Want better science? Then we need better User Experiences

Paula de Matos, UXLS Project Manager at The Pistoia Alliance shares why good user experience is the foundation for effective science and collaboration

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Pharma IQ

Despite predictions that life sciences firms will spend over $80bn on smart lab equipment and research tools in the next few years, the pharma industry is still often seen as a laggard when it comes to adopting cutting edge technology. As a result, many firms continue to struggle with solutions that don’t fully meet the needs of their researchers, even after making technology investments – a problem that is particularly noticeable when it comes to User Experience (UX). This is concerning because, although quality UX might not seem to be a major challenge initially, it is actually foundational to the pursuit of good science.

As scientists have pushed back the boundaries of knowledge over the years, the data they work with has become progressively more varied and increasingly complex. In order to be productive in their research, scientists need tools which can help them easily understand, dissect, and analyse the vast reams of data they’re working with. Moreover, if scientists want to share their methodology and findings with colleagues for testing and validation, good UX is critical to supporting that collaboration. Unfortunately today, many companies are having to make do with sub-standard UX. If researchers are to be effective, this has to change.


A difference of design

It’s easy to underestimate the difference that good UX can deliver. But, when it comes to software, it doesn’t matter how powerful the underlying functionality of a product is if it can be rendered inaccessible by unintuitive, unengaging UX. Research has shown that changing the UX of a product can boost productivity by up to 300 per cent. This is even more pronounced in the life sciences industry, where researchers aren’t just working with numerical and textual data – they need digital tools that can manage everything from molecule composition to protein structures to biomedical imagery and can switch between them seamlessly.

On top of this, there is the sheer volume of data to contend with. Today, pharma firms are investing heavily into areas like precision medicine and biologics, supported by next-generation sequencing and high-throughput screening. These require scientists to analyse genomic information and have tools that can organise and structure the vast amounts of data contained therein. Considering that some sequences are more than 200 million bases in length, effective analysis entails scientists having access to techniques like data abstraction and progressive disclosure so they can select the level of granularity they need for a given task.


Developing the right experience

One of our projects at The Pistoia Alliance involves exploring ways to improve access to UX design; the project was launched because of common complaints from members, who argued that vendors are offering software that lacks usability and doesn’t cater to the needs of researchers. This isn’t because vendors lack the incentives to provide proper UX for the life sciences industry; pharmaceutical R&D spending is expected to top $200bn by 2024, meaning there is a huge market section waiting to be captured. Rather, it’s a problem created by a lack of communication from both sides. A key reason why there is a growing UX gap between life sciences and other industries is that the UX design process is not well understood. UX designers need regular access to actual users to design great experiences. Too often vendors end up talking to corporate IT or business unit heads rather than users themselves, which makes developing good UX that much harder.

Vendors who include a foundational UX research phase often complain that they are outpriced and Pharma are sometimes not willing to pay for this additional cost. Designing for drug discovery is complex and requires additional resourcing to truly understand the user needs. Both internally and externally, developers and designers both face a user population and a management that does not fully understand or support the need for UX. To overcome this, there needs to be a constant conversation between pharma firms and vendors, involving regular feedback on new products and updates, to help UX designers design the same slick experiences for scientists as they have for banks and retailers.

When usability issues are uncovered by pharma researchers many vendors drag their feet to fix them. The vendor focus seems to be on adding new features rather than fixing existing features as they struggle to justify that to their customers.


A collaborative approach

In order to resolve this conundrum, we need a space where tech and pharma can come together to share ideas and discuss solutions. The UXLS (User Experience for Life Sciences) project aims to meet this need with a UX toolkit to help designers, developers, and business analysts better understand how scientists work, and what their technological requirements are; it includes a range of resources, such as case studies, suggested templates, and user interviews. The project has also launched their UXLS procurement guidelines to aid pharma in selecting enterprise solutions which fit the needs of their users. The project will also look at the role that UX will play in the adoption of ‘smart’ technology and AI as part of the broader Lab of the Future industry trend. The Alliance will also be launching further measures to help foster greater understanding between tech and pharma firms, which will be open to anyone who wishes to get involved.

Thanks to tech giants like Google, Apple, and Amazon, we’ve all become accustomed to seamless user experiences whenever we browse or shop online. And as the new generation becomes an ever-larger share of the workforce, they expect this same ease of use in their professional lives. But, at a time when researchers are dependent on increasingly vast and complicated datasets, solving the UX gap in life sciences is a tricky proposition. Addressing the problem requires much greater understanding and collaboration between tech firms and pharma companies. We would encourage anyone interested in this issue to get involved and share their experiences to help everyone succeed.