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June 15, 2003 | "GENE HUNTING" IS often used to describe the work of research geneticists and computational biologists. But available Web applications frequently force researchers to adopt a "browser" strategy. So do they hunt or do they browse?

Innovative technology does not necessarily ensure usability, effectiveness, or user satisfaction. Indeed, 75 percent of all new products fail in the marketplace. Recently a leading publicly traded bio-IT company found itself in just this situation. The company had invested heavily in IT and developed a proprietary research technology for genomic discovery, assuming it would be quickly adopted. Researchers, however, were not convinced.

The staff used databases containing more than 4 million genomic items to facilitate lab work. Although accustomed to working with Web applications and recognizing the genuine research value of the applications, the researchers struggled to adapt to the new interface. The scientists found themselves following link after link without a way to collect and save data until they were so lost that they could not retrace their steps to important information. One scientist's solution was to print out information every time she found something interesting online, which made her feel as though she were "drowning in paper."

Management became increasingly distraught as researchers voiced their frustrations. In technical terms, there was a "cognitive misalignment" between the users and their tool. Such disconnects are not uncommon. Software has an embedded logic, and that logic may be considerably different from the logic of its users.

To increase product adoption, many companies, including Ericsson, Sprint, Sun Micro-systems, Microsoft, and Intel, are turning to ethnography — with its set of integrated methods developed by anthropology to understand culture — to uncover complex cultural phenomena that underlie what people say and do.

Ethnography is the description of the culture of a group, whether an entire society or a subsection of it. Anthropologists and ethnographers use a variety of methods to describe, interpret, and understand a group's shared beliefs and behaviors. More than mere data collection, ethnographic fieldwork provides a contextual examination of products and the meanings that customers attach to them. In so doing, ethnography can validate innovative product and service concepts and provide strategies to improve adoption.

The solution to this company's problems involved visiting the offices of a dozen scientists to systematically observe and record detailed work processes and lab routines. We learned about typical workday activities and frustrations and evaluated computer use to understand research objectives and preferred workflow patterns.

Chasing the 'Dragon' 
User profiling and language analysis revealed linguistic patterns reflecting the researchers' cognitive problem-solving strategies. Most of the scientists felt that their personal research workflow strategies were key to discovery but impeded by the software's conventional interfaces. They talked about "going out there" and "finding" interesting information, then "bringing it back home" for sorting, language that revealed a distinct model of places, navigation, and actions. We call this workflow "hunting and gathering" because of the concentric movement (go and come back), spatial logic (here-there), item collection, and interpretation (gathering, then sorting and analysis).

Comparing this workflow to the flow of conventional Web-browsing interactions showed a mismatch between how the scientists conducted research and what work the software supported. The software design created barriers to efficient use. Researchers complained that they were "getting lost" or felt "trapped in a maze." We call this experience "dungeons and dragons." The existing software was characterized by ambiguous places linked by paths with no explicit beginning or end, and no means for collection.

Understanding the preferred workflow helped us to design a Web site prototype to reflect the typical search-and-collect, hunter-gatherer research mode. This involved integrating the scientists' problem-solving (cognitive) rules into the software, and revamping everything from site navigation and information architecture to interaction protocols and visual design. The end result was more intuitive, more logically consistent with research goals and strategies. When the new Web design was presented to company staffers, one scientist exclaimed, "We are hunters — you got that right!" and the audience burst into applause.

The redesign created a new way to structure Web-based research, and company scientists have been using the revised technology with positive results. Sales to external companies went up considerably once the changes were made.

Clearly, the success of a software product hinges on how well the underlying benefits are communicated to users through the interface. Usability testing, though essential, is limited in its ability to promote product success because it cannot identify implicit user needs — those hidden values and beliefs that drive usage. Users themselves are often unaware of or unable to articulate them. Finding and communicating insights into the users' culture can result in improved product performance, user satisfaction, and, ultimately, improved adoption.

Drawing Conclusions 

The researchers' natural "hunting and gathering" workflow pattern, with its concentric movement, spatial logic, and data collection, conflicts with the more ambiguous "dungeons and dragons" model used by the company's Web application.

Carol Isaacson Barash and Susan Squires employ cultural insights in helping companies create and evaluate their products and services. They can be reached at (Genetics, Ethics & Policy Consulting) and at (Tactics LLC), respectively.

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.