Product Design & User Experience Research to Accelerate Science
Using human-centered design principles to help scientists “do science faster and better”
By Kristin Hendrix, Product Design & UX Research Manager; Adrienne Sussman, UX Researcher; Kirsty Ewing, UX Researcher; and Jennifer Tang, Product Designer
At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we’re reimagining philanthropy through technology. For our Science team at CZI, our mission is to support the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century.
In essence, our main objective is to help the biomedical and life sciences research community “do science faster and better.”
To accomplish this, our in-house technology team works closely with scientists to build solutions that advance the pace of biomedical research.
Like the scientists we collaborate with, our technology teams are committed to using a structured research approach when building products and tools. Making data-informed decisions is key to our team’s culture, and this is where product designers and user experience (UX) researchers contribute. This shared value makes it natural for us to work closely with scientists at every step of the product development cycle.
What are Product Designers and UX Researchers?
At CZI, our in-house technology team is made up of smaller product teams working on specific problems. These product teams include product managers, engineers, data scientists, product designers, and UX researchers who work together to build tools and platforms that solve problems.
At a very high level, product designers and UX researchers collaborate to discover and understand people’s problems and build human-centered solutions. The UX researcher specializes in qualitative or quantitative data collection to understand people, their attitudes, sentiments, struggles, and needs. UX research might happen through in-depth interviews or large-scale surveys, to name just two examples. The product designer specializes in translating research insights into usable and useful solutions to help address those needs. For example, they might adapt familiar interfaces to display scientific information, such as a feed system — which most of us have become familiar with through social media. Or they might design novel data visualizations to better capture analysis results and allow researchers to interact with data more easily.
At CZI Science, our design and UX research team focuses specifically on understanding the scientific community and their needs. We then translate those findings into solutions. These solutions go beyond what the tool or platform looks like — “design” can also mean how it works, how people interact with it, and how they accomplish tasks with it. Together, these factors all contribute to the “user experience” of a product — all in the spirit of helping scientists “do science faster and better.”
To design a good user experience, we need to deeply understand the scientists, their workflows, their frustrations, and the technology they currently use (or wish they had). And, yes, as product designers and UX researchers, it is necessary that we learn some of the technical details of the science. It doesn’t require us to become experts in single cell sequencing or infectious diseases per se, but we do have a pretty steep learning curve and need to have a strong drive and passion for learning new subject areas. This is also why it’s crucial for us to collaborate closely with our colleagues working in science and our partners who live the science day in and day out.
One of the challenges we encounter in our design and research work is knowing that biomedical research methods are advancing at a rapid pace, so what we design now should be able to evolve. Another challenge is that the scientific community is constantly creating one-off tools to meet nuanced needs. It can be challenging for scientists to keep up with all the available tools and find one that meets their own needs. This, in part, is why the sciecne team at CZI is especially committed to designing and building open and scalable/adaptable solutions.
What are Product Designers & UX Researchers Working on in Science at CZI?
The Human Cell Atlas (HCA) Data Coordination Platform (DCP) is an openly accessible platform that will give cloud access to genetic sequencing information for the 30-plus trillion cells in the human body. CZI is working with international genomics leaders from the Broad Institute, UC Santa Cruz, and the European Bioinformatics Institute to formulate, fund, and build a unified DCP for the scientific community.
The DCP is being designed with several core user groups in mind, requiring that we deeply understand each group and design it in a way that is usable for scientists and non-scientists alike, with varying levels of expertise and comfort in contributing or analyzing large datasets. We spend a lot of time interviewing and observing scientists to understand their current workflows to execute single cell sequencing research. In talking with a diverse group of researchers in this space, we’ve learned that no two workflows look the same — the variability in protocols, equipment, analytics software, data storage and utilization practices, and more is incredible.
IDseq is a cloud-based and open-source platform and service designed to enable real-time global disease surveillance and prevention. It works by rapidly combing through terabytes of metagenomic data for pathogens in a given sample — be it bacteria, a virus, fungus, or even a parasite. By identifying disease-causing pathogens, IDseq can then provide an actionable report of what is happening on the ground in labs and clinics anywhere in the world.
