Nature Nano

Logo for Nature Nano

Helping to build and improve a new database solution

  • Client
  • Objective
    • Helping to build and develop Nature Nano, a database of information on nanomaterials for scientists
  • Work type
    • UX Design, Databases, international teams
  • Timeline
    • Sep 2015 – Feb 2016, Oct 2017 – Oct 2018
  • Team
    • Lead UX Design (me, London)
    • Technical Product Manager (Heidelberg, Germany)
    • 2 x Business Analysts, Project Manager and team of 6 Developers (Pune, India)

Introduction

Nature Nano is a scientific database, much like Springer Materials, but providing information, articles and patents related to the nanomaterials and nanotechnology disciplines. Branded under the Nature side of Springer Nature, it attracts a more corporate audience that Springer Materials’ academic one.

I was brought in at the birth of the product, when the team needed help in working out how the product would function, and then later when they needed help in producing an additional database of patents. I helped the team to research and understand their audience in both cases, and build solutions that suited the needs of their users.

Creating a nanomaterial database

Stage one

I was originally asked to join the Nano team when the product was first being considered. Springer Nature had a series of sources of nanomaterial data, but needed help and guidance on who would make use of the data, and what they required from it. My job was to conduct research to understand those needs, and to help the team to understand it while planning how to build the product.

Research

Having previously worked with Springer Materials, I used my experience in researching user requirements for database products with this project too, and employed the same principle as I had previously – understanding not only how people look for and use data, but what they do before and after that, to understand the context around how the action fits into their everyday work

The process I took from my experience with Springer Materials, understanding what happens before and after the user comes to the database

The process I took from my experience with Springer Materials, understanding what happens before and after the user comes to the database

We were provided a series of users, some provided to us by the Product Owners, as well as recruiting them online and finding them amongst out own community of scientist contributors that write for the academic journals that Springer Nature publishes. In the interviews, we asked them a range of questions, including:

  • Describe to us what you do in your everyday work? – this helps us to get an overall picture of the user’s work and environment, as well as possibly identify opportunities to use the product which we had not identified before.
  • How do you use nanomaterials data in your work? – this focusses on where the data is used, and helps us to explore what they need to use the data for
  • What do you do with the data when you have it? – here we explore the best way to provide the data, and whether we need to facilitate using the data for other purposes, such as transferring it to another form of storage, taking it away to work with somewhere else, or inputting it into another facility to manipulate and work with.
  • What are the challenges you face in your work? – asking this allows us to understand opportunities where we might be able to make their process easier, and help the user with our product.

Discoveries

Some of the things we found included:

  • Users don’t have time to read everything – a common problem in the scientific community, data is provided in academic papers and journals, making it very hard to locate without having to digest the entirety of the paper (I refer to this problem as “drinking from the fire hose”).
  • Information needs to be reliable – there are many sources of data out there, some of which are questionable. Users need to be confident that the information that they are using is trustworthy. This also has a cost impact, as libraries cannot afford to provide all information sources to users, so they need to be sure that the resources that they are using are reliable and suitable for their users.
  • Data needs to be portable – users want to be able to take the data away with them and work with it, and would appreciate a way of being able to check information quickly and easily.

Sharing and embedding findings

In order to share this information with the production team and stakeholders, I created a number of personas, based upon the information I had found during the user research, which helped define the different types of user, and their requirements for the product. As well as having direct users, I also included a persona for a “buyer”, a user type that is responsible for purchasing the product for their institution, but not using it every day, as their needs were also important to consider when creating the product.

Persona layouts devised for Nature Nano showing different users and their requirements

Personas devised for the start of the Nature Nano project

These personas were not only created, but kept up to date as more information as gained during rounds of user research and testing (see my introduction to user experience and testing to explain how regular user testing helps to ensure that a product is on-track with user requirements).

I also shared insights into the research by providing quotes from users, which further informed the team about what users wanted from the product:

“Your product should not shy away from being an educational tool, showing details of how to use the information on the screen, and what it means. This would open the product up to young researchers and other customers.”
English student researcher

Turning findings into a plan

We then held a week-long inception meeting in our office in Pune, India to discuss and plan how to build the product, including the production team and stakeholders for the project. I started by giving a presentation of all of my research findings, including the personas and quotes, and then involved the team by getting them to explore the information that I had given them in a series of workshops, devising ways to address the needs of the users in the final product. Breaking up into groups, the team wrote out user goals, and then began to build user journeys to explore how they could approach those problems. We then asked them to present their solutions back to the other teams, so that they could be understood, challenged and discussed.

