Software Design for the Life Science Industry

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This article is for: Startup founders that are designing a software product for the life science industry and have sourced a technical development team

Written by: Alex Senson, Ashley Burton, Tyler Boulanger

Designing a successful software product for any industry or type of customer can be a difficult task. The design process of any software product includes user research and multiple iterations of prototyping to ensure the product’s design works for the customer and user. When a startup is designing a software product for the life science industry the process is complicated even further due to industry-specific requirements, regulations and considerations.

In this article, we will outline the importance of utilizing User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design elements during the development of a life science software product. Additionally, we will explain the key design principles that should be used during this process.

This article is for startup founders, specifically non-technical founders, who plan on developing a software product for the life science industry. Your startup may have a development team and it is important for you to understand them when they are talking about designing a software product for the life science industry specifically. Alternatively, your startup may out-source or sub-contact the work so you need to be able to communicate effectively with the hired development team to ensure life science specific software requirements are being achieved.

Use this resource to learn more about the different design principles that need to be taken into consideration during the development of a life science software product. Also learn how to design a software product to include some emerging trends in the field of life science, and be designed for all human factors. Ultimately, the goal is that through learning about designing for the life science field specifically, your startup will be able to create a stellar software product that is usable, useful, and reliable to the user.

Main topics to be covered:

Altitude Accelerator Case Studies:

  • Case study: Designing a Life Science Software Product by 3Terra

Designing for the Life Science Industry – Introduction

Key Takeaway: Startups not only need to focus on the cutting edge technology being introduced to its users, but also the users themselves. Without designing a software product with the users and the intended workflow in mind, the software will fail to enter the market successfully. To ensure successful adoption of the product, startups need to design their product with the life science industry in mind.

User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design elements, designing for the user’s experience and interactions with the software product’s interface, respectively, are key considerations in most industries. In Life Sciences however, these disciplines have yet to realize their full potential as their importance is amplified.

Without utilizing these design elements, many cutting edge life science software products are falling flat. Companies are hiring scientists to solve a complex problem; however, they are providing them with a software product that is hard to use, slow, and unattractive. It is like inviting the most famous pop star to play in a huge arena and not providing amplifiers. Many times scientists solving complex problems forget they need to engineer UX/UI elements in an almost over-simplified and elegant way.

The best companies in the world want scientists, and other members of the life science industry to have the most efficient, engaging means to perform their work. Most of the products available to them, however, are subpar. By learning about how to design a software product efficiently and effectively for the life science industry, your startup will be ahead of the game in regards to user adoption.

Importance of Design Elements within Life Science Software

Key Takeaway: Design elements should be used to create life science software to improve the product’s rate of adoption. Designing a product to ensure usability will allow personnel within the life science industry to focus on their work, instead of struggling with a software product. This is increasingly important since the understanding of human/software interaction is changing and becoming a core focus of software development

Understanding design element research is important within the field of life science software. User adoption problems are often the result of a poorly designed software product.

The implementation of design research, specifically focused on the user, results in a variety of benefits. It results in increased user focus on their work since they do not have to struggle with software usability issues. Additionally, it allows tools to meet their full potential by being more efficient, compelling, and understandable.

The way that humans are interacting with computers is different now. There is a push towards two-way communication where the individual makes suggestions and the computer can process and return them while making suggestions as well. This is different compared to historical examples where the computer just provided users with the result they wanted.

Key Design Principles that should be Implemented

Key Takeaway: Startups need to understand and focus on the priority of information that the users will be presented with. By creating software products that visualize this priority well, and can be customized based on the user’s workflow. Startups need to remember to conduct user research and produce many iterations of the proposed software product to ensure it is created with the user in mind.

Software products for the life science industry require the implementation of several key design principles to ensure that users introduce it to their workflow. These principles should be implemented effectively during the design process to create a software product that solves a pain point within the user’s workflow, all while not creating another point of frustration.

Transparency in Information Analysis

The main purpose of developing a life science software product is to automate some part of the user’s workflow through the introduction of algorithms to ease their work burden. Many startups, however, trend to hide the algorithm away from its users in a black box. By hiding the algorithm away, many startups lose potential users because if people cannot review and understand how the software’s algorithm works they are unlikely to trust it.

Startups should break open this black box and allow users to compare the software’s algorithm mechanism to their own understanding of the process. This is best done by providing users an easy to understand visual that can describe the algorithm’s functionality without revealing much Intellectual Property (IP). Startups can also include interactive steps to increase their ease of understanding, but also make it customizable. This increases the utility and trustworthiness of the tool.

