Evolution of User Experience for life sciences

Evolution of User Experience for life sciences

By Jacek Ziemski, Simon Fortenbacher, James Hoeksma, Jan Taubert, Roger Attrill, Paula de Matos, Andre Richter and Julie Morrison

Since 2017 we have seen the slow and steady adoption of User Experience (UX) within the life sciences. User Experience is an evidence-based design process that centres on the behaviours and needs of users.

The clear benefits of UX offered in the retail and consumer sectors have been slow to percolate to other more complex sectors such as the life sciences. As the benefits of adoption of UX come to be realised, we see steady and strong growth in the R&D life sciences sector.

The retail and consumer services sectors have long recognised the value of User Experience. This early realisation and long-term investment can be seen by their higher levels of maturity over other sectors in The Design Frontier report, which surveyed more than 2,200 companies compiled by InVision (1). The ‘retail and consumer durables’ sector have a combined level 4 and 5 maturity of over 24% in comparison to the health and pharmaceutical industry which currently stands at a combined level 4 and 5 maturity of 14%.

Especially in retail, the correlation between a solid user experience and ROI is direct and easy to demonstrate through unambiguous measures such as conversion rate, and it is simple to track improvements through A:B testing; in fact, the most successful consumer companies today have adopted user experience as a core component of their business. In 2000, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos noted that: “In our first year we didn’t spend a single dollar on advertising… the best dollars spent are those we use to improve the customer experience.” (2)

Such correlation becomes more tenuous in enterprise environments and particularly in life science, where historically the users of the applications were not the end consumers, but scientists, statisticians, analysts and managers. Within this environment the ROI of any UX activity is harder to calculate definitively, as many other factors come into play between the user experience of any application and the commercial success of the company.

However, by 2017 most life science companies were beginning to recognise that the inherent complexity of their industry was being compounded by applications and devices that lacked attention to ‘usability’, and that efficiency savings and process improvements could result from some investment in this area (3). This also came about at a time when employees were becoming acutely aware of the vast chasm of experience between their consumer technology at home and that provided in their place of work.

Many large life science companies began recruiting ‘usability consultants’ with the aim of improving their applications but, partly due to lack of knowledge of this space and partly to the ROI not being proven, did not invest heavily enough for real benefits to be realised. Instead, these UX resources focused on ‘low hanging fruit’ – quick wins with short-term gains, often focusing on aesthetic improvements rather than addressing more fundamental design issues that were impacting the user experience of scientists. This proved to be a double-edged sword; on one hand these efforts did provide solid case studies that demonstrated a level of ROI and paved the way for more significant investments going forward, but on the other hand reinforced a perennial misconception of UX, that it is all about the user interface (UI); the layout, colours, fonts and images displayed to users while interacting with an application or device.

This misconception became a challenge to these small UX teams:

– As UI design tends to happen later in a project, UX resources were not engaged until much later, often after the design decisions that most impact the user experience had been made and implemented.
– Project teams were reluctant to take a step back and consider the core goals, needs and expectations of users (and the user research required to understand this), concerned that doing so would add to their timelines or budgets.
– UX was relegated as an aesthetic inconvenience rather than a core measure of success.
– Many opportunities to improve task flow, reduce errors and eliminate training were missed as the value of UX was not fully realised.

Although the full potential of UX had not been realised by this time, these early project interactions paved the way for further expansion and adoption of UX. UX practitioners now not only needed to practise UX, but they needed to educate the wider organisation on the definition of UX and provide them a common vocabulary.

Evolution of UX since 2017

Despite different adoption rates of UX within different companies, it would seem that the original hype associated with UX functions in industry has slightly declined since 2017. This is mainly due to the transition from an early adopter phase to production use in our industry. Having overcome initial challenges of establishing UX functions, UX is now becoming part of departmental structure and strategic planning of most companies.

