Making the Case for Powerful Genomic Research Tools


This site targets biologists who use gene analysis in their research but don't specialize in informatics. Our research showed these users were intrigued with PATRIC's possibilities for their work, but when it came to actually using the tool, they found the learning curve too steep and the results too complex.

A System for the Research Community

The Pathosystems Resource Integration Center — PATRIC — is an information system designed to support the biomedical research community’s work on bacterial infectious diseases. It hosts a vast amount of genomic data analysis software that retrieves, visualizes and compares information critical to research in the biological sciences.

The PATRIC website is a project of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, one of five bioinformatics resource centers in the United States. VBI came to NewCity looking to make their complex site more relevant to bench biologists, showing them how to wield these powerful bioinformatic tools in a way that is meaningful and reproducible.

Using discovery stories to demonstrate PATRIC’s tools

We’d partnered with VBI since building the previous PATRIC website back in 2007, so for the redesign, we worked together to solve problems that arose as they outgrew the old site.

The new site targets bench biologists who use gene analysis in their research but don’t specialize in informatics. Our research showed that these users were plenty excited about the possibilities of using PATRIC in their work, but when it came to the tools themselves, they found the learning curve too steep and the results too complex to apply to actual research.

We conducted audience interviews and used those findings to construct a key user persona that would inform the structure of the new website. Then we facilitated a series of sketching sessions with a group of 15 stakeholders from all levels and backgrounds—software developers, epidemiologists, project managers, even VBI’s principle investigator on the project. Breaking into teams, the group brainstormed ways to motivate our key persona to learn about and use the site’s complex tools in their research.

What resulted was a lively collaborative session that produced inventive workflows focused on telling stories of real research. The idea was to pair these examples with a step-by-step rundown of how PATRIC was used to generate data for their conclusions. This way the site could explain the tools’ significance without resorting to an over-simplifying tutorial that experienced scientists might pass over.

Other facets of the site overhaul included:

  • Designing a more effective and inviting user interface that would appeal to researchers across a variety of disciplines
  • Stripping the homepage’s technical terms in favor of language not specific to any particular scientific community
  • Adapting their main JBoss website (which didn’t have a content management system) to work with WordPress, so non-developers could manage the editorial content more quickly and easily

The group was tasked to create outlines with these principles in mind:

  • Make it obvious
  • Appeal to bench biologists
  • Invite exploration