Ergonomic Software as a Catalyst for Science

HMND
11 min readApr 20, 2023

For a long time, ergonomic design has been an essential aspect considered while developing furniture, hardware, and consumer products. However, ergonomics extends beyond physical objects and applies to anything individuals interact with, including software and mobile apps.

Accordingly, tech developers must prioritise ergonomic design to create user experiences that cater to users’ physical and cognitive well-being. In science, ergonomic software is designed to improve the efficiency and accuracy of research by reducing repetitive tasks and minimising the risk of errors, thus enabling researchers to work more efficiently and effectively.

Nature’s 2016 survey revealed that the average academic researcher spends fewer than 4 out of every 10 working hours on research itself. Of those, a significant amount of time is spent analysing data, and the amount of data needing analysis will continue to increase. According to forbes.com, data scientists spend around 80% of their time on preparing and managing data for analysis. Additionally, 76% of data scientists view data preparation as the least enjoyable part of their work. While the exact percentage may vary depending on the research field and the researcher’s role within it, the demand for software that ease and facilitate data management is obvious. This article will explore the benefits of ergonomic software and how its design should be approached.

The way to ergonomics

“Ergonomics is a body of knowledge about human abilities, human limitations and other human characteristics that are relevant to design. Ergonomic design is the application of this body of knowledge to the design of tools, machines, systems, tasks, jobs and environments for safe, comfortable and effective human use.”

- Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics

Speaking of software design, ergonomics is up to ensure the minimal possible friction on the user’s way to accomplish the task. We all have too much on our plates, so why let the software make things harder? A happy researcher is a productive researcher indeed.

Ergonomic software improves the efficiency, productivity, and comfort of users by providing an intuitive and user-friendly interface. In science, ergonomic software is used in data science projects to facilitate tasks such as data cleaning, visualization, statistical analysis, data integration, and model deployment. By providing tools that are easy to use and understand, ergonomic software helps scientists to focus on their core tasks, rather than struggling with cumbersome or complex software. This can lead to more accurate and reliable results, as well as faster completion of projects. Overall, ergonomic software plays a crucial role in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of scientific research.

To make it happen, proper UX research and UI design are crucial. In scientific software this demand is increasingly important. Firstly, user context in these fields is largely terra incognita for a regular IT developer. More so, integrating multimodal data, advanced processing algorithms and convenient workflows for flawless management, analysis and reporting is quite a non-trivial endeavor, to put it mildly. Hence, the task here is to make scientific research human and fit for human.

User needs should be studied carefully to elucidate pains, mitigate labor intensive tasks and streamline the research flow. There is no better way to do this than ask your end-users. Not just try walking in their shoes, let them guide you. The synergy between experienced scientific researcher and UX researcher/UI designer creates vision and translates into true value of the product. Slick interface is just an attractive surface, desirable but insufficient. More importantly, what we strive here for is:

  1. Cognitive ergonomics to facilitate mental processes, such as perception, memory, reasoning, and motor response, as they originate from interactions with the system and vastly affects user efficiency.
  2. Organisational ergonomics to optimise the sociotechnical system, which is user, software and data, including their organisational structures, policies, and research workflows.
A checklist for conceiving ergonomic software

At a basic level, there are guidelines and recommendations that ergonomic software development should follow. Starting from pretty old advice on interface usability, which has become common sense now, we have a range of ISOs to refer to. Additionally, a set of interface usability measurements was proposed and evaluated as ergonomic criteria.

  1. ISO 14915–3:2002 gives recommendations for, and guidance on the design, selection, and combination of interactive user interfaces that integrate and synchronize different media. It addresses user interfaces for applications that incorporate, integrate and synchronize different media, including static media such as text, graphics, images; and dynamic media such as audio, animation, video or media related to other sensory modalities.
  2. ISO 9241–100:2010 enables users of standards related to software ergonomics to identify ergonomics standards particularly relevant to software development, gain an overview of the content of software-ergonomics standards, understand the role of software-ergonomics standards in specifying user requirements, as well as designing and evaluating user interfaces and understand the relationship between the various standards.
  3. ISO 9241–171:2008 provides ergonomics guidance and specifications for the design of accessible software for use at work, in the home, in education, and in public places. It covers issues associated with designing accessible software for people with the widest range of physical, sensory, and cognitive abilities, including those who are temporarily disabled, and the elderly. It addresses software considerations for accessibility that complement general design for usability.

Ergonomics in scientific research

Ergonomic software is designed to improve user comfort, reduce stress, and increase productivity by adapting to the user’s needs and preferences. In life sciences, where researchers spend long hours analyzing complex data sets, ergonomic software can help prevent repetitive strain injuries and eye strain, which are common in this field. Here’s some examples how ergonomic software can be implemented to improve research outcomes in this diversified area.