Nevertheless, the value of UX is not always obvious. Education of colleagues in UX techniques and best practices through formal training workshops has shown only limited results. On the other hand, we have found that UX has shown the most value within the company when it was applied to concrete high-impact projects. On these projects, colleagues could directly experience the value and contribution of UX on their own systems. This leads to repeated requests from these colleagues to the UX functions. Furthermore, showcasing these projects as case studies attracts more potential customers. Building on this project success, eventually most exposure for UX will be generated by participation across important projects with companywide visibility.

The learning process is not just on the side of colleagues, but also for UX practitioners while they get exposed to even more and wider contexts within their companies. This comes with several challenges, as companies expect UX practitioners to adapt to new domains or educate themselves in life science topics such as genetics, bioinformatics etc, to be able to fully leverage the potential of UX in these tasks. Such adaptation processes will not stop in the future as new methods and technologies, eg CRISPR DNA sequences, emerge and the complexity of the data and system landscape in life sciences increases.

As demand for UX has increased in this sector, the small UX teams of 2017 had to work out how to scale UX in enterprise organisations. The need for a UX toolkit to allow colleagues to self-serve and allow them to learn the basic UX methodology and terminology has been a key factor in the steady adoption rates of UX. In order to pool resources and save time, the Pistoia Alliance User Experience for Life Sciences (4) (UXLS) community built the UXLS toolkit (5) (released in February 2018).

As demand for UX has grown, how organisations have taken that user-centric culture on board can vary. From letting it act as the life-blood of an organisation to just one or two vital organs receiving focus. Evaluating the ‘UX maturity’ of an organisation is one way to explore this variation, and this is just what the UXLS undertook recently. A detailed UXLS survey (6) (undertaken January 2019) across a diverse collection of biopharmaceutical, agri-food companies, academia and industry associated software vendors assessed their relative maturity. This survey has enabled us to get a pulse of what is happening within the industry.

UX maturity of enterprise R&D organisations around the middle tier

The UXLS survey (6) has enabled the comparison of UX maturity across different scales. One such scale was the sequence of Nielsen Norman Corporate UX Maturity stages (7) (Figure 1), an organisational mapping ranging from hostility towards usability (no-one in the survey), to being a completely userdriven corporation (also no-one in the survey).

Figure 1 UX maturity in January 2019

A report based on the results of this survey found that while Big Pharma were mostly around a middle tier, software vendors are able to reach a higher maturity level. This is in part due to culture change being easier in smaller organisations.

The team went further and developed a UXLS maturity model encompassing the three factors of:

– Impact: what impact is UX having on the organisation?
– Process: culture of embedding of UX techniques.
– UXLS analytics and metrics: how are metrics collected and used?

Small and medium organisations achieve the highest UX impact

Surveying all 13 organisations against the UXLS maturity model, we found UX seems to have its highest impact on smaller organisations (Figure 2).

Figure 2 Organisational UX Maturity using UXLS

Perhaps in-line with a middle-tier status, the report also noted that adoption of user-driven processes in key projects appeared greater and faster compared to an impactful organisation-wide culture of UX, with very few projects having UX input. These findings correlate with the New Design Frontier Report by InVision with findings from more than 2,200 surveyed companies (8).

As more start-up companies arise to address the promise of new digital technologies, we see many adopt the Agile and/or Lean Start-up approaches. As both approaches focus heavily on the voice of the customers, there is a natural alignment with UX (9). Often start-ups contain a few subject matter experts who may need to be trained in UX as they may not be able to afford a full time UX practitioner. Often, we see that UX roles are spread across the entire team or closely championed by another role, such as the product owner. We suggest startups download the UXLS toolkit (5) to learn how to incorporate UX tools into their project lifecycle. This will build appreciation for the concepts in UX so as the company scales, UX can scale with them.

UX capabilities are maturing across Enterprise R&D organisations

The normalised size of UX teams within an organisation (size of UX team relative to the size of organisation) was found to vary widely. Software vendors reported the smallest teams with UX sometimes being shared across multiple roles. At the same time while some big organisations were only hiring few UX practitioners, others significantly increased their headcounts over time. The depth of UX capabilities (Figure 3) have increased since 2017 with User Research now a much stronger capability than was previously reported (3).

