ELN design – Simplicity is hard

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”—Leonardo Da Vinci

A good Electronic Lab Notebook takes careful design; the foundation of this is what does, and more importantly what it doesn’t do. This is really hard, as evidenced by the complexity that can creep in to products as you add feature after feature. Apple’s success is built upon design and the fact that better-resourced competitors can’t keep up shows just how difficult it is to get design into your corporate DNA.

I’ve always felt that ELNs are particularly susceptible to “Kitchen-sink” tendencies; the term is so badly defined, and the potential use cases so broad that you can easily find yourself needing to add more and more functions until you end up with an unholy mess which then:

  • Requires a lot of consulting to customise the application to fit the needs of any group of scientists
  • Is complex to master, requiring quite extensive training time

In PatentSafe we’ve taken a different approach – less is more. Our aim is to allow our users to use any application as part of the ELN experience, and we’ve come up with a handful of basic concepts which can be mastered in lass than 15 minutes and allow the user to use all their existing applications and work processes unchanged.

I’d to claim this is as a result of an amazing design philosophy but in truth it is a product of where we started. Most ELN companies started either in big Pharma (or were swiftly pointed in that direction by their VCs). Amphora in contrast started out working with Kodak and then into companies such as DuPont, PPG and J&J – doing really very large deployments (100’s to 1,000’s of users). When you’re rolling out that many seats especially into the very diverse research environments of chemical companies, you have to keep things ruthlessly streamlined and build on what’s there, because it is just physically impossible to customise the ELN for each group.

When we started to work with Biotechs this experience really paid off:

  • Biotechs don’t have the resources to pay for a long consulting engagement and lots of software
  • Biotechs will often change their entire business over a period of years; if their ELN was overly customised it would be hard to prevent it becoming a business-threatening impediment to change

It is interesting that Biotechs really have a lot more in common with diverse Chemical companies when looked at this way; most people seem to think Biotech is just little Pharma, but nothing could be further from the case when you are deploying IT.

Less-is-more is also helping us as we move into additional devices such as the iPad. PatentSafe is device-, application-, and discipline-agnostic, so the iPad just fits right in.

When we first started out I was always worried that we would need to add a lot more functionality to the core product to meet market demand. It turns out that resisting this was one of the best decisions we made as a company – we now have a product that can be dropped in almost anywhere and used immediately, which is dramatically different from the alternatives (so much so that people often think we’re lying when we say no consulting and 15 minute training time!).

I can’t help but feel that our market-leading presence is down to what we decide not to do, instead choosing to work with what’s out there. I’d like to think that what we’ve done is technically excellent, and PatentSafe has a number of very powerful features. But it is the features we chose not to implement which make PatentSafe so quick and easy to use, and able to stand the test of time as our customers’ business change.

(this post was inspired by “Simplicity isn’t that Simple” on 52 Weeks of UX blog.

2 Replies to “ELN design – Simplicity is hard”

  1. Interesting take on “less is more,” and one that I agree with on many points. The going rate for pictures being about 1,000 words, it might help drive home the point by adding a few screenshots.

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