A member of our Pune production team, wiriting out user goals from the personas

Writing out user goals from personas

A member of our Pune production team, explaining how a user progresses through the proposed product

Explaining a proposed user journey

This not only ensured that the team had the needs of the user in their minds, but also that the user needs remained at the centre of the project throughout. From this, we began to build a picture of how the product could work:

Glass wall with a large number of sticky notes, explaining our thinking around how we were going to build Nature Nano

Planning the way that Nature Nano would work

Building a prototype

This was then made into a working prototype, starting with a very simple version, using static HTML pages as examples, so that we could then test and explore the concept with users.

Example page on Nature Nano, showing the amount of details provided for gold nanoparticles

Example page on Nature Nano, showing the amount of details provided for gold nanoparticles. See the page live here.

Conclusion

The resulting product, which launched in late 2015, incorporated the following attributes:

  • Being one of the first resources in the filed of nanomaterials to provide in-depth information from a range of reliable, peer reviewed sources, giving users a “one-stop” source to find data
  • Providing links back to the original articles, so that users can check provenance, as well as keep up to date on the latest developments in a certain area
  • Allowing users to save, extract and manipulate the data they find, to use it in their own experiments
  • Working on a range of devices and resources, allowing any user with access to check details quickly and easily

“Nano is one of the best products out there. My researchers are very glad I bought it for our university.”
American university librarian

Adding a patents database

Stage two

Having worked on other products for some time, I was brought back onto the project in October 2017, to assist with adding a new and significant dataset to the product – the ability to research patents related to the nanomaterials that were already there. The team had already started by building a prototype, allowing me to explore the data with users, and get their feedback.

User testing the prototype

Before starting user testing, I explored the product myself, and built a rough idea of some of the main tasks carried out, as well as some of the questions I would ask the users.

Sticky notes showing my exploration of the patents section, defining the questions I was going to ask during the testing

Sticky notes showing my exploration of the patents section, defining the questions I was going to ask during the testing

I then organised the testing sessions, and, in order to involve the team even more closely with the research, I asked them and stakeholders to take part in the video calls by making notes of the session. I was the only one allowed to talk to the users, asking the team to mute their microphone in order to avoid confusion in the session, but allowing the team to communicate with me over a Slack text conversation, so that I could ask questions and raise points on their behalf.

Photo showing the dual screen setup I had for user testing - speaking to the user on one screen, while getting feedback on the other, and my notes printed out in front of me

Testing on two screens – video calling the user on the left, and speaking on Slack to colleagues on the right, with printed notes in front of me. (image has been pixellated for confidentiality reasons)

Discoveries

These sessions were not only user testing, but also a chance to ask and find out about the users and their needs for the product. Some of the discoveries we made were:

  • Patents are widely available, but poorly curated – products such as Google Patents already provide the ability to find patents online, but being able to locate the correct information can be difficult
  • Users want to be sure that they have all the information – users often seek out patent information in order to identify opportunities, possible areas where they can benefit from creating new patents. They therefore need to know that they have all the patent information to hand, as finding new information later could cause difficulty.
  • Users want to be able to see trends – as well as seeing the patent information, they want to see trends of interest, how many patents have been taken out on a given subject, again to identify opportunties

“You’re not going to beat Google by speed, so you need to show what makes you different from them, and what you offer adds value.”
Canadian scientific researcher and user testing participant

Sharing findings with stakeholders

I also communicated these findings in a series of presentations for stakeholders, outlining feedback from the users, and helping the stakeholders make decisions about how to improve the product.

An example slide from my presentation to stakeholders

An example slide from my presentation to stakeholders, showing them feedback from users (image is pixellated for confidentiality reasons)

Conclusion

Using, these findings, we were able to build iteratively on the prototype, and incorporate the following features:

The patents prototype has now been added to the main site, and is working as a beta. It has already gained interest from various corporate institutions, indicating that the customer base may well grow because of our efforts.

For more information about this project, or to discuss this further, why not get in touch?

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