Figure 3 A survey of 13 R&D organisations in Jan 2019

Learnings about UX in the life sciences since 2017

Strategies by which the awareness and uptake of UX and design can be raised in the life sciences industry or within individual organisations are typically driven bottom-up or top-down. A bottom-up strategy might come from evangelists in the UX and design roles. These are the day-to-day practitioners who have the ground-level empathy with the users of scientific software, applications, devices or other services.

UX adoption works best with a combined top-down and bottom-up approach

This collaborative empathy often ends up being a continuous process of sharing, educating and evangelising the UX mindset to development teams, product owners, stakeholders and, indeed, anyone involved in a project. This infuses a gentle background of user-centred design into an organisation, but it does not bring about changes in culture. Culture change also has to be driven from the top down, typically by those in a C-suite or higher management role who recognise the need for an organisational shift toward improving the customer or user experience. Culture change rarely works purely as a top-down or a bottom-up strategy, but a bi-directional approach can really improve the chances of success.

There is no perfect UX team structure and they need to be adapted to the organisational culture

In the survey (6) a wide variety of team structures and operational models were reported. Two major archetypes of team structures are design studios and embedded networks.

– The design studio refers to the structure consisting of a centralised team, typically lead by a senior professional, that takes up common responsibilities and distributes work between UX team members, so that the team can hand-off deliverables to another team that works on the development. This model is more traditional and has a longer history of success, being most closely aligned to how UX consultancies have operated for decades.

– The embedded network in contrast is a team structure where one or two UX professionals are part of the development teams working with this team day-to-day, blurring the line between UX and non-UX activities. In such a situation there is typically some connection established between those professionals, either through a technology team, community of practice, guilds, loose or managed networks.

The design studio model is typically associated with waterfall project management, while the embedded network is more common in organisations that have adopted agile product development strategies. There are also examples of mixed models or both models working in the same company at the same time.

The embedded network is often used in companies that wish to improve the ambient capability of UX across their workforce, by enabling the embedded UX professionals to mentor and coach other development team members in UX practices; such a model is sometimes related to the ‘democratisation of UX’ and is a growing philosophy, albeit with limited examples of success so far.

UX training is useful to ease communication through a common vocabulary

Most of the enterprise-sized organisations have run UX training schemes. Training has enabled colleagues to share a common vocabulary which is essential when trying to work together. In some cases, UX training has been embedded into development training such as requirements analysis as this is a term that may well resonate with development teams. Using in-house UX trainers or linking up your UX team with colleagues who have been on training courses provides useful results.

UX needs to dovetail with Agile development

Agile approaches have been widely adopted across all organisations. In some cases, UX practitioners have struggled to adapt to the agile development approach. In particular, struggling to incorporate a solid research basis into the agile development cycles. UX practitioners have since adapted to Agile with some adopting a two-track product backlog of Discovery and Development (9). Furthermore, training courses are now being offered which incorporate UX into professional agile training (10).

UX will be key for digital transformation

In the age of digitalisation the customer and the user moves more into focus – nowadays it is no longer the improving of products towards technical perfection that often was an internal view on processes and their efficiency – digitalisation brings the customer/user into play since it is not solely the product as a standalone thing that is considered. The environment and context of use is fundamentally important and can only be understood if it is deeply analysed – here UX is of huge value to understand the customers or users’ needs.

Scaling up using UX vendors

When UX accelerates in a company it will need UX vendors to support it. It is important that vendors understand the organisation’s culture. At the beginning of any new project with a new UX vendor, in-house UX teams will need to support and follow each project initially to manage expectations from both the project team and UX vendors. Expectations need to be managed on both sides of the equation. There may be projects that do not work as expected – in-house UX teams have a responsibility to ensure such cultural challenges do not erode the steady progress of UX in their organisations.

