Designing better web experiences for bioinformatics

The March issue of BMC Bioinformatics includes the first ‘how to’ guide for applying user-centred design (UCD) to websites for bioinformatics. In this post, written by user experience (UX) professionals at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) UK, we find out how UCD could positively impact scientific discovery in the life sciences.

Photo of paper prototyping for Enzyme Portal

Paper prototyping for Enzyme Portal

Bioinformatics services can be really useful for scientific research, but unfortunately they have a reputation for being too technical and hard-to-use. This is because it is usually the software developers who decide how bioinformatics software looks and behaves, rather than the biomedical researchers who actually use the resource.

In our article, we outline a better approach – focusing on what the users want.

UCD is a design philosophy for user interfaces, where the requirements and behaviour of users inspire the design and workings of a product or service – usually a website. The aim is to create services that are both useful and easy-to-use for a specific target audience. UCD has been successfully applied to the web for e-commerce, retail sites, gaming and mobile apps. However, case studies about how to increase usability of scientific software are in short supply in the literature, and virtually non-existent for complex data domains such as bioinformatics.

In our paper we provide a real life example of how to apply UCD principles in bioinformatics – the Enzyme Portal. Launched in February 2012, the Enzyme Portal provides a single point of entry to a wealth of information about proteins with enzymatic activity. It includes protein information, small molecule chemistry, 3D protein structure, disease information, scientific literature, and more.

In the article we include a detailed, step-by-step account of the UCD methods that we applied. We also provide a toolkit of templates to enable the reader to start their own UCD project. Our vision is to help our peers working in bioinformatics to improve the user-friendliness of their resources on the web, thus increasing the usage of these resources and their impact on scientific discovery.

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