Combining six tools into a drug researcher product experience

Mental Model Mis-match

Project Duration:

10 Months

My Role:

UX Lead then Senior UX Design Manager.

Target User:

Drug R&D Microbiologist

Project Type:


Product Team:

2 Product Owners
1 Development Manager
20 Developers
5 Data Scienctist & AI Devs

Design Team:

1 UX Design Lead
1 Visual Designer
1 UX Researcher


What happens when a product meant for microbiologists is developed by developers and data scientists? I was about to find out when I joined the Watson for Drug Discovery team. The team had been developing for 21 months without a designer or user feedback.

Legacy UI showing paginated represenations that increased cognitive load.

Before: The Entity Explorer experience forced users to set complex filters, remember results across many sets of prioritized entities,and guess at the names of entities from 5 letters presented to the user.

After learning just enough about the user and the problems I hypothesized that the soon to be released software was not usable by the intended users. Usability testing confirmed that users were unable to use the tools on their own.

What do we do now? I worked with the product manager and he decided to soft launch until the critical and sever issues could be addressed.

Before: An individual article was also difficult to work with, labels were hidden, there were no controls to reduce noise, and the colors were inaccessible.

Before: This evidence navigation automatically spun in 3D to show the relationships between articles and entities. The article buttons were 4 pixels targets and impossible to click on.

Step 1:

Plan the Plan

To keep us on schedule, I drafted an 8 week project plan that would result in a Vision Prototype. Each 2 week sprint we would collaborate across the product team and get end user feedback so that we knew we what we were defining was useful for users and viable in market.

Step 2:

Understanding and Empathizing with Microbiologist

We shared the research insights with the entire product team to help everyone understand and empathize with the user. The research data was also our springboard into the next phase, defining the expected user outcomes for the public release.

User Research: We completed product testing, user
observation and interviews to better understand the domain
and microbiologist in universities and industry.

Synthesizing Data:The data from these interviews, observations and product testing was synthesized and organized to form a user’s mental model.

Step 3:

Radically Collaborating to Define the Product Release

The design team facilitated a two-day cross-functional Design Thinking Workshop. An unspoken benefit of workshops is the relationship building that enables the team to radically collaborate moving forward. The workshop produced three expected user outcome statements, technical backlog, empathy maps, and as-is journey maps. These artifacts were used by the design team to generate a vision storyboard, journey maps and persona.

Empathy Maps: During the workshop the teams identified and aligned to the users biggest pain points.

Radical Collaboration: The team came together to define the product release by building empathy for the user and reflecting it on empathy maps, and journey maps. Finally we ideated lots of solutions to solve pain points.

Step 4:

Storytelling to Better Empathize with the User

Feedback from the team and subject matter experts ensured that the story reflected a real-world scenario. Potential buyers validated that our direction and scope were correct. Now that we had a solid skeleton for the users workflow we jumped into sketching and wireframes, keeping the artifacts light but consistent. These happy paths sketches were just enough to get user feedback.

As we increased the fidelity of the wireframes, we continued to incorporate user and subject matter expert feedback in each iteration. With enough fidelity and happy path workflows defined the development team was starting to get a sense for the size of the changes. That is a clear indication that we were ready to present to the executive team for project funding. We took them on the user's journey by telling them the story of Debby, one of our microbiologist persona.

As-Is Storyboard: Microbiologists feel the pressure to continually read report after report.

As-Is Storyboard: Saving Debby time by providing her with a prioritized list.

To-Be Storyboard: Debby wanted a way to see all of Watson’s evidence in one place.

To-Be Storyboard: Saving Debby time by providing her with a prioritized list.

Step 5:

Shifting into Design Delivery

After 10 weeks of understanding, definition and design iteration the team had a product vision, funding approval, a release plan, and backlog. We were ready to shift into delivery mode.

Each sprint, the design team refined the product design, tested with users and reviewed with development before handing off high fidelity wireframes and visual designs. A month into the delivery I was promoted to Senior Design Manager for Watson Health Life Sciences, I handed things over to the team Lead UX Designer who took the product to release while I cheered and coached from the sidelines!

Sketch: Users wanted a single place to see everything about an entity and its relationships. This concept turned that abstract into concrete conversation.

Sketch: Users needed a simplified was to see the Relationship Network for we experimented with placing optional setting in an advanced settings drawer.

Wireframe: As the fidelity of representations increased we had to address
not just the organized information but also drilling into the list of documents
that supported the information.

Wireframe: Color accessibility and controls were added to give the user flexibility to reduce noise.

Wireframe: Expanding the Network Relationship to show how entities were related helped biologist have more context about the relationship.


The day the product was publicly released the sales team closed its first multiple million dollar sale.

But the ultimate outcome is watching microbiologists use the product without help to discover and prioritize genes for lab testing. Some of these genes may have never been considered by microbiologists without the use of this product. I describe this product as the match that lights the rocket to curing nasty diseases like cancer, Parkinson’s or MS.

Production Software: Giving the micro-biologist a single place to see everything meant surfacing data from many systems.

Production Software: The improvements to the Explore Network included placing less frequent options in an advanced menu and improving the controls on the network diagram.