User Experience is full of surprises. Each challenge is a bit different, necessitating a unique approach. Good User Experience (UX) achieves the goal of the software and meets the expectations of the user. Recently I was invited to speak about User Interfaces & User Experience during the Future Trends in Nuclear Physics Computing workshop at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in Newport News, Virginia (program info here). I was quite excited as I am a bit of a science nerd and I was interested to see what kind of unique UX & UI challenges these scientists face and how I could help.
Is Good UX/UI even needed?There’s no checkered flag when a piece of software achieves “good UX” - it’s an ongoing process of iterative improvements driven by data and insights. However, you can gauge the quality of an application’s UX by simply working with the software - good UX is usually completely transparent. Most times we notice bad UX because it is frustrating or doesn’t work the way we think it will. Bad UX can result in people not using software, or, in some circumstances, can even be dangerous. One JLab scientist brought up a good point, mentioning that the user of most of the software are scientists who are used to command line interfaces. In this case, is good visual UI needed at all? The answer to that question could very well be ‘no.’ Sometimes it’s all about the initial question. If when we went to the moon we asked “Is there a reason to go to the Moon?” the answer may very well have been ‘no’ as well. But what if we approach this question a little differently, like ‘How would good UI affect our scientific process?’ we might get different answers. Here are a just a few ideas showing how changing the question can change the experience. What if the UI was so simple even someone unfamiliar with the experiment could use it? Then they could use lab assistants or even volunteers to monitor the experiments while they do other important tasks. Imagine a scientific experiment where all kinds of users can take part and the visibility that would bring. What if UI elements like alerts were activated so a scientist wouldn’t have to keep their eyes glued to a screen, but could get alerts if something started to go wrong? The Funding/Stakeholder Element of Design Scientists also have to apply for grants by showing how their results could impact the world or the scientific community. Many people they will present their experiment to during this application process aren’t in the scientific community. So a good User Interface may increase the understanding of their experiment and make the information more accessible to those outside of the scientific community. My job as a UX/UI Designer is not only to design better software, but to present the software in an understandable and engaging way to project stakeholders. This means I’m not always presenting UI directly to the user. In most cases, I must present to clients and stakeholders that don’t always have a thorough understanding of every use case. Many times, they come to the table with their own agendas based on business objectives for a piece of software without fully understanding the software from the user’s perspective. In these instances, it’s vital to present a UI that clearly shows how the software fulfills the user’s needs and, in so doing, accomplishes the business objectives. It can be difficult for those outside of the scientific community to understand the complicated inner workings of scientific experiments. Yet, communicating the details of these experiments and the value they bring to stakeholders within the complex infrastructure of governments and universities is what allows scientist to continue their work. This makes creating a simplified User Interface to present experimental data even more important.
UX/UI 101One of the requests of the workshop was to present a “User Interface 101.” The organizer said ‘Most people in this community are used to command-line interfaces and have no idea how to group information and design a GUI that focuses on the user and not the program.’ Given this request and not knowing the specific challenges they faced, I wanted to plant some seeds in what I’ve generally found makes good UX/UI. A lot of UX is the approach, asking the right questions, and opening your eyes to how people are actually using the software instead of making assumptions. You can read through my presentation deck here. There were a lot of questions during the Q&A portion of my presentation. Luckily, I had the last slot of the day and there was an allotment of discussion happening after, so quite a few people asked questions and spurred some great discussion.
A Typical Scientific ProcedureI learned a lot about the process these scientists work through for their experiments. I’m sure it gets way more complex than this, but let me summarize the process based on my observations:
- First, they must come up with an experiment that will test out a hypothesis or otherwise bring value to the scientific community.
- They must ensure they are able to modify the particle accelerator so that the experiment can use it safely and be able to monitor results.
- Get approval for a grant or other funding.
- Design a user interface to make sure the experiment is going as planned. While the experiment is running, it can run for 24 hours a day for weeks until it is complete and there may be shifts of people to monitor the data coming in 24/7 and look for problems in case the experiment needs to be shut down.
- After the experiment is over, there is a huge data set that they must find somewhere to process and interpret the results, many times with a user interface or other graphics.