Case Study — StormBrain

Creating a social platform for researchers and industry partners

Joseph Jin Hyuk Lee
Jan 4, 2017 · 13 min read

Project Summary

StormBrain is a platform that allows researchers and industry partners to easily find each other. It solves the problem of spending countless hours searching for suitable candidates to collaborate with. My role was to research, design, and test the full UX and UI activities related to the project. I collaborated with two UX Designers to design this product.

Client

StormBrain
Steve Kim, Founder

Task

Verify the business idea and create a platform for researchers and industry partners to easily find each other and collaborate.

Platforms

Web Application (Desktop, Mobile)

Collaborators

UX Designers: Joseph Lee (me), McKenzie Eggers, Ying Deng

Timeframe

3 weeks

Design Methods & Tools

User Interviews, Customer Journey Map, Competitive & Comparative Analysis, Affinity Diagram, User Personas, Scenario, User Flow, Information Architecture, Feature Prioritization, Design Studio, User Testing, A/B Testing, Mood Board, Logo Design, Paper & Digital Wireframes (Sketch), Clickable Prototype (InVision)


OVERVIEW

Introduction

StormBrain started its ideation in June 2016 to create a platform for researchers and industry partners to easily find each other and collaborate. The platform’s proposed solution was to offer matchmaking suggestions with a collaboration match algorithm. With the idea in mind, our client approached us to verify the business idea and design a prototype to pitch to potential users and investors.

The Opportunity

Researchers and industry professionals have difficulty finding and collaborating with each other as researchers have poor presence online. There is already an existing product that is similar to the client’s idea called ResearchGate. Access to ResearchGate is limited to researchers as it requires to sign up with an institutional email. StormBrain aspires to capture a wider demographic by providing a platform that is transparent and accessible to anyone.

The Challenge

Researchers are very busy and they do not have the time to update their content online. As a result, researchers and industry partners find themselves spending countless hours online only to find outdated information. The main challenge of this project was to bridge the information gap and save time for our users by presenting the relevant information that is needed when collaborating.

Project Goals

The project goals that we identified with the client at the client kickoff meeting is as follows:

  • User interface for the researchers, industry partners and the public
  • Easy to use search function
  • Increase user sign ups

RESEARCH

As StormBrain is currently in its ideation stage, we conducted user interviews to verify the business idea. We’ve identified two potential user groups: researchers and industry partners who work with researchers. As researchers are the primary user group, we focused on creating the platform for researchers for the initial design. We interviewed potential users who have already signed up for StormBrain as well as our personal networks that are working in the research-related field. As it was crucial to identify our user’s motives to validate our client’s business, we interviewed a total of 12 users in three days. We asked questions such as how they found their collaborators, their biggest obstacles in finding collaborators, and their criteria for choosing a collaborator. We found the following:

  • Conferences: Researchers attended conferences to network, share information and find about the latest research.
  • Digging through papers is tedious: Researchers found it to be tedious to search the web to find about the authors. It was common to land on the author’s website only to find outdated content.
  • The importance of publications: Publications were important to learn about the researchers. The frequency of publications and the number of collaborations in the past revealed an impression about the researcher.
  • Personal networks: When looking to collaborate, researchers reached out to their personal networks to seek information. It was important as they would seek information from the people who they have already established a relation with.

Both researchers and industry partners attended conferences and reached out to their networks to find potential collaborators. Track record of publications and trust was important in choosing a candidate and we found that our users did not rely on a platform or service to find collaborators. There was an opportunity to increase the chance of collaboration by enhancing our user’s current journey- attend conferences and reaching out to their networks.

After asking our users about the collaboration process, we mapped out the current collaboration experience of researchers to uncover what we can improve. The pain points that we’ve identified to address on our design were:

  • The tediousness of checking other researcher’s work
  • Reaching out to the researchers and waiting for a response.

As for the scope of this project, StormBrain currently extends to collaborating as indicated in the orange column above.

Competitive & Comparative Analysis

As our client’s idea of StormBrain was to provide a matchmaking service, we analyzed how platforms gather and suggest matches. We’ve identified and analyzed in detail three networking and matchmaking services: Linkedin, ResearchGate, and OkCupid. These services excelled in:

  • Engaging the users to provide information. It allows the system to utilize the latest data to provide users with relevant content and suggestions. It keeps the users engaged by providing a value-added service.
  • Search mechanism. Allows users to quickly search based on their interests. The system provided suggestions and users have the options to refine their searches to find information that is more relevant to them.