Future of UX in the R&D life Sciences

Once we have overcome the challenges of introducing UX, educated the wider organisation and proving the value of User Experience and User- Centred Design through successful outcomes, and embedded into the psyche of the business, what are the next challenges?

Is it new technologies such as automation and software or is it creating and using templates and processes? Or is it that once we have shown teams how to run Design Thinking and User-Centred Design, we retain the right levels of consulting, ownership and quality? Will our internal clients want to hire their own UX people or use agencies to ensure complete ownership and accountability of all UX work?

The promise of Design Thinking

Currently, we see great interest in Design Thinking (11), which signals a fantastic opportunity to accelerate UX and User-Centred Design (UCD). Internal UX Teams are ideally placed to be at the vanguard of this movement and to evangelise UCD throughout the entire organisation, far beyond R&D. However, one note of caution – it is easy to become swept up in the growing UX trend. It is imperative to have highly-skilled UX practitioners to support and consult on projects needing this approach, versus simply having ‘Design Thinking’- trained staff create these experiences. While the latter can certainly play a role, projects undertaken from a pure design thinking standpoint can often lead to less than optimal results and, at their worst, developer and business-led solutions that go unloved and unused.

There are elements of change management, coaching and support to ensure that the quality of the designs are as good as they should be. Additionally, it is important to empower people to begin leveraging research and to make sure they run Usability Testing (12). However, when it comes to designing the future systems, this is where the true value of UX design will be realised.

The patient experience will be the differentiator

As we move beyond the blockbuster drugs era, we need to be providing added value. We are now repurposing generic and biosimilar drugs and there is not much differentiation. The differentiation will come on the patient experience. Patients will seek a complete end-to-end experience and hence the services they use will be critical in providing a seamless experience. Patients are taking control of their own health and their experience needs to be designed so that it is seamless. We will help patients manage a disease rather than delivering a product.

As an example, the population in Africa is primarily mobile based which is completely different to other regions. Healthcare provision to such a large population would require UX skills to understand the patient, the environment and service delivery. We are moving now towards a Service Design model (13).

So, the future is very promising, there is more and more value seen in being patient centric and creating innovative design solutions that are based on people’s real needs and goals, however it is important that there is not a drop in the quality delivered as many, many more people share the focus on users, it is still key for those with the right skills to deliver. This will require a higher level of focus on storytelling and communications by the UX teams to continue driving this success.

Digital transformation

As technology gives way to new trends, such as AI and machine learning, there is enormous opportunity for UX practitioners. Many companies are making the leap to ‘digital transformation’ (14), often driven top-down from the CEO, CIO and Chief Digital Officer. Access to more data and emerging technologies may lead to better insight and analysis for organisations, but more data can also bring more challenges and the need for specialists skilled in problem solving.

As the C-Suite continues to look for ROI with digital transformation efforts, the need for skilled UX practitioners is greater than ever. UX has an opportunity to be involved with highly-strategic and visible projects, increasing the recognition of the value of UX across the organisation. If organisations are to be successful in their digital transformations, it will be because a great UX team engaged the end users and ensured emerging technologies were implemented with a human-centred approach.

UX will be key to R&D process changes

In R&D we expect to see significant process changes. The way we work currently has to change. Going away for 10-20 years and maybe coming back with a pill is no longer viable. On the business side we will move towards targeted therapies that are fertile for profit but harder to achieve. A smaller group of patients. How does that work? How do we empower that?

Whether developing new software or architecting new ways to store and retrieve data, the voice of the end user is paramount. End users are less likely to adopt any new technology if the experience is frustrating and time-consuming, regardless of how pretty the buttons and icons are and regardless of how much promise the new technology offers. DDW

This article originally featured in the DDW Winter 2019/20 issue

Jacek Ziemski is an expert in user experience and bioinformatics product design who works at Roche where he used to be responsible for setting up software usability practice within pharma r&d organisations. He specialises in large molecules high-throughput screening and laboratory workflow automation.

