In today’s digital world, software is the gateway to unlocking the many zettabytes of data that humans continue to produce. When scientific software is poorly designed, using it can be frustrating and time-consuming – ultimately resulting in less productive research. The life science industry has fallen behind others, such as retail and finance, in embracing User Experience (UX) design, and ensuring software used by scientists and researchers is centred on their behaviours and needs.

As the pharmaceutical industry continues to experience a productivity crisis, this situation must be addressed. Indeed, research finds almost half (45 percent) of big pharma’s total forecast revenue came from external sources – that is, those smaller, nimble organisations that are better adapted for a digital age. UX design holds great unlocked potential for scientific software design, because it offers a clear path to differentiating a business, and reaping benefits for the discovery pipeline.

There is little use in hiring the best scientists to discover a new drug – but providing them with software that is hard to use, slow and unattractive, to solve this extremely complex problem. It’s akin to inviting the biggest pop stars to play a huge arena without amplifiers. While the science may be cutting edge, without UX it will fail to accomplish its potential. Life science companies must equip scientists with the most efficient, engaging means to perform their research. Yet, this is not the experience of many R&D scientists in their daily work.

Typically, the UX experience is subpar, and far below the immersive digital UX commonly found outside of work. Often, companies invest in advanced UX for their external customer-facing processes – such as clinical touchpoints and marketing – but fail to do the same for internal scientific software. We asked nine of the top 15 global biopharmaceutical companies how UX fits into their strategy. The results were hugely varied, from no UX function in R&D at all, to 25 full-time UX specialists in teams at four sites across three continents. Undoubtedly, these organisations conduct innovative, cutting-edge research – but for those that neglect UX design, there could be significant impact on the efficiency of their discovery teams.

Avoiding “the curse of knowledge”

UX professionals can come from a diversity of disciplines. Examples include the life sciences, including psychology and cognitive science, technology, engineering and design. These different backgrounds bring fresh perspectives on scientific tool design. Further, this lack of specific scientific training allows UX designers to ask questions without restricted thought patterns – sometimes called “the curse of knowledge”. Designers do still need enthusiasm for science, and will require the ability to tweak standard UX design approaches to accommodate biological data complexity. For example, a ‘canvas sort’ applied to complex enzyme data.

UX must be a ‘way of thinking’ in order to be successful. UX designers must start with scientists themselves, in order to fully understand the challenges faced by scientists and gain insight into the barriers they face in exploring new ideas. In essence, UX design for life science R&D should serve internal research scientist users first – with the primary goal of facilitating data analysis and visualisation. This kind of process carried out early on helps inform the right design decisions and avoids costly reworking.

Challenges to embracing UX

Life sciences, and particularly drug discovery, can become truly UX design-capable, but there are a few specific hurdles to widespread adoption:

  • There is generally poor awareness of the role of that UX design can have in life science R&D; leading to misconceptions around what UX is and how it benefits the business.
  • Decision-makers don’t always value UX design so it doesn’t garner the attention it needs; it may be perceived as an ‘idea-generating exercise’, rather than a ‘problem-solving exercise’.
  • As a result, UX design is seen as something done at the end of software development, and the UX team may only be asked for comment post-interface design.
  • Stakeholder buy-in can be limited, and organisations must realise that the design of products and services for internal R&D scientists is business critical.
  • Life-science R&D IT is still generally regarded as a cost centre; this mind-set may also explain why UX has been overlooked in life science R&D.
  • UK designers must improve how they ‘sell’ themselves; UX must be able to quantify and demonstrate an influence on strategy in life science R&D.

The Pistoia Alliance (PA) is a global, not-for-profit collaboration of life science companies, technology product and service providers, publishers and academic groups that work together to lower barriers to innovation in life science R&D. At the beginning of 2017, PA launched The User Experience for Life Sciences (UXLS) project to better communicate the value of UX in life science R&D, and overcome the barriers outlined above. The initiative brings together 50 UX design experts from 16 member organisations; including pharmaceutical, agri-food, life science and technology companies.

The project will develop a UX best-practice toolkit with R&D-specific case studies, methods and business metrics. By sharing their deep expertise and experience in UX, gained through years of working in the field of life science R&D, the project will help others foster UX best practices in their own companies – whether in a UX team of one or 25. The potential for UX design to impact life science R&D is significant; from improving the UX of clinical trials, to better UX design that supports the ‘laboratory of the future’. Realising this potential will only become possible as a result of greater collaboration and pooling individual knowledge on UX-design.

Dr Jennifer Cham is Lead Experience Analyst and Katrina Costa is Senior Scientific Engagement Officer at the European Bioinformatics Institute