The Giant in the Market: ResearchGate

There weren’t many competitors in the market that was targeting researchers and industry partners. However, there was a well-established provider in the market called ResarchGate. Our team carefully analyzed the platform to differentiate StormBrain by providing a solution that ResearchGate was lacking. We’ve concluded with the following:

There was an opportunity to capture the audience that ResesarchGate wasn’t capturing- the audience that are not in the research field and offer conference features to facilitate networking opportunities.


PLAN

We sorted our research findings using affinity diagrams to find the common themes and trends. The common themes that we identified were:

  • Conferences
  • The importance of personal networks
  • Difficulty in finding information
  • Lack of time and resources

Research Brief with the Client: A Shift in Direction?

We had a meeting with our client to discuss our research findings of the importance for researchers to attend conferences when looking to collaborate. We collectively decided with the client to change the direction of the project from matchmaking to conferences as it was something that ResearchGate did not have but the users highly valued. In terms of the minimum viable product (MVP), we agreed that it was time-efficient to introduce conferences feature first to acquire users as matchmaking feature demands a lot of resources in order to be implemented with efficiency.

Personas

Primary Persona

Richard is a Postdoctoral Researcher who is fascinated about genome sequencing and how it affects cancer cell activities. He wants to get his work published and wants to work with others to conduct higher quality research. He is extremely busy and spends most of his time in the lab extracting and analyzing chromosomes. He finds it difficult to find collaborators in his field and is often frustrated at the process of waiting for a response from other researchers.

Secondary Persona

Judy’s role as program coordinator is to find researchers to work with in finding treatments for cancer. Her biggest frustration is finding relevant information as she often lands on researcher’s pages only to find outdated information. Judy doesn’t have a background in genetic research and often finds herself spending hours reading through the research papers to find the right candidates.

Having identified our users, we created scenarios of our personas based on our research.

Scenario

Richard: The Researcher

Richard is a Postdoctoral Researcher at UBC’s Biomedical Research Centre. He will be attending a conference and would like to make the best use of his time while there. There is a poster session by Dr. David Honda that might help his own research project. As there isn’t a published paper yet, he can’t find the information on ResearchGate and has to look elsewhere.

Judy: The Industry Partner

Judy has a lot on her plate. She is a program coordinator at Canadian Cancer Society and in addition to the administrative tasks, she seeks researchers to collaborate with in order to find treatments for cancer. She finds it daunting to read through the research papers as it is difficult to understand. Therefore, she often doubts herself before reaching out to the authors.

User Flow

Having identified the user scenarios, we further went into the details of our persona’s journey with the user flow. As our users are seeking for specific information from a large database, we focused on gradually narrowing down criteria to provide relevant information for our users.

Sitemap

From our sitemap, we’ve narrowed down our MVP to the user profiles and events page. The user profiles were further divided into personal profile pages and the university/company pages as the user’s affiliations were important for both researchers and the industry partners when looking for a collaboration candidate.

Feature Prioritization

Considering the user needs, the client’s requests, and the resources it takes for StormBrain’s programmers to develop, we identified the MVP features with the feature prioritization exercise. When considering the features, the features had to require as little input from the user as possible as researchers are not likely to update their content based on our research. As a result, we focused on profiles, search, and conferences for the initial version.


DESIGN

After identifying the user flow, our team did a series of design studios to sketch and explained our design solutions. Design studio exercise allowed us to bounce off each other’s ideas and communicate our design solutions. As a result, we came up with the following features:

Conferences to Connect with Other Attendees

As our users found conferences to be important, we designed to connect and expose the profile and the event page. The user is able to view the events that the researchers are attending when looking at a researcher’s profile. Likewise, when looking at the event page, the users can see the list of presenters and attendees and are able to learn more by looking at their profile. This feature allows the users to learn about each other and have the option to connect and establish a relationship prior to the event.

Lab Lineage

The institution and the association of the researcher was an important factor when looking for candidates to collaborate with. Our interviewees termed the importance as the ‘lab lineage’ as it allowed our users to better personify the candidate. Therefore, we’ve created a section displaying the researcher’s association. For example, as shown on the right, Nick Milner is part of Dr. Honda’s lab, thus part of his ‘lab lineage.’


TEST

We tested our prototypes early on and throughout every stage of the design. It helped us to refine the information architecture that was easy to navigate despite the large scope of the project. We followed up with our interview participants to test and received feedbacks. It helped us to strengthen our iteration process as researchers had a specific pattern of behaviours when seeking for information.