Simon Fortenbacher is the Director of User Experience & Design within the Pharma R&D Tech area of GSK. He leads a team of UX designers and analysts who focus on improving the experience GSK R&D users have of life science software, providing expertise, processes and guidelines to product teams who deliver systems across R&D.

James Hoeksma has more than 20 years’ User Experience across many roles with a sustained track record of delivering global, industry-leading user experience solutions at organisations including Microsoft, Nokia, T-Mobile and Virgin. James joined AstraZeneca in 2015, working on internal Early Science to HCP and patient-facing solutions.

Jan Taubert is Head of RD-IT at KWS where he leads the R&D Data Management department, including software engineering, database development, breeding applications and new technologies. Jan helps plant breeders and molecular biology researchers to discover candidate genes, improve plant traits and breed crop varieties through providing innovative IT solutions.

Roger Attrill is a User Experience Specialist at Linguamatics, an IQVIA company, where he is responsible for the UX research and design on new and existing products in the area of natural language processing for high-value knowledge discovery and decision support from text.

Paula de Matos is an independent UX consultant specialising in complex data environments, specifically in the life sciences and biotech sectors. She is also the project manager for the Pistoia Alliance’s UXLS project.

André Richter has been a usability engineer for more than 10 years and works in the R&D software development area of Bayer. His main focus is on early research applications such as lab notebooks, LIMS and other laboratory supporting software at crop science as well as pharmaceuticals. He has been driving the process to make user-centred design an integral part of the companies R&D IT for a number of years.

Julie Morrison is the Executive Vice-President of RockStep Solutions, where one of her areas of focus is on product management for Climb, a cloud software for preclinical drug discovery research and operations. Julie works closely with both clients and developers to ensure the best software experience for Climb’s users.


1 The New Design Frontier Report from InVision https://s3.amazonaws.com/ww w-assets.invisionapp.com/The- New-Design-Frontier-from- InVision.pdf page 28. Survey conducted Fall 2018.

2 Kelly’s I interview of Jeff Bezos http://www.thefree library.com/Kelly’s+I+Interview %3A+Jeff+Bezos+-+Q%3A+ How+does+it+feel+to+be+sitt ing…-a062672450.

3 Cham, Jennifer A and Cost, Katrina. UX DESIGN maximising the value of scientific software in life science R&D. Drug Discovery World. Published Summer 2017. https://www. pistoiaalliance.org/wpcontent/ uploads/2018/10/UXL S-UX-design-value-ofsoftware. pdf.

4 Pistoia Alliance User Experience for Life Sciences project https://www. pistoiaalliance.org/projects/use r-experience-for-life-sciences/.

5 Pistoia Alliance UXLS toolkit https://uxls.org/ Published February 2018.

6 UXLS survey conducted by the Pistoia Alliance UXLS project team across 13 members across a collection of biopharmaceutical, agri-food companies, academia and industry associated software vendors. The survey was conducted in the Autumn of 2018 and published January 2019.

7 Norman Nielsen Maturity Model https://www.nngroup. com/articles/ux-maturitystages- 1-4/ Published April 2006.

8 The New Design Frontier Report from Invision https://www.invisionapp.com/d esign-better/design-maturitymodel/ page 33. Survey conducted Fall 2018.

9 Agile UX: Designing Together https://www.pistoiaalliance.org/ blog/agile-ux-designingtogether/ Published 30 September 2019.

10 Training courses such as Professional Scrum with User Experience Training https://www.scrum.org/courses /professional-scrumtm-userexperience- training.

11 The Making of a Design Thinker by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. https://www. metropolismag.com/ideas/themaking- of-a-design-thinker/. Published October 2009.

12 Usability Testing is a user testing methodology widely employed in UX. https://uxls. org/methods/usability-testing/.

13 Service Design 101 https://www.nngroup.com/artic les/service-design-101/. Published 9th July 2017.

14 Michael Shanler, Stephen Davies. Gartner. The Future of Pharma is Digital. Refreshed 31 October 2016.

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