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Design for Scientists: Tips to Improve Science Communications

Majka, Dan 11/21/2011

About five years ago, I stumbled across a book on software development called Getting Real, written by the company 37signals. 37signals are known for the extreme customer-centered focus of their products. They create easy-to-use software that people love. As I was flipping through their book, I came across a chapter about designing user interfaces which stated that you should always design the interface first, before you started programming. They stated, “The interface is your product. What people see is what you're selling.”

This concept was a game changer for me. I began to wonder what could happen if we at the Conservancy put more consideration into the interfaces we create — things such as tools, reports, websites, graphs and presentations. It seemed every scientist I knew would spend 99% of their time collecting and analyzing data, and then quickly throw together their report or presentation at the last minute. And what was the result? A whole lot of barely usable tools, boring presentations, and impenetrable websites and reports.

If you attended the session at the TNC All-Science conference by Bob Lalasz and Evan Girvetz on science communication, you know that difficulties can arise when science, policy and marketing get in the ring together. The great thing about design is that it's a non-controversial way to greatly improve the effectiveness of your science. Nobody is ever going to argue that your graph should be more cluttered or your report more difficult to read.

Can design really make that much of an impact? Take a look around. Design can — and often does — make the difference between a raging success and a miserable failure. The recent redesign of the nature.org homepage resulted in a 229% increase in email signups. A small fly etched into Amsterdam airport urinals resulted in 80% less spillage. How often have you heard others rave about their iPhone or iPad? Can you say the same for PeopleSoft?

Ultimately, everything around us is designed, and we have the choice to design products that work for our audience or against them. Tara Schnaible and I gave out the following as a pamphlet with our presentation at the All-Science conference, and hope it will be a useful starting point for thinking about how to design more effective products for your audience.

Design For Scientists: Simple tips to improve science communication.