What makes research software user-friendly?

Tristan Duminil


Sales Team Leader

February 13, 2024

10 min

Plant Innovation Research Center, 5PM:
- “I can see all the materials of my germplasm in 3 dimensions, floating in front of me… let’s grab this one… Wow all historical performances are displayed in graphs all around me… I can see its combining abilities with other cultivars so clearly… Hey what is that valve underneath? May I open… Oh no! All the raw data is flowing out, spreading in the air in dense clouds of trait and ontology figures, I can’t stop it… HELP !!!”
- “Mike, did you just fall asleep?”
- “Sooo sorry! I’ve dreamt of the perfect research software and suddenly it became a nightmare… Never mind, a refill of coffee and I’m back to preparing tomorrow’s crosses.”

Your research software is a complex system, enabling you to perform all the tasks of your daily agronomical experimentations. The design of features (user-friendly or not) determines how easily you learn to use it, how much time and how much mental load it requests from you to run your breeding program and testing campaigns. So, how much energy do you spend on your research software, rather than study your material and focus on decisions to make? how user-friendly is your research software?

“Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible”
Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things¹.

user-friendly research software Interface
Picture 01: User interface vs User experience.

user-friendly research software visual
Picture 02: Visual user experience.

What’s a user-friendly research software?

Until the end of the XX’s century, designers were focused on how a tool’s User Interface (UI) complies with several standard, such as the famous “three-click rule”². Since 2000 a revolution has taken place in the history of Human-Machine Interface, with the study of the way people are using a tool, namely: User Experience (UX). This new user-friendly approach gets closer to the real usage, notably by describing “personas” and adapting the tools to their usage. For instance, why would a breeder, a field technician, an IT engineer, and the R&D director use the same interface?

The research software must be adapted to every user’s needs. Usability is based on studying users, either by testing the software, or listening to user feedback. For instance, the feedback tool in RnDExp software pushes users’ remarks directly to their IT team or Doriane editors who thus propose user-friendly evolutions such as splitting big operations into smaller tasks, adding features or modifying the interface.

“If people are made safer, more comfortable, more eager to purchase, more efficient - or just plain happier - by contact with the product, then the designer has succeeded”
Henry Dreyfuss, author of Designing for People.

Customize software for happy researchers

Even simple changes make a big difference:

Agronomists appreciate to feel at home using their research software, with a corporate color theme, to avoid boring operations, to get simplified interface for complex settings etc. Another reason to enjoy a user-friendly interface is the “contextual display” of icons, menus and help according to user rights and situation.

Shortcuts facilitate the use of repetitive and complex tasks:

Plant breeders appreciate the user-friendly RnDExp homepage with a wheel of task shortcuts. Automating has had a great impact on users who thus saved time in their daily work. Most of all, research software flexibility is the key to match with every users’ desires. Configuration of features, tasks and forms must fit the needs of all researchers, and personal preferences let every user adapt its own presentations.

“The major problems facing the development of products that are safer, less prone to error, and easier to use and understand are not technological: they are social and organizational”
Donald A. Norman.

user-friendly research software usage evolution
Picture 03: Usage evolution over years.

How editors design user-friendly research software?

Software edition requires staying connected with research software users:

Feedback can be collected directly from users through the app or transmitted by consultants during training and support. But the best way to see things like users is to meet them directly in their research stations or inviting them to an annual User Day. Testing the research software with user scenarios is crucial to delivering user-friendly software. In the Agile method, every step of the development gets tested, so that the software really matches with end user needs.

Designers stay at the cutting-edge of usage evolutions, to propose appropriate changes and prepare the next generation of interface. They also employ much user-friendly methodologies to make simple the use of features. For instance, they imagine fictional characters representing a user type: The personas. Also, they create successive research software mockups and redevelopments with Agile method.

“The best interface is no interface”
Zorraquino UX Trends 2018.

user-friendly research software UX designer paradox by Bradley Bonus
Picture 04: The UX designer paradox by Bradley Bonus.

In a nutshell, you prefer user-friendly software

Agronomists, you want to focus on your experiments and strategy, and need a research software that lets you work efficiently and creatively with maximum flexibility. But you know your processes are complex, and your needs specific. The user-friendly research software of your dreams requires to be built for your use, you must stay in touch with the editors, who keep listening to your needs.

The more a research software is suited to its users, the more researchers can focus on their work. Moreover, it facilitates training, accelerates the adoption of the software by the team, and reduces the energy spent by users to comply their daily tasks. A user-friendly software brings much benefits to the research department: it saves money, helps avoid errors and improves social interactions.

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. We work with being, but non-being is what we use”
Lao Tseu, Tao Te Ching⁴.

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