Bioinformatics

  1. Genome assembly by providing an intuitive user interface that allows scientists to easily manipulate and visualize large datasets. CLC Genomics Workbench provides a range of tools for genome assembly, annotation, and analysis.
  2. Protein structure prediction by providing advanced algorithms and visualization tools. Rosetta can be used to predict the 3D structure of proteins from their amino acid sequences.
  3. Data visualization for large and complex data sets in a way that is easy to understand and analyze. Cytoscape conveniently creates network diagrams to show the interactions between genes or proteins.
  4. Next-generation sequencing via providing tools for quality control, read alignment, variant calling, and more. BWA-MEM aligns reads to a reference genome, while GATK can be used to call variants. They come with command line interfaces (yes, it can be more ergonomic than some GUIs out there), but underlying algorithms are undoubtedly ergonomic.
  5. Microarray analysis by providing tools intuitive for normalisation, differential expression analysis, and pathway analysis. GeneSpring identifies differentially expressed genes and pathways in microarray data.

LIMS

  1. Sample tracking by flexible alignment and management of data. LabKey Server enables smart sample tracking from collection to analysis providing an intuitive user interface that allows for easy search, sorting, and sample filtering.
  2. Workflow management by providing tools for task assignment, progress tracking, and reporting. Benchling is a prominent example of powerful but convenient LIMS that can be used to manage workflows for DNA sequencing, gene editing, and more.
  3. Data analysis by providing easy-to-use interface for robust statistical analysis, visualization, and reporting. Partek Flow analyze gene expression from raw data to publication-ready visualizations.
  4. Quality control with tools for data validation, error detection, and data cleaning. OpenSpecimen is a powerful biobanking solution that ensures that samples are properly labeled and stored.
  5. Integration with other systems with tools for data exchange, mapping, and transformation. LabVantage can be used to integrate a LIMS with an electronic medical record (EMR) system.

Data science

  1. Data cleaning is indispensable to preprocess data. Alteryx Designer Cloud employed to clean, structure and enrich raw data coming from various sources.
  2. Data visualisation to realise appealing and insightful charts and graphs. Tableau is used to create interactive dashboards and reports.
  3. Statistical analysis to streamline hypothesis testing, regression analysis, and machine learning. R or Python with packages like SciPy, BioNumPy, Bioconductor or scikit-learn are popular and very powerful solutions, yet entry threshold might be restrictive.
  4. Data integration from various sources with tools for data mapping, data transformation, and data exchange. Talend is scalable solution to integrate data from different databases, APIs, or file formats.
  5. Model deployment for machine learning models. TensorFlow Serving or Amazon SageMaker are widely known flexible, high-performance serving systems to deploy machine learning models in production environments.

Why we care and why you should too

Poor software design can have a significant impact on businesses. According to the article, poor-quality software cost organisations $2.8 trillion in the U.S. alone in 2018. Additionally, more than a third of smartphone users delete an app when they encounter a software glitch or bug. Neglecting the audience and platform when designing software can lead to poor usability, which can result in users abandoning the product. This can have negative consequences for businesses, including lost revenue, decreased customer satisfaction, and damage to the brand’s reputation.

Software ergonomics can impact productivity and product quality by improving the interaction between the task and the user. When the job task is too physically taxing on the worker, they may not perform their job like they were trained, leading to product quality issues. Poor ergonomics leads to frustrated and fatigued workers that don’t do their best work, causing losses in productivity.

Ergonomic software can improve the quality of work for researchers in several ways. Firstly, it can help to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders that are common among computer users. By providing ergonomic features such as adjustable screen height, keyboard tilt, and mouse sensitivity, the software can help to prevent strain on the neck, shoulders, wrists, and hands.

Secondly, ergonomic software can increase productivity by making it easier for researchers to access and analyze data. For example, software that provides customizable shortcuts and hotkeys can help researchers to navigate through large datasets more quickly and efficiently. This can save time and reduce the risk of errors, which can improve the quality of work.

Finally, ergonomic software can decrease stress by providing a more comfortable and enjoyable work experience. For example, software that provides adjustable lighting and color schemes can help to reduce eye strain and fatigue, which can lead to greater comfort and focus. Additionally, software that provides customizable layouts and interfaces can help researchers to work in a way that suits their individual preferences and needs.

Overall, ergonomic software can have a significant impact on the quality of work, productivity, and well-being of researchers. By providing a more comfortable and efficient work environment, it can help researchers to achieve better results and enjoy their work more. Ultimately, better research results will benefit not only the researcher and his employer, but all of us.