IDseq began as a research project at the lab of Dr. Joseph DeRisi, co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub and professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UC San Francisco. CZI is teaming up with the Biohub and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to train global health workers to begin using this tool in their own countries.
In order to understand who we’re designing for, we speak with a variety of infectious disease experts — from computational scientists who are analyzing the data coming out of the sequencing machines to outbreak responders working in public health departments.
IDseq is a data-intensive tool, meaning that the ability to explore and visualize data is paramount. When designing it, we’re always working closely with infectious disease researchers and outbreak responders to understand what data elements are critical to their work and what visual representations make the data clearest to them. We also work to understand the needs of scientists who wish to contribute data to the platform. How can we simultaneously design a data upload experience that is straightforward to use and also robust enough to handle massive datasets?
Meta is a knowledge discovery platform designed to help address the problem of staying on top of scholarly literature. With more than 4,000 publications emerging daily, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with every important new advancement in a manageable way. Meta is a tool that uses machine learning and the well-known feed interface to surface and prioritize literature tailored to an individual’s preferences and needs. It minimizes their need to conduct repeated searches or to scour table-of-contents emails from journals to avoid missing important papers. In order to ensure what we’re designing and building best serves the scientific community, we conduct a lot of interviews and surveys with scientists to understand what their current practices are around trying to stay on top of scholarly literature and determining if our early beta version of Meta is beginning to alleviate some of that burden.
Our work in science is just beginning. At CZI, we value staying close to the communities we serve and to the issues that are most pressing to those communities. Our roles as product designers and UX researchers are critical ways for our technology teams to uphold these values. We deeply believe that designing and building tools to advance biomedical and life sciences is one of the keys to curing, preventing, or managing all disease by the end of the century. We are grateful to the scientists who generously give their time to share insights and feedback with us. And we could not begin to design solutions without the partnership of our scientist colleagues. We are excited to be a part of the journey to help accelerate scientific advancement and look forward to continuing to design useful, problem-solving solutions. If you’re looking for an opportunity to have a real, meaningful impact on scientific advancement, consider joining us.
To learn more about our work in science and to stay updated on funding opportunities, visit our website, where you can sign up for our mailing list. You can also follow us on Twitter. To learn more about our science team, follow the CZI science blog. And you can always reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristin Hendrix, Design & UX Lead, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Kristin leads the product design and UX research team for CZI’s science efforts. She’s passionate about building tools to accelerate scientific advancement. Kristin earned her PhD in experimental social psychology at Indiana University Bloomington, followed by a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA postdoctoral fellowship in health services research. She spent the early part of her career as faculty at a medical school where she researched health communication and policy, electronic clinical decision support systems, and bioethics. She then shifted to industry, researching how algorithms and product design can reduce the spread of low-quality content like misinformation and clickbait on social media.
Adrienne Sussman, UX Researcher, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Adrienne works with scientists to build tools and platforms that enable open science. A former biologist, she transitioned into experimental psychology during her PhD at the University of Washington. After grad school, she spent several years as a user experience researcher at Google, where she worked with diverse users — from first-time smartphone users in Delhi to comic book readers in Tokyo.
Kirsty Ewing, UX Researcher, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Kirsty explores ways that scientists stay up-to-date, identify trends, and explore new routes of inquiry. Her research guides Meta — a scientific knowledge discovery tool. Prior to joining CZI, she was a member of Nokia TECH’s design team, and worked in innovation consulting across a range of industries — biomed, virtual reality and digital health. She has a Masters in Sustainable Design from Cranfield University.
Jennifer Tang, Product Designer, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Jennifer wants to change the world through design. She’s passionate about solving problems and turning complex ideas into simple user experiences. At the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, she works on IDseq and collaborates on the HCA DCP. She’s focused on building products for scientists that enable them to accelerate their research. Prior to CZI, she designed user testing and design collaboration products at ZURB and also helped a wide range of client companies solve their challenging design problems. She earned her B.F.A. in Graphic Design from San Jose State University.