UX design for the life sciences: myths and realities

UX at EMBL-EBI presentations 2017: Daniel Vaughan, Nikiforos Karamanis, Galabina Yordanova, Revathi Nathaniel, Michele Ide, Ken Hawkins, Jenny Cham. (Not pictured: Sangya Pundir.)

UX design for the life sciences: myths and realities

9 Mar 2017 - 13:03

User Experience (UX) designers and researchers at EMBL-EBI debunked common UX myths and shared tips for best practice in a Wellcome Genome Campus seminar on 3 March 2017. The event encouraged members of our life-science community to apply UX design in their projects, and to seek support and guidance on a new local forum.

“UX design is already well-established in the consumer sector, but still holds significant untapped potential for life sciences,” explained Jenny Cham, Lead User Experience Analyst at EMBL-EBI. “We would like to build a community at EMBL-EBI that explores this potential. The introductory seminar tested the waters to see if there is an interest in UX design; we are very pleased with the response.”

More than skin deep

UX design principles help us make data services that are intuitive and straightforward to use for life-science researchers. There is a common misconception that “UX” and “user interface” are interchangeable terms, but in reality UX design has a much wider scope. It is a process that brings people together to solve a problem.

“UX is about the arrow hitting its target, it’s not about how beautiful the arrow looks,” explained Cham.

Not lipstick on a pig

“UX encompasses all aspects of end-user interaction with the organisation, service and product, so it has to be an integral part of the project from the very beginning,” added Michele Ide-Smith, UX Architect at EMBL-EBI. “A common misperception is that user-experience design can be done at the end of a project to make everything look and feel better. But this superficial approach is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. To be valuable, UX design is an approach that needs to be considered from the outset of a project.”

There is no “UX unicorn”

Another industry myth is that a UX specialist will be able to do everything, from identifying pivotal problems through mapping user journeys, designing websites and validating the approach.

“There are no UX unicorns,” explained Revathi Nathaniel, UX Designer at EMBL-EBI. “No one person can solve every problem in a heartbeat. The solution is to tap into the skills you have access to. You should discover, design and test as a team.”

A team sport

“UX is about empathy with users, problem solving and teamwork,” elaborated Ide-Smith. “It’s a continuous process of discovery, design and validation.”

The seminar concluded with an example of best practice, presented by UX Designer Nikiforos Karamanis, who walked a packed audience through the UX design methods, principles and processes used to construct the Open Targets data platform, which helps R&D scientists identify the most promising potential drug targets.

“The first step in any UX project is to identify who your users are, then try to speak to as many of them as possible about their problems,” pointed out Karamanis. “Only then can you start framing the problems you’re trying to solve, after which you can design and test several times before you get it right.”

To find out more about the UX design seminar, have a look at the slides here.

Discover more

Bringing usability to a complex domain - The blog of Dr. Jenny Cham

What is user experience design? - Read our overview and use cases in Train Online

EBI Interfaces - A blog for User Experience Research & Design, Data Visualization, and Biosciences

Bioinformatics meets User-Centred Design: A perspective - Article in PLOS Computational Biology

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Vicky Hatch | Communications Officer


Oana Stroe | Senior Communications Officer


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