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How Could a Focus on User Experience Build Better Labs?

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The rate of innovation in the life science industry in the past few years means scientists are no longer heavily reliant on the paper-based systems of the past. Companies have turned to electronic lab notebooks (ELNs) to record data, such as experiment and instrument data, and are embracing software and technology to provide new opportunities for researchers.

With the shift to technology we are also seeing user experience (UX) come to the forefront in the life science industry. Companies undergoing digital transformation are beginning to realize that just implementing new software isn’t valuable unless researchers can make the most of it. When it comes to employee ‘buy-in’, experience matters – today, we are surrounded by intuitive, design-led technology platforms – from Amazon to Uber – and have come to expect the same usability at work. Where corporate technology isn’t suitable, we’re even seeing it bypassed completely, for example with doctors using WhatsApp and Snapchat to communicate with colleagues and ask advice.

The tech trends driving user experience

There are a number of new technologies that we can expect to drive the development of UX in healthcare and the life sciences in the next few years. With all new technologies, there is often a rush to deploy them without thinking whether they are an appropriate solution to the problem at hand. Everyone wants to play with the shiny new toy but this often results in disappointing results for early adopters. UX has a special role to play to steward these technologies and ensure they are deployed appropriately:

  • Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) – While VR headsets are most often discussed in relation to gaming and marketing gimmicks, there are a range of potential uses in the healthcare industry. From training employees to undertake complex tasks in a controlled environment, to using with patients to help them better understand their health and care options, VR can increase safety and reduce costs. Similarly, AR could play a role in demonstrating how medicines or therapies work on a patient, improving the standards of care.
  • Chatbots – Used in customer experience across most industries, chatbots have a variety of potential uses like instantly finding information on drug-drug interactions (DDIs) or retrieving price information on a chemical. For life science, UX will be necessary to understand where chatbots are best deployed, and to ensure they are accessing the most accurate and relevant information when presenting answers.
  • Robotic process automation (RPA) – RPA is commonly found in manufacturing and supply chains, and has potential in drug development and manufacturing. UX will be more complex for RPA, no longer focusing on how to improve the experience of users. Instead, it will be more focused on ensuring the transitions between robots and humans in the supply chain are seamless, adding value to the supply chain.
  • Knowledge graphs – Knowledge graphs make use of AI to return search results in a simplified format, meaning it will be important for the presentation of search results to be intuitive to users. As search experiences become more powerful, the increase in knowledge graphs will reduce the time researchers spend on searching for and deciphering information.
  • Voice – Already widely used at home, voice assistants are entering the workplace, with companies developing science-specific voice tools for labs. But researchers can’t navigate systems via voice assistants unless it is simple and convenient for them – which is why voice platforms they interact with need to be easy to use, simple to integrate and effectively designed.

In the same way that other sectors have prioritized UX – such as retail and finance – the life sciences and healthcare industries are looking to optimize their processes, ensuring the workforce can focus on the tasks where they can add the most value. If researchers are fighting to ensure the systems they use are working, they could be wasting hours of their time instead of undertaking valuable research. Focusing on user experience can also make employees more successful at their job – from ensuring they adopt new systems quickly and effectively to reducing the need for training and support. This will ultimately lead to happier, more productive employees.

 2018 President’s Series Hackathon & Voice

In 2018, The Pistoia Alliance’s President’s Series Hackathon highlighted the increasing importance of voice. With a theme of ‘Hack the Lab’, the event brought together stakeholders from life sciences, healthcare, academia and technology. Participants looking at health and safety for the Lab of The Future focused on novel uses for datasets. The teams used voice assistants including Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home and Microsoft’s Cortana as a way to access this data. The winner of the challenge was a team from The University of Southampton, who created a ‘friendly’ lab safety assistant based on Alexa, using data from The Pistoia Alliance’s Chemical Safety Library.

The reality of UX in life science

Persuading life science employees of the need for UX internally can be a difficult process, with researchers often reluctant to give up the tools and techniques they’ve spent years developing and refining and which they rely on. It can also be a challenge to persuade those internally of the ‘hidden’ costs of a poor user experience, including the time taken up on usability workarounds. For the healthcare and life science industries to truly see the success of user experience, companies must involve users in the process to ensure scientists understand the benefits of UX. This is also important because scientists are striving to solve specific problems so they will often have unique motivations that those in other roles may not consider. Without the involvement of researchers and scientists, the entire process of improving UX may be undermined.

Helping to overcome these challenges is why we, the Pistoia Alliance UXLS group, launched a UXLS toolkit which outlines best practices and areas to consider when trying to improve user experience. For further information about the Pistoia Alliance and its projects, please visit: www.pistoiaalliance.org.

Paula de Matos is a consultant at The Pistoia Alliance