Real world user-centred design (UCD): case study from the European Bioinformatics Institute

Today’s news is that the latest article I have co-authored has just been published in BMC Bioinformatics (e-published before final formatting):

de Matos P, Cham JA, et al. (2013) Enzyme Portal: a case study in applying user-centred design methods in bioinformatics. BMC Bioinformatics 14: 103

It’s the first ‘how to’ guide for applying user-centred design (UCD) to websites for bioinformatics. Hurrah!

So what is the article about?

I believe that as a community, bioinformatics is notorious for producing hard-to-use, often technical, software that turns off the wet-lab biologist.   There are lots of reasons for this, including the way projects are funded, and the fact that software developers decide how the software looks and behaves, amongst other things.  Bottom line is – software isn’t generally designed based on the needs of users (who in this case are usually academic researchers in bio-sciences).   Our article aims to address this situation by suggesting how we can use UCD to improve the usability of bioinformatics resources.

What does it add to the state of the art?

As you will know, UCD is an approach for designing user interfaces/ websites, where the needs of users dictate the design.  The aim is to create services that are both useful and easy to use for the specific target audience. It has been successfully used in e-commerce websites, retail sites, gaming, mobile apps and other domains, however, case studies about how to increase usability of scientific software are scarce in the literature, and virtually non-existent for complex data domains, such as bioinformatics.  So, guess what – we wrote something about it – taking Enzyme Portal as a real life example.

What exciting stuff will you find in our article?

You will get (for free!):

  • step-by-step account of the UCD process we used; see Figure 1 for a heads-up on this and Additional file 1 for the full algorithm 😉  Enjoy!  (Remember each UCD process will be different depending on your project, how you can access users, the time and resources you have).
  • toolkit of templates so you can get started NOW for your own bioinformatics (or other) project.  Including: consent form, card sorting canvas (Table 1), usability testing scenarios and tasks, personas and more!
  • ammunition to tell your boss/PI that you should start doing UCD!
Cartoon from the biochemist persona ‘Eunice’ – Figure 2 in the paper

Why have we bothered?

The dream is that our article will inspire our peers working in bioinformatics, or other scientific fields, to improve the user-friendliness of their resources on the web, so that the usage and impact of them on science may grow.  But what about world peace, you say?  Honestly, I think this is a noble cause – because otherwise we are not getting the value we should be getting from publicly-funded bioinformatics (Yes that’s your taxes).


Anyway, we hope you enjoy the paper and get motivated to join in with your own UX stuff soon!  JC out!


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