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Lab of the Future Post-COVID-19: Bringing User Experience to the Forefront

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COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of innovation and collaboration in the life sciences. Biotech spending is on the rise, having seen a 22% global surge over the past year to address the public health crisis. From AI that can identify therapies with the potential for repurposing, to conducting patient trials remotely, the pandemic has brought opportunities for creative technologies that streamline drug discovery and development and enable the collaboration required to fight SARS-CoV-2.

Digitalization is critical to advancing science, but organizations are now also realizing that tools and software must be built to match researchers’ workflows. Failure to bring user experience (UX) to the forefront of design will limit the value of digital technologies. In addition, with more scientists working from home than ever before, the work–home boundary has been blurred.

Researchers have come to expect the same intuitive experience from workplace applications that they enjoy with consumer apps. To address this, UX designers are keen to help researchers adapt lab technology to fit remote working practices and prevent instances where company technology is
bypassed completely. Designers are also searching for ways to make sharing and recording data more straightforward. The aim is to recreate the relevant parts of the “Lab of the Future for the future hybrid workforce, which is increasingly distributed.

Here are five trends we expect to see in user experience in the life sciences (UXLS) post-COVID-19.

1.       Touchless interaction

The spread of COVID-19 through surfaces means touchless interaction has become more important. Voice-controlled tools allow researchers to work hands-free, enabling full concentration on experiments and reducing safety risks that come from removing gloves or eyewear to take notes.

Voice assistants – such as
LabVoice, a finalist of Pistoia Alliance’s 2019 President’s Challenge – can be integrated into databases, electronic notebooks and even some lab equipment to transcribe experiment results and facilitate research. The use of voice in lab environments will continue to be an area of research for many UX designers, with focus on upgrading home voice assistants to recognize chemical names, methodologies and lab equipment. Identifying where to deploy voice technology is an active area of UX research.

2.       Virtual events

Social distancing measures mean we are seeing an explosion of virtual events. Last year, the Pistoia Alliance moved both our European and North American conferences online and we are hosting
a virtual conference this March to discuss best practices and the latest thinking in UX design. Organizations have realized that virtual events can widen their reach since the conference is not constrained to a single location. This also makes them more accessible to smaller companies and startups who generally don’t have the funds to send employees overseas. 

However, companies must consider how to engage people online and make it easy for them to attend relevant events or individual sessions. Clear schedules; simple login processes; and Q&A functions will be key to achieving this. Additionally, scientists have been impacted by the loss of in-person networking. Well-designed virtual events must ensure that gaining knowledge and building partnerships through serendipitous encounters is still as easy, and even as enjoyable, as it would have been in person.

3.       Extended reality

Remote working has created opportunities to use extended reality (XR) – the catch-all term for augmented, virtual and mixed reality – in more real-world applications.
We don’t see this technology being deployed as a default mainstream technology, but rather, it has exceptional use in controlled environments and scenarios. For example, when onboarding laboratory staff, it can enable faster training, increase safety, and cut costs.

4.       Artificial intelligence and machine learning

Artificial intelligence (AI) in the drug discovery market is expected to increase from
US$159 million to US$2.9 billion before 2025. During the pandemic, AI has been valuable for quickly increasing our understanding of disease pathways and identifying drugs that could be repurposed as treatments. AI also supports the shift towards precision medicine by accelerating genomics, identifying patient-specific target compounds and calculating probable outcomes from treatments. This has potential for use in developing new treatments for rare diseases, including cancers. Yet, in order to be adopted, AI must be seen as a tool to inform and augment researchers’ work. Engaging a multi-disciplinary team with both UX researchers and designers to ensure that these tools are adding value and engendering trust for our researchers, rather than a black box which “spits out” answers, is critical to the successful deployment of AI or machine learning.

5.       Adaptive work environments

COVID-19 has forced us to completely rethink the relationship between individuals and their work and has made having the right tools and technology even more integral. For life sciences to truly maximize the value of technology, it must be adapted to the individual, answering questions such as: does this employee work from home, in the lab, or both? Do they perform data analyses or manual experiments? How familiar are they with the field? Do they have personal requirements regarding their home life?

Creating a personalized UX that is focused on the person will let organizations reap the benefits of remote working while enabling a hybrid way of working in the lab. Along with the technologies outlined in this article, workspaces must become adaptive. This could be as simple as your desktop opening your email application when you first sit down because it knows that’s what you always do first. Or upgrading someone’s home voice assistant to recognize chemical names and methodologies because they always work remotely. Or automatically adjusting light, heat, ventilation, and even the music playing in your workstation. We expect UX design will become more creative in supporting hybrid workspaces.

A collaborative approach

Even after scientists begin returning to the workplace, the blend of in-person and virtual activities will remain. To support the transition and help deliver the Lab of the Future there must be a greater understanding and collaboration between tech firms, hardware and software vendors, pharma companies and users. The Pistoia Alliance provides advice and tools to support organizations in the shift towards integrating user-friendly technology in researchers’ workflows. This includes embracing much of the technology discussed above.