Challenges and overcoming resistance to change

Accounting scientists’ needs and integration of the software into the preexisting ecosystem to achieve a seamless implementation might be of paramount difficulty, but it’s also of paramount importance. For example, designing a computer game that requires three sets of control pads is unlikely to be usable as people, for the time being at least, only tend to have two hands. Similarly, designing a software product that is not optimized for a specific research field can lead to poor usability, as users may struggle to navigate the product or may encounter technical difficulties.

In terms of software design, it is crucial to consider the usability and user-friendliness of the interface to avoid counter-intuitive interfaces and cumbersome features that can lead to frustration and reduced productivity. User’s workflows should be studied carefully. The fact is direct translation of those into UI might not be the best option. Ergonomic design takes these as food for thought and can usually come with optimized routes enabling novel, more effective ways to solve users’ tasks.

However, implementing an ergonomic software may face potential drawbacks or challenges. One of the main challenges is the resistance from employees who are comfortable with the existing system and may not want to learn new processes. This resistance may lead to a decline in productivity, which is a significant risk to the ROI of the new software and can lead to decreased morale among staff. Therefore, it is crucial to fully prepare staff for the changes by showing them the benefits of the new software and clarifying why it’s necessary for their day-to-day life and how it will improve the efficiency and quality of their work.

Another potential drawback is the lack of sufficient training tools, which is one of the top priorities when implementing new software. The project team’s role is to communicate the value of the new software and develop an effective onboarding plan, which should include a system for getting employees up to speed on how to complete core processes and utilize features with confidence. It may be helpful to appoint “super-users” who can be on hand to answer questions and help resolve issues. After the initial onboarding, there needs to be continuous employee training on new features and workflows. If training is inadequate or not provided, employees may not know how to use the software, which can lead to frustration and decreased productivity.

Another challenge that may arise is the lack of IT professionals or skill sets in cybersecurity, application architecture, software integrations, data analytics, and data migration. Organizations that lack IT professionals can combat this challenge by outsourcing this work to outside consultants and digital transformation experts to help.

It’s important to consider the potential obstacles that may arise when implementing a software ergonomics improvement process. These challenges could include usability issues, employee resistance, insufficient training resources, and a shortage of skilled IT professionals. To overcome these hurdles, it’s essential to thoroughly prepare your team for the changes ahead and provide them with the necessary training to fully comprehend the benefits of the software and how to use it efficiently. In cases where there’s a shortage of in-house IT talent, outsourcing to digital transformation experts and consultants could be the solution to ensure a smooth implementation. By taking these steps, you’ll be able to navigate any potential setbacks and achieve success in your software ergonomics improvement process.

Future of ergonomic software in science

Let us reiterate — when it comes to software ergonomics, it is essential to mind the audience and platform as there is constant proliferation of new formats. Therefore, tech developers need to look at the latest studies on user interface and user experience, not just accept the old way. Comprehensive accessibility needs to be factored into software and app design to ensure products are inclusive for all users. Accessibility should go beyond ease of use and should ensure that products are designed around color blindness or give the option to resize text. Often, features designed for accessibility will make the product more enjoyable for all users.

Ergonomic software could be a game-changer in science practices, and it has the ability to vastly improve the efficiency and accuracy of research. As technology continues to advance, the potential for ergonomic software in science continues to grow. With machine learning, artificial intelligence and robotic process automation, it is possible to develop even more intuitive and user-friendly software that can meet the complexity of scientific research. The use of virtual and augmented reality can also open up new avenues for ergonomic software in science, particularly in remote research and training. The demand for ergonomic software in science is expected to continue to grow as more scientific fields move towards data-driven and technology-based research. The continued development and integration of ergonomic software in science practices will undoubtedly lead to significant advancements in research, diagnosis, and treatment in healthcare and other scientific fields.

Conclusion

Ergonomic software in science can improve research efficiency and accuracy by reducing repetitive tasks and minimizing the risk of errors. Scientists can benefit from increased productivity, reduced workload, and improved accuracy through ergonomic software. Mind liberated from technical hurdles gains time and power to contemplate, wonder, gain insights and create knowledge and products of greater value.

As these benefits have become apparent, the demand for ergonomic software has increased. Faced with this demand, it is crucial to design and implement ergonomics in scientific apps. Advancements in technology will help scientists use more intuitive and user-friendly solutions that simplify complex workflows, making research more productive and increasing the quality of output. The future of ergonomic software in science is promising, and it will undoubtedly lead to significant advancements in life science research and other scientific fields.

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