On March 1st, 2012, we had a different kind of event on the Genome Campus… a joint session between EBI Interfaces and the Hinxton Sequence Forum (HSF) , with the aim of giving people practical, hands-on experience of user experience design (UXD) work.
At the EBI, we have developed a lot of on-site expertise in the areas of user research and user experience design. During a recent HSF meeting, members expressed a desire to learn more about user experience design, and how they can take techniques and methods and apply them to their work.
So, it was a bit of an experiment. We had an hour and a half, and a great audience of 50 developers and researchers from both the EBI and the Sanger Institute, and we tried to give them a useful taste of the design process.
The message? Take the time to explore and define a problem before you start developing solutions.
Opening: Introduction and presentations
After a brief introduction by Giulietta (a well-known face for the HSF members), we kicked off with four presentations. These were used to frame a design problem that several of us had faced in a range of projects, and to give some context to the session.
I talked about data access and the EGA and Jenny spoke about the development of a service called Enzyme Portal. Our colleague, Tony Sawford, described the GOA website, and UX analyst Sangya Pundir talked about development of UniProt.
In each case, we had had to figure out ways to allow users to select and manipulate data, whether it was for comparison, analysis, or download. Presenting large collections of data and providing an intuitive way for the user to interact with it was the context for the little “design challenge” we set our audience.
We split our audience into five groups of about 10 people each. We explained that, with the context or “problem space” in mind, they should try and very rapidly come up with some design solutions. Rather than just having a round-table chat about it, we enforced some structure.
A technique that works very well is called “3-12-3“, where participants are asked to spend 3 minutes individually writing down characteristics or keywords for a given context, then 12 minutes sketching ideas for solutions (usually in pairs, not big groups!), and a final 3 minutes presenting their ideas. The enforced time limits are a great way to prevent a never-ending ideas discourse! It isn’t meant to get you THE solution, but it gives you a great way to rapidly explore a topic.
This activity is described in the hugely popular book, Gamestorming.
Closing: Round-up of ideas and solutions
Someone from each of the five groups was volunteered (!) to present their group’s ideas and possible solutions. Despite the very short time limit, people had really brainstormed a lot of concepts and got things down on paper. One can see how repeating this exercise, and iterating ideas, could start to make something that developers could build.
It is a lo-fidelity approach, yes – and that is a big part of what we wanted people to see: the ideas are the important thing. At this stage, it is quantity over quality! Just explore.
We finished off the session with more from Sangya Pundir about the shopping basket metaphor that they have been testing with users in UniProt prototypes.
Discover, Define, Develop, Deliver
The format for this session was cooked up between four of us from the EBI: Giulietta Spudich, Jenny Cham and Paula de Matos, and me. We didn’t want to just talk about our work (although show & tell is a useful format); we wanted to get our audience involved and interacting!
We also wanted to introduce some core design ideas. If you consider the Design Council’s description of the design process, then we chose to focus this time on the discovery and definition phases of our work – how do we know what to build, and how does that match up with what we want to deliver. Take the time to generate and explore ideas collaboratively. Balancing user needs, project aims and design experience is where the user experience design comes in!
A big thank-you to everyone who attended.
What is the Hinxton Sequence Forum?
“The Hinxton Sequence Forum includes Sanger and EBI groups and teams whose work and/or research involves analysis and manipulation of nucleic acid and protein sequences, and includes teams working on assembly and annotation of genomes as well as those running the various biological databases. Members of the Forum meet weekly to hear presentations to exchange news and ideas.”