Information Hierarchy

One key design principle for life science software is understanding the priority of information of users. Startups need to understand what data they want to compare and consume, and in what order. This principle is key to prevent any user confusion during user adoption.

Based on this knowledge, the software’s information can be prioritized using colour, size, and the order of different information types. Startups can also customize their software product so that different users have different options about what they need to see. This allows the user to have a perceived sense of control over the system’s functionality.

Flexible Workflows

The interfaces that a startup creates for their software product needs to support a streamlined completion of routine tasks as well as facilitating detours for more in-depth data exploration. This ensures that the life science software product created is valuable to its users.

This is complicated, however, since these workflows can include multiple steps, protocols can vary from one lab to another, and best practices within the industry constantly evolve. The best way to get around this issue is to treat each analytical feature modularly, and suggest the popular next steps from another module to your users. Alternatively, startups can create a sandpit style of software where there is no enforced workflow in favour of maximizing flexibility. This, however, can create a barrier to newcomers if the interface is too overwhelming.

To design these flexible workflows, startups need to understand what users want to accomplish, its context, and their limitations to design workflows that are optimal. This means that a lot of prototyping and testing based on use cases are required.

Encouraging Exploration of Results

Scientific information inherently leads itself to visualization in order to allow users to better understand the results. This is because is research data is multidimensional and vast in size. It is, however, challenging to capture all the significant information into a single visualization format.

It is important as a result to give users the opportunity to view their data from a variety of different perspectives and visualization techniques. These different visualization methods allow a software product’s users to find patterns, pull insights out of raw data, and generate new hypotheses. Startups need to be aware of, and communicate to its users, the strengths and weaknesses of each visualization strategy.

Design-led Research

User research is an essential step of startups producing a good software product. This is because without this research, it becomes easy to over-engineer functionality, or build confusing user experiences and interfaces.

User research is especially important for life science software where its functionality is often complex. The field of life science software also has fewer instances of known design patterns that are available for startups to reliably follow.

To connect user research and the software’s functionality together, it is best to design prototypes as early as possible to capture a startup’s best understanding of user interactions, workflows, information hierarchies, and data visualizations. Prototypes can be a clickable mock-up, diagram of a workflow, or a screen shot of a proposed interface, anything that clearly indicates the concept or proposal you want to test with users. These prototypes should be used in research interviews to test ideas and assumptions with user and expert personalities.

Tips for Designing Effective Software for the Life Science Industry

Key Takeaway: Startups need to identify their users early on in the process and conduct compressive user research ensure the software product is designed effectively. In addition to the users, startups need to understand any and all barriers within the industry, workflows, and interactions between users to create a fully functional software product for the life science community.

The following are some of the top tips for designing effective software products for the life science industry:

  • Identify your product’s users at the very onset and study them completing the task you are hoping your software product will replace
  • Conceptualize and internalize user’s behaviour, for example; temperament, goals, needs, existing challenges, and more to better understand the user
  • Identify and prioritize task workflows based on its frequency of use, relative importance, uniqueness, existing issues, and business criticality
  • Adopt a user-involved process to conceptualize the design of the software product, as well as for later validation and testing work
  • Keep up to date on any emerging technologies to incorporate into your software product. Startups need to be able to quickly adapt to changing market conditions, with agile software teams, to have a competitive advantage
  • Utilize UX and UI designers who do not have scientific training. This allows the designers to ask questions without being restricted to the same thought patterns are the scientists. They do need to have an enthusiasm for science, however, to be able to tweak the standard design approaches to accommodate the complexity that the data present within the software.

Designing a software product for the life science industry requires designers to understand the barriers within the industry, data and workflows, as well as collaboration difficulties experienced. Startups should utilize the above mentioned tips to ensure that the design process results in a software product that is usable by the life science industry.

Altitude Accelerator Case Study: Designing a Life Science Software Product Yourself – 3Terra

CaseStudy3Terra 1024x201, Altitude Accelerator

When creating licensed life science software, primarily focused on administration, 3terra conducted user research to ensure that their proposed software product would work. The team talked to hospital administrators, directors, and CEOs to identify common issues that they all experienced. 3terra focused on trying to identify the problems that keep them up at night.

