StormBrain Website Case Study

This case study discusses the methods and design of a team of students from RED Academy in Vancouver. Our team consists of 3 UX students working to develop a social media platform for academic and industry research collaboration.

The Opportunity

Starting its ideation in June 2016, StormBrain is a social media platform with the goal to allow academic and industry researchers to connect and collaborate, while also increasing public visibility to current research. We were approached by StormBrain’s creator to design the online interface for this platform using UX methodologies to provide a solution that is easy to use and supports their goal for transparent collaboration of research.

StormBrain had several goals going into this project, as well as a list of feature requests from the client. We wanted to make sure we had a solid understanding of the users and their needs so we confirm which features would match StormBrains goals with the user goals. After meeting with the client, we identified the main goals of StormBrain:

  • A transparent collaborative platform that doesn’t require a login to be useful
  • Available to everyone — not just to researchers and industry leaders, but also to the general public
  • Increase visibility of current research projects
  • Connect researchers and facilitate collaboration

Research

With these goals in mind, our first steps in our research were to look at the current tools available for analysis. Our client described StormBrain as a LinkedIn meets OkCupid for researchers, so we looked at how these sites are current functioning. We also compared ResearchGate, which is a tool that allows researchers to connect and post publications. All three products are more mature products with a lot of functionality, but we wanted to make sure our product had a clear differentiation from these existing sites. Based on what we found currently available, we wanted to focus StormBrain on filling in where the current sites are lacking.

User Interviews

All of this is useful information, but our most valuable information came from our users. We conducted a series of interviews to really understanding who our user is and their current needs. Focusing on interviewing allowed us to really dive into the daily struggles in research collaboration.

“It is the tedious work that is the biggest hurdle in terms of finding collaborators…”

Speaking about how they currently collaborate, we got some surprising answers on the current methods researchers are using to connect with each other. Particularly in reference to digging through research papers for information. This is a huge process that came up repeatedly, and no one said they enjoyed the hours of searching and clicking through databases.

“Mostly the connections I’ve seen made have been at conferences.”

A surprising piece of information came up regarding professional conferences. This came up quite a bit as a major way researchers are meeting other researchers and learning about current projects. Additionally, it’s something that isn’t addressed by the big players in online research websites. We wanted to make sure we added this to StormBrain in a way that supports the current user behavior with their collaborations.

“In some ways, you’re at the forefront of new discovery, but in other ways, you feel 20 years behind in terms of how relevant the work you’re doing is…”

The tools they are using currently are basic — email, phone, and mail. Occasionally newer tools are used, such as Google Drive or Slack, but many labs are still using older methods of communication and information sharing. There was even a case where files were put on thumb drives and mailed to the other lab. While the research can be innovative, frequently how these labs are running is surprisingly slow and dated.

Round one of many affinity diagramming sessions

From our interviews, we drew some new insights about our user using affinity diagraming. In general, researchers want to collaborate and are looking for good fits with other researchers and labs to assist with resources, theoretical subject knowledge, or skill sharing. However, the current methods for collaboration are limited. The biggest hurdle is the lack of time — time to find information and time to reach out to others is hard to come by. Typically collaboration is happening based on the personal network of lab professors (or researchers own connections) or at a conference.

Planning

Once we had more information on our users we were able to create our user personas. The first, Richard, is the main user of StormBrain.

Goals

  • Produce higher quality research
  • Work more efficiently
  • Get research work published

Frustrations

  • Lack of resources (ie. funding, equipment, skills)
  • Time-consuming & tedious to find collaborators
  • Not enough information about other researchers and current projects online
  • Access to certain published research is blocked by paywalls or are private
  • It is time-consuming to coordinate aligning goals and methods while collaborating

Current Tools

  • Email (communication and file sharing)
  • Phone
  • PubMed, ResearchGate, and other digital publication libraries

To better understand his current process and experience, we created a User Journey Map specifically for the end goal of publishing. This process can take years in academia. The current scope of StormBrain only extends to connecting researchers to a collaborator. However, future goals of StormBrain extend beyond this, so it was important for us to be aware of a complete picture.

User Journey Map for “Richard”

The biggest pain point in our current scope was searching through publication to find possible collaboration matches. Addressing this issue makes a huge impact for our primary user, both in terms of time saved and valuable information gained.

Our secondary persona is Judy. She represents those who work on the industry side of research, but who aren’t researchers themselves. They need to find information and coordinate for their researchers but have unique needs from a researcher like Richard.

Key Goals

  • Quickly get relevant information for her work
  • Find the right academic or industry contact easily and quickly

Frustrations

  • Spends a lot of time searching for research papers online
  • Access to some research work is blocked by paywalls or is private
  • Unsure of how to make her searches more efficient and effective
  • Unfamiliar jargon and terminology when reviewing academic work

Current Tools

  • Email
  • Phone
  • MS Office
  • Basic internet searching

We created scenarios to get a better picture of how our users might be approaching StormBrain.

