Science, stories and better design

Being able to communicate effectively is fundamental to successful collaboration in scientific research. The same is true of application or website design.

If we learn more about how scientists share concepts, and particularly the stories and vocabulary they use to do it, we can design more useful, usable applications to aid that research.

communication and finding common ground

Designing for a spectrum of knowledge

At the EBI, a big part of our work is the production of services and applications to allow researchers in the field of biological science to explore their data. The exploration of the huge datasets involved, backed by massive computing power, means that researchers can gain deeper insights and understanding.

We are still learning about who the day-to-day users of these tools are, what they need to do, and how this fits into their wider research.

Collaboration and common ground

Not only is there a range of technical understanding to contend with, but there is also a spectrum of domain expertise within biology itself. What is obvious to one group might be meaningless to another. A classic challenge, right?

Look at almost any scientific paper, and you will see a list of authors, sometimes two or three, but often many more. In research, scientists frequently work as part of a team. That team might be distributed across different institutes, but they collaborate so that their mix of expertise can lead to new discoveries, the sum being greater than the parts.

When collaboration occurs, it means that the combined weight of knowledge and experience can be brought to bear on a problem. Of course, it can also create challenges, particularly when scientists from different domains can use quite different vocabularies to describe what they are working on.

So how do they communicate?  They have to find a way to share ideas; to discuss concepts and possibilities; to figure out how to build on each other’s findings, or else the collaboration will be fruitless.

Science and storytelling

I began to investigate this recently, and from what I have observed so far, scientists often use a simple but ancient communication tool to find that common ground: stories.

Sure, one scientist could try to learn the “language” of a scientist from another domain, but it would take too long. Instead, to communicate a concept, the scientist can tell a story, and weave into it the part the collaborator has to play.

I discussed this with Whitney Quesenbery not long ago, and as I said to her, “It isn’t just that the data or the research can tell a story about some wider scientific subject. The scientists can use stories so that they can communicate effectively.”

A friend of mine at the Sanger Institute described a story she might tell, using the example of how she might work with a bioinformatician.  She is a lab-based biologist, and although she is an expert in her domain, she simply doesn’t have the time (nor inclination!) to develop the technical skills required to ask certain questions of the data produced by her experiments. A bioinformatician can do that, though. He might spend all day, programmatically exploring large datasets for meaningful data and patterns.

In order to involve the bioinformatician in her research, my friend makes him a character in her story. She describes the purpose of the work, and how his collaboration can have an impact on it, using a vocabulary that they both understand.

Informing better design

I’m looking forward to spending more time observing these discussions between scientists who collaborate with others along this spectrum of knowledge and expertise.

I think that if we can gain a better understanding of the common vocabularies and imagery used when sharing concepts, we can use that to better design information architecture, interfaces and content. Instead of trying to design for everyone; instead targeting particular groups but excluding others; instead of trying to second-guess, we can use something that already exists: the stories that scientists tell one another.

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