community hub to find out more about federated access.