Seeing the future: UX design in bioinformatics at SIB and EBI

Dr. Jenny Cham (EMBL-EBI), Dr. Chiara Gabella (SIB), Séverine Duvaud (SIB) and Dr. Nikiforos Karamanis (EMBL-EBI) during the UX knowledge exchange at the EBI on 19-20 Sept 2018
This post was drafted by Georgia Hingston (External Relations, EMBL-EBI) and edited by me, Jennifer Cham.

Members of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) and EMBL-EBI‘s User Experience team took part in a knowledge exchange on 19-20 September to share ideas and explore how UX design can be further developed within EBI and SIB.

Chiara Gabella, scientific coordinator, and Séverine Duvaud, software developer at SIB, met with EBI’s UX designers and other colleagues at the Genome Campus, Hinxton UK, to discuss the prospects and challenges of developing UX for bioinformatics resources.

User experience design (as usual readers will know) focuses on the ease-of-use and desirability of a product or interface. In the case of life science research, this is usually how data is presented and organised on a webpage, and includes the way data is browsed, manipulated and shared. UX in the life sciences presents some unique challenges, and creating effective platforms for hugely complex bioinformatics resources is an ever-expanding task.

During the visit, the SIB and EBI UX teams discussed their ideas and approaches that bring success for bioinformatics.  Here is a list of the top tips that were uncovered over UX coffee and cake.

UX coffee and cake – a regular meetup for UX designers on the Genome Campus, UK

Top tips for initiating UX design in bioinformatics

1. Work closely with the data providers

It is important to clearly demonstrate to scientific data providers why UX design is key to making data discoverable, comprehensible and usable for other researchers.

“I think we’re learning a lot from seeing what the UX-team at EMBL-EBI do,” says Séverine. “It’s not only technically speaking, it’s also about getting data resources and researchers onboard by demonstrating the importance of UX in a bioinformatics setting. UX is not only important in the commercial world.”

Finding suitable case studies of success, and having metrics to objectively measure the value added by UX, are key to getting this message across.  Both the EBI and SIB are project members of the UX for Life Sciences initiative ( which has recently launched a UX toolkit to support both of these activities.

2. Share UX know-how with others

Collaborating and sharing knowledge with those who have experience in the field enables UX design to progress more quickly, generates new ideas, and is more resource-efficient than going it alone.

“As UX designers in this environment, we face unique challenges,” says Jennifer Cham, a UX designer at the EBI. “It makes sense to build a community for us to learn from and support each other going forward. I wish we had had a collaboration like this when I joined the EMBL-EBI as a UX team-of-one several years ago.”

3. Be aware of your users’ increasing expectations

Making databases quick and easy-to-use is key to making resources effective for the next-generation of biologists.

“Today we are used to services that are super easy to use. It has to be fast and easy because marketeers want to transform the clicks into purchases,” explains Séverine. “So now biologists, especially younger biologists, look for the same level of usability. They have to find the data and information they are looking for straight away, and our resources have to respond to these needs an expectations.”

4. Invest in and nurture in-house UX expertise

Having a dedicated focus on UX design, independent of scientific research activities, is essential for successful provision of complex data resources.

“In industry, when a product is conceived, users and/or potential customers are at the heart of the process” suggests Chiara. “Science should work in the same way: we can have outstanding data resources, like those provided by SIB, but if they are not built based on the logic of users, they will not achieve the visibility and usage they deserve.”

At both EBI and SIB it is agreed that the future success of bioinformatics data resources relies on user experience as well as on the quality and interconnection of data.  There is plenty of scope for working together as a wider community of UX-ers to achieve this.

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