Usability in complex domains: what’s the optimal route for UX success in bioinformatics?

UX in a complex domain such as biology

To pursue a career in usability practice for a complex domain, such as bioinformatics, what is the best career route to take?  Is it best to train in usability evaluation – more formally known as Human Computer Interactions (HCI) first, then to learn about a specific domain later?  Or is it better to be a domain expert in bioinformatics, then learn the discipline and techniques of HCI later?  Is the order important for success?  You can, of course, study for degrees and doctorates in both, but what’s the most efficient way to become an effective usability practitioner in a complex domain?

One way to think about this situation for the field of bioinformatics is to consider how difficult it is to learn the material in each discrete sphere separately first:  i.e. in HCI or bioscience.  Is it easier to catch up on bioinformatics.…or is it easier to learn usability methods and philosophies ‘crash course’ style?  An added complexity here is that bioinformatics itself suffers from the same problem: should one study biology then computing, or vice versa? (I’ll shelve this issue for now!)

It seems an easy question to answer – obviously catching up on HCI is easier, you might be thinking; short practitioner courses on usability techniques are available after all  (I have been on them myself!), whereas bioinformatics is extremely complicated to learn from scratch.  But what many do not take into account is that HCI is actually a huge discipline too, with vast amounts of research and established best practice.  As an academic field it includes computer science and engineering, psychology and cognitive science, media and design, and social science.  To understand it well, and apply to apply it correctly requires deep study and insight.  In addition to this, I believe a purveyor of usability evaluation must also offer ‘softer’ people/communication skills to operate effectively, and especially so in a complex domain where persuasion and keen listening skills will be needed.

Chilana et al.’s paper from the CHI conference in April 2010 (PDF) addressed the topic of usability in complex domains.  The authors reported summaries of the results from interviewing 21 usability ‘generalists’ (i.e. non domain experts) who have worked on projects involving usability evaluation for a complex data domain.  These domains included genomics, medical imaging, software development, network security, aviation, healthcare, statistical analysis, and others.

Analysis of complex user data such as for a new online bioinformatics service

They found that there was often a lack of credibility for generalist usability consultants within the team/client.  For usability testing, the generalists also reported feeling less confident designing, running, and presenting recommendations when working a complex domain compared to something more mainstream like an e-commerce site.  Another problem was that the expert users they must interact with tended to vary more in their responses, and consensus was hard to find in requirements for new systems/websites.

My view on the matter is that both routes can theoretically lead to success, but a domain expert first, UX analyst second is the best option where possible. I am somewhat biased, because I took this route myself, but to justify it… I believe that having a passion and solid grounding in the complex domain first alleviates the credibility and confidence issues faced by generalists.  More cynically, experts in a specific field usually know less about the specifics of the application of HCI methods compared to other environments, so you can get away with more flexible approaches, which is handy sometimes!  Moreover, if you understand the worldview of the domain expert – but are still somewhat removed from it now you are immersed in UX instead – then this can help you to:

  1. communicate better
  2. empathise better
  3. anticipate problems before they arise

In other words, I think the cliché “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” applies here.

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