Design Iteration #1: Professor = Lab

At the early stages of testing, we discovered that the principal investigators or professors were often referred as the lab itself by the researchers. For example, if Dr. David Honda was the principal investigator of the Stem Cells, Inflammatory Disease, and Cancer lab at the University of California, San Diego, researchers would refer to the lab as Dr. Honda’s lab. Taking this insight, we’ve iterated our design and the information architecture so that the principal investigator’s profile appeared both under researcher and the group section.

Design Iteration #2: See My Collaboration Matches

Our client wanted to incorporate the collaboration matches feature for when the matchmaking algorithm is functioning. Initially, we placed See my Collaboration Matches call-to-action (CTA) above the Recommended Profiles on the dashboard. However, we observed that our participants did not click on the CTA but rather expanded the search under Recommended Profiles. When asked why, the participants overlooked the button as it didn’t seem important. One participant commented that the See my Collaboration Matches sounded like Google’s “I am feeling lucky” button and it didn’t seem important to them. Taking the insights, we made changes to the following:

  • Changed Recommended Profiles section to Collaboration section
  • Moved See my Collaboration Matches CTA at the bottom of the Collaboration section
  • Changed the colour of the button to orange to make it more visible and consistent with the brand
  • Changed the wording of the See my Collaboration Matches to See more Matches.

Design Iteration #3: Last Active

When looking at a profile, the participants commented that they wanted to know how active the person was as our users were often frustrated at the outdated information on the web. In addition, our users noted that researchers were often hard to reach. In response, we came up with a simple solution of adding last active feature on the profile. This allows the ease of the emotional pain of waiting for a response as the senders are aware of how active the researchers are.

Design Iteration #4: How Does StormBrain Work?

User testing revealed that our participants wanted to learn about how StormBrain works. It was important for them to trust the platform as well as to learn about how the platform was providing suggested matches. It was important for our users as some of our interviewees found ResearchGate intrusive in collecting data about them without their consent using third-party service.

Taking the feedback, we’ve added a quick description to explain StormBrain and address our user’s concerns. As a result, it helped us to strengthen StormBrain’s initiative in creating a platform that is transparent and accessible.

Prototype

Our team designed a mobile and a desktop version of our prototypes. The desktop prototype demonstrates the flow of the researcher as researchers have access to their desktop in their labs. On the other hand, the mobile prototype demonstrates the flow of the industry partner as industry partners are often on the go.

Desktop: Researcher

As a researcher, you spend most of your time in the lab. You’re often on your desktop computer when you communicate with other researchers. You are currently working on a project and would like to seek collaboration with researchers that are researching a similar topic. Log into StormBrain to find a collaborator.

Mobile: Industry Partner

As an industry partner, you’re always on the go and you’re currently seeking for researchers to collaborate with. You don’t have an account with StormBrain but its open-source platform allows you to search researchers who are studying the topics that you’re looking to fill.


SUMMARY

Our client was very engaged throughout the project. As a result, we were able to shift the direction of StormBrain to focus on conferences after the research findings as opposed to the matching algorithms. Our client was pleased as we were able to create a platform that is unique in the market that the users have been seeking for.

Key Learnings

I learned the importance of communication with the client in designing a product that addresses the user’s problems. As the main point of contact with the client, I was responsible for communicating with the client and updating our progress. With open communication, our client was able to better understand the users as well as our design decisions to solve the user’s pain points.

Researchers are busy and they are rarely present online. During our research process, we conducted surveys but received little responses. Knowing that our users don’t spend much time online, we could have considered not conducting a survey in the first place. After realizing our oversight, we conducted 12 user interviews over three days to compensate for the lack of insights from surveys.

Our biggest challenge was to organize the information architecture given the large scope of the project. With the timeframe of three weeks to deliver the final prototype, we were quick to test our prototype and our information architecture constantly evolved as the project moved on. It challenged our team to drop our egos and be agile and it helped us to create a product that solves our user’s problems.

Our client was very pleased with the final prototype and the introduction of the conferences feature as there was a market need. Our client’s plan is to pitch to potential users and investors with the prototype that we designed. Our team had three weeks to design the prototype and the scope of the project was big. As a result, we spent much time on research and planning and acknowledge that the final prototype is rough and needs polishing. We established a strong relationship with our client and we are looking to continue working with our client to deliver a pixel-perfect prototype in the future.

Joseph Jin Hyuk Lee

Written by

Product UX/UI Designer | Portfolio: jhlee.ca

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