Richard is a post-doc researcher in UBC’s Biomedical Research Centre. His academic work is something he’s really proud of and he can see real potential in what they have found so far. Richard will be attending a conference with his professor later in the month, and Richard would like to make the best use of his time while there. There is a poster session that might help his own research project, in particular, a new method by a researcher he hasn’t heard of before, Dr. Jans Jorgenson. There isn’t a published paper out yet, so he can’t find information on ResearchGate, but his professor recommends looking at StormBrain to see if he can find out more about the study and the researcher.
Judy has a lot on her plate. She is a program coordinator at Canadian Cancer Society and in addition to several administrative tasks she also coordinates the research department. They have put in a request for more resources on a particular method of genetic extraction. Judy needs to find other labs who might be willing to collaborate in this stage of development. One of her researchers mentioned StormBrain might be a way to find professors or lab leads who study similar topics and could help.

From these scenarios, we looked at high-level user flows and how our user would navigate through StormBrain. As this platform is for finding collaboration, we focused on a people-first approach. The traditional method of digging through research papers was not what we wanted for StormBrain. How searching would function would be a key element, but creating multiple paths ways to the end goal was crucial in making something usable for both personas.

From scenarios and user flows we identified the key features we wanted to include in our MPV, as well as things we decided to leave out at this stage:

Included features:
+ Search + Browse
+ Profiles
+ Recommendations (Matches)

Not Included:
- Upload files
- Post and comment on newsfeed
- Collaboration tool for communication after connection

Design

From the planning stage, we moved into designing our screens. As we had a lot of content, we felt it appropriate to start with the mobile design to make sure we stayed on the essential elements with the highest priority and would be able to expand into desktop without needing to cut out features. Through the designing and iteration process we developed a sitemap. As much of the site is search driven, some pages are for information architecture structure but aren’t visible pages.

One of our priority features was the dashboard home. While you can search profile and information without a login, there are additional features available with an account, such as collaboration recommendations for people and projects. Once signed in, the user goes to a custom home page with custom information. The goal of this home page is to encourage users to keep their current projects up to date, encourage sharing information and following other researchers, and allow quick access to collaboration matches.


At this stage we wanted to go beyond the requested low fidelity wireframes. As a team, we worked to develop a style guide and logo for a better quality mid-fidelity wireframes. We identified style elements that fit with the StormBrain brand, aiming to create a mood focused on energy, knowledge, professionalism, and community.

We applied this to our wireframes, giving them a bit more polish and a better idea of the finished product. With the style guide, we were also able to expand our mobile screens into desktop screens.


Another key feature developed was how to incorporate conferences. As our interviews reflected the importance of conferences, we wanted to make sure StormBrain uses this current tool to assist with collaboration. We provided functionality to allow the user to RSVP to a conference. This shows on their profile and the newsfeed of those who follow them. The user can then see who is going to the conference, see their profile, and connect prior to the event. They can also discover new conference and widen their own network.

Testing

Throughout our designing, we tested with users for usability. Our main task for the user was to find a collaboration match who works with genetics. Early stage feedback was very helpful in the development of our wireframes so we could make changes throughout before moving to higher fidelity.

Paper Prototype Testing

Changes

A series of changes dealt with the section order of profile pages. We originally placed the tags section at the bottom of the page with the list of publications towards the top. However, the tags were useful in quickly determining a collaboration fit, and publications were better lower on the page once the basic fit has been determined.

Another change was on the dashboard home. We provided a “See My Collaboration Matches” button at the top of the page that took the user to their full list of matches, in addition to the recommended matches on the side that provided the top 5 matches. Upon testing, we found that this button went ignored or confused the user as to its purpose with the recommended matches nearby. Upon further testing, we found the wording made it seem like too much of a commitment. By removing it, people were more confident in using the recommended collaborators short list on the home page.

Summary

StormBrain is a tool that research collaboration needs to move more effectively into a more communicative and technologically savvy era. While it is very much in the early stages, StormBrain’s initial goals of transparency, availability, and connection are positioning StormBrain to reach their long-term goal of changing academic research to be faster and agiler. Our current design is to support the immediate needs to finding collaborations in research labs across the world but leaves space for growth and a broader vision.

In order to keep growing, a focus on making StormBrain easy to use with automation and continuing to collect data and refine the matching algorithms will help make StormBrain a valuable tool for collaboration and research. Next steps would include continuing testing and seeking feedback from users to keep refining the search function. Additionally, we recommended reviewing other ways conferences can be included for future features, as a possible untapped opportunity.

Check out the StormBrain Desktop Prototype:
https://invis.io/9W9OOQ9EQ