Some years ago, I was on an assignment with a global pharmaceutical company’s UK-based research center. My role entailed regulatory compliance. It was the time when Big Pharma was heavily investing in information technology (IT) to boost efficiency, streamline operations, and optimize costs. Even today, the spiraling costs of pharmaceutical R&D and the enormous risks involved in drug development continue to be the key drivers for IT adoption in Life Sciences.
There is, however, a peculiar challenge. Scientists, accustomed to working with pen and paper, are averse to using lab software. ‘It is disconcerting,’ a scientist working at the research center confided to me, complaining about the convoluted interface of an off-the-shelf drug safety system. Clearly, the concerned system fulfilled the business and regulatory needs, but failed to make its users happy.
Things haven’t changed much even now. At the heart of the software usability problem today is a poorly designed user interface, which assumes that its users—doctors and pharmacologists working in labs and clinics—would effortlessly be able to decipher how to use it.
The scientific community’s tacit disapproval of software with complex interfaces and cumbersome interaction isn’t completely unjustified. A lot is at stake if a design or interaction flaw in software used in Life Sciences is left uncorrected. Apart from causing comprehension problems for users, usability and design defects can impede R&D efforts. The present day scientists working in labs continue to be faced with productivity pressures. They deal with complex and humongous scientific data on a daily basis. Data entry and analysis forms an integral part of their research work. As such, they expect software apps to do almost everything that’s required to perform their roles. Furthermore, it is essential for them to be utterly focused on scientific research work without having to struggle with software usability issues. After all, they can ill-afford to spare any time for anything other than research.
User experience (UX) thus has come to assume an extremely vital role in case of software used by people working in Life Sciences. However, the approach to designing software ought to be far more user research-based if the software is to serve science and scientists better. The following aspects must be considered to achieve user-centredness in software design.
- Identify users at the very outset. Study their work environment minutely. Learn how they actually work in labs and clinics
- Contextualize and internalize users’ behavior, temperament, goals, needs, motives, aspirations, preferences (both stated and unstated), cultural mores, and existing challenges or limitations pertaining to work, life, time and space. Narrativize the users’ stories by delineating personas, and sketching empathy and journey maps. For instance, the story of a particular user, Dr. Ann Marie, a 40-year-old medical research scientist with a team of 5 pharmacologists spread across two continents, should also coherently reflect the story of the entire user group. Asking the right questions to establish good alignment, therefore, becomes necessary in user story mapping
- Identify and prioritize task workflows on the basis of factors such as frequency of use, relative importance, uniqueness, existing issues, and business criticality. This is done collaboratively and in consultation with real and potential users.
- Adopt a user-participatory approach to conceptualization of design, and its validation and testing. Analyze user feedback, and play it back to the users to ascertain what improvements they’d like. This helps in justifying and carrying out continuous refinements, particularly to realize the desired experience.
A human-oriented ‘design thinking’ approach to software development makes the software precisely empathetic to users’ physical and emotional needs. In real terms, it leads to user-centered visualization and better personalization of interface, information and interaction. The end-goal is simple: to empower users and to enrich their lives.
Towards the end of my stint at the research center, I got to attend a seminar on Good Clinical, Laboratory, and Manufacturing (GxP) Practices. The faculty—a retired director of USA’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—shared interesting insights about challenges and opportunities in the Life Sciences Industry. ‘Always remember,’ the director said, ‘we’re in the business of saving lives, and our job is to make good solutions even better, not just because it’s required for compliance but because it’s the right thing to do.’
The ‘user interface’ used in Life Sciences represents scientific knowledge. Its design should be so smart that understanding and application of knowledge are maximized. In the years to come, advanced innovations will revolutionize the way scientists and clinical research professionals will think and work. It’ll be all about precision in analytics, intelligence, and decision-making. Completely digitized and powered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, 3D Modeling, Internet of Things (IoT), and VR/AR, the ‘Laboratory of the Future’ is set to herald a new dawn in the world of genomics, and drug discovery and development. User experience will be a critical measure of its success.
One sees the whole significance of user experience design, not just for compliance, but also in the valuable act of ‘saving lives’.