What does it imply to increase the impact of a bioinformatics resource when its scientific relevance is already established and recognized? Since February 2018, a dedicated SIB team has been working hand-in-hand with resource developers to create a best-practice toolkit that will help them to grow their user base and share their know-how with the community. This is the third episode of our series on SIB’s strategic axes for the years to come, and aligns with SIB's mission to support the development of best-in-class bioinformatics resources.

A best-practice toolkit to increase resource impact

To conduct their daily work, life scientists and clinicians have to wade through an ever-thickening swamp of tools, software and databases. At the same time, the next generation of researchers – both tech-savvy and ardent app-consumers – is raising the bar of expectations in terms of resource usability. “Scientific excellence is no longer the sole criteria for a resource to be competitive on the long-term”, says Chiara Gabella, SIB Scientific Coordinator and UX Architect.

To keep pace with this highly competitive context, SIB – whose mission includes providing the life science community with state-of-the-art resources, as well as ensuring their long-term sustainability – launched an initiative to further increase the impact of its resources (Box 1).

1. How are SIB Resources selected? 
Software, knowledgebases and other automated tools and repositories: about 150+ affiliated bioinformatics resources are developed by SIB Groups and available through the ExPASy portal. Among them, a subset of SIB Resources receive specific support – funding and strategic guidance – from the Institute.
Indeed, every four years, SIB’s Board of Directors allocates funding from the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) to specific resources that have been selected and evaluated, on a two-yearly basis, by an independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Evaluation includes qualitative and quantitative criteria of the resource’s impact, such as its scientific quality and comprehensiveness, benchmarking information and its alignment with SIB’s strategic orientation.
2. What is User experience (UX) design? 
User experience design focuses on the ease-of-use and desirability of a product or interface. In life science research, this usually describes how data are presented and organized on a webpage as well as the way they are browsed, manipulated and shared. UX in the life sciences presents unique challenges, and creating effective platforms for hugely complex bioinformatics resources is an ever-expanding task. Source: EMBL-EBI’s Jenny Cham blog
“In UX design, the ‘design’ aspect is only the outer layer of a complex and transversal process, which starts with a precise definition of the users’ needs and the strategy used to meet them in the best way possible, while showcasing the scientific relevance of the resource’s content”, says Gabella. “The SIB community is the perfect place to start investigating these questions, as it brings together both the developers and the users of resources”, points out Duvaud.

Indeed, beyond an established reputation for scientific excellence, much can still be done to ensure that the user community is aware of these tools, and that they are used to their full potential while generating a positive experience. Led by Chiara Gabella and Séverine Duvaud, SIB Software Developer & UX Designer, the initiative aims to develop a best-practice toolkit for available to SIB Resources’ teams, as well as to the wider community of SIB developers.

In addition to improving resource design by taking into account the experience of the end user (Box 2), this toolkit will also include instruments for the in-depth interpretation of analytics used to monitor and improve a resource. Among these: analyzing the user base, finding out how much time is necessary for a user to find relevant information, or what is the most, or least, useful type of information on the platform. Cross-referencing between resources involved in the same analytical workflow will also be part of this strategic review. “Ultimately, such a toolkit will help focus on development efforts and increase the return rate of users”, says Duvaud.

To achieve its goal, the team is relying on a wide set of interactive approaches that have been successful in similar contexts, such as workshops, live user testing at conferences or symposiums.

Building a developers' community to increase efficiency

As raising awareness and fostering close interactions among SIB’s developers is as important as developing the right tools to increase a resource’s impact, the UX team released several community-based initiatives, amongst which an internal competency network called ComPass (the SIB Community of Passionate developers). “We created ComPass to facilitate the exchange of know-how among SIB developers”, explains Duvaud. “Today, a developer in one of SIB’s 70 groups may be struggling with a Python script problem unaware that another group has already dealt with the same problem. With ComPass, where each member of the community has an ID-card showing their level of expertise in various areas, they can get in touch directly!”

A specialized blog, as well as a mailing list have also been set up so that communication is more efficient about best practices, latest news, coding tips and UX events, such as the first SIB UX symposium to be held on 19 November, which will feature international UX experts. “Thanks to this symposium, we hope to get the message across to the Swiss bioinformatics resource community that UX design is of fundamental importance.” says Duvaud.

Are you an SIB Developer? Join the ComPass community!  

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Blog article on the recent knowledge exchange with SIB’s UX team Chiara Gabella and Séverine Duvaud, by Jenny Cham’s (Lead User Experience Architect at the EMBL-EBI)