3terra was founded with a team that was primarily made up of individuals with backgrounds in the life science industry. Due to this experience, they were able to understand the difference between what the hospital staff want and what they will pay for. This requires lots of detailed conversations to ensure that the software product being created solves their need while remaining in budget.

The 3terra team consists individuals who have a background in UX and UI so they were able to conduct this level of design work on their own. If they did not have this UX and UI experience, they would have had to hire experts to do it for them. These resources, however, were instead directed towards developing the required features for their software products.

By using UX and UI design principles, 3terra was able to better market their software products through word-of-mouth advertising. This is important since hospital executives all know each other and go to the same events. If one group had a poor experience with the software product, for example usability issues, 3terra would lose internal champions and advocates and they would struggle to enter the market.

Overall, 3terra focused on the design process during the development of their life science software products to ensure that their products were able to enter the difficult hospital market. During each future iteration of the product UX and UI design will be revisited to ensure that 3terra remains focused on the design of their software products.

Key Takeaway: Startups need to remain up to date on any emerging technology trends that could impact the design of their software product. Users are beginning to expect certain technologies (for example, predicative analytics, enhanced security, personalized interfaces, and mobile solutions) and if a software product does not deliver on them they will find another that does.

Like with any industry, as new technology emerges and the overall culture of the field changes, the trends that shape the industry are altered as well. Startups who are hoping to break into the industry of life science software development need to follow these trends, and remain ahead of them to ensure their success. The following are some key life science software design trends that startups should be aware of:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming smarter —algorithms and software are being used to help doctors make more accurate diagnoses and treatment recommendations for their patients leading to improved workplace efficiency
  • Predictive analytics leading to productive lives — life science software should provide users with more valuable and insightful data during the decision making process. This is done to reduce costs, provide personalize medical coverage and match interventions to individuals, and access historical data to improve outcomes
  • Enhanced security and authentication — threats to data privacy are becoming the biggest concern of both patients and companies. As a result, software products need to incorporate security with authentication (for example; fingerprint, voice, or facial recognition) right into the software’s design so it is seamless and comprehensive
  • Smart personalized user interfaces — the healthcare industry requires personalization to tailor the user experience. This ensures that patients and non-healthcare personal are not overwhelmed with using the product, for example only providing users with the specific information that they require from a large medical document
  • Mobile settings call for mobile solutions — there is an increase in mobile applications that allow for field testing, and remote patient monitoring
  • Simplicity is always better — a simple software product reduces the time required to complete tasks, and allows for lower skilled people to use the product, and less training is required to become proficient
  • More actionable and informative visualizations — users usually prefer to only see useful, visual insights of the analyzed data. As a result software products are moving away from showing its users all the raw data analyzed unless requested by the user

By incorporating these trends in your software product, startups will be able to stay ahead of changing market conditions. If startups are unable to, they will most likely lost return on investment capital, revenue, profitability, and eventually market share.

Human Factors Engineering

Key Takeaway: Startups not only need to focus on the technical aspect of development, but also on how they should be designed for human use. When designing a software product, startups need to focus on accessibility, as well as multitasking as most users will need to use your software product within an existing complex workflow.

Human factors engineering, or human engineering, is the science of dealing with the application of information on the physical and psychological characteristics to the design of devices and systems for human use. This human element, however, is usually forgotten during software engineering. Developers instead focus just on the technical aspect of development and ignore the human side.

The population is becoming very diverse so accessibility during software development is an integral part of the design and planning process. The success of a software product is measured based on how accessible a program is to the greater public during specific situations. That ensures that all individuals with permanent or temporary disabilities or diminished capabilities are able to use the software for it’s intended purpose. However, this doesn’t only relate to disabilities – but more about human nature and behaviour in general.

Another unique human factor is the need to deal with tasks in parallel, which is especially prevalent in the life science industry. Startups therefore need to design the software so multiple tabs, tasks, and programs can be open at once. Accessibility characteristics may also require multiple layers of the platform to run on top of each other to be fully effective. This means that startups not only have to design their product in isolation, but also while thinking about the common programs that would be running alongside it during the user’s workflow.

Tools and Techniques Available to Address Human Factors

Key Takeaway: Usability testing and prototyping is essential to ensure that the designed software product is fully functional and practical under a user’s real world workflow. Startups should also focus their attention on ensuring their software product redirects and assists users when they are disrupting the workflow.

There are a number of tools and techniques that can be used by software developers to ensure that product being created addresses these human factors. Startups who implement these tools and techniques during the design process are more likely to create a software product that is customized to their user’s needs. The following are some of the tools and techniques that should be used by startups to ensure that the human factors are addressed during the design process of software for the life sciences industry:

  • Conduct through usability testing to test the designed software under real world conditions. This will allow users to provide feedback and give developers a change to identify potential problems and unintended consequences of the new technology. User testing can also be used to identify workarounds within the system, such as the ability to bypass policies or safety procedures, indicating that the software was flawed or poorly designed.
  • Forcing functions, a design aspect that prevents an unintended action from being performed out of order, can be added to ensure that the user following the designed workflow to prevent any usability errors.
  • Standardization of the software product should be implemented to increase reliability, improve the flow of information, and minimize cross-training needs. This allows startups to develop a clear step-by-step focused software that ensures that all steps are performed in the correct order and completed in their entirety.
  • Startups need to focus their attention on the detection and mitigation of unexpected events before they worsen, also called improving their resiliency efforts. This is a dynamic method of risk management, where organizations can anticipate and adapt to changing conditions and recover from any anomalies within the system. Starts should implement quick prompts when someone goes wrong, and suggest troubleshooting methods on screen to allow the user to address the problem quickly and efficiently.

Startups can incorporate the above mentioned tools and techniques to further improve the design process of their software product for the life science industry. By designing the product early on with the user’s workflow and needs in mind, startups will be able to enter the market stronger.

Regulations in Place Specifically Regarding Human Factors Engineering

Key Takeaway: Startups need to follow some key regulations to ensure that their software products focus on human factor engineering. These regulations focus on different types of user interfaces, as well as the display requirements to ensure that the software fulfills any ergonomic requirements.

There are regulations in place to ensure that human factors engineering is adhered to during the life science software development process.  These regulations are in place to ensure that software products are designed to allow for increased usability, while promoting increased effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction from people who have a wide range of capabilities and preferences.

Some of the common standards that are followed during software development to ensure that human factor engineering is considered during development are:

  • ISO 9241-10: ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals — pt. 10: dialogue principles
  • ISO 13407: human-centered design processes for interactive systems
  • HFES 200.3: human factors engineering of software user interfaces —interaction techniques
  • HFES 200.4: human factors engineering of software user interfaces —interactive voice response and telephony
  • HFES 200.5: human factors engineering of software user interfaces —visual presentation and use of colour

These regulations ensure that human factors engineering is considered by startups who are designing a software product for the life science industry. These regulations need to be followed to ensure that all the human factors involved in designing a successful software product are addressed prior to engineering a product that is unusable by the users.


The life science and healthcare industry is one of the fastest growing, and most critical industries in the world. We are currently living in an ear of rapid change and innovation in life science from wearable health sensors, diagnostic devices, and information delivery.

Design is an important aspect in helping make sure these tools meet their potential and anticipated users’ needs. Implementing design decisions, focused specifically on the life science industry, allows the created software to be more efficient, compelling, and understandable to its users.

Startups should take the time to fully implement a design protocol to ensure that UX and UI design elements, as well as through usability testing is conducted during the development process. The inclusion of these details will ensure that the product created is designed for the user in mind, whether they are a technical or non-technical life science individual.

Lessons Learned

Congratulations! You have now learned about designing a software product for the life science industry. After reading this article you should have learned the following key concepts:

  • Humans are interacting with computers and technology differently now, and as a result any software product produced needs to focus on user interaction to ensure successful adoption.
  • Let users see and understand the majority of the algorithm that is being used to automate part of their workflow. By letting them see and understand it, users will be more likely to trust your software product.
  • Do not create a workflow within your software product that is concrete. Allow the workflow to be flexible so that users can adapt their own existing protocols to the software product.
  • Prototype, prototype, prototype. The more chances your software product has for user testing and feedback the better.
  • Hiring UX and UI designers that do not have scientific training can be beneficial as they are not restricted to the same thought process as the users. This will allow you to create unique solutions that the users may not have been able to on their own.
  • Startups need to remain on top of all relevant emerging technologies to ensure that their software product is designed with all the features and technologies that users have come to expect.
  • Ensure that the software product being designed not only focuses on the technology side of the equation, but also the users to ensure that accessibility, and usability are the focus of the design process.
  • Study human factors engineering concepts and ensure the product aligns with various human factors which are significant in your particular situation

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