Interaction Design

for Life Sciences at Autodesk R&D

2013 | San Francisco, CA

challenges & approach

Autodesk wants to own 10% of the life sciences software industry. To do so, it must: (1) Secure intellectual property in a space valued at over $3T; and (2) leverage the power of Maya's 3D engine, resized to fit into web browsers, a platform with wide reach.

Design challenge #1: Create interactions thatare "easy to adopt and difficult to master" — a balancing act familiarfor those with game development experience. This challenge demands the development of new interaction models that present mixes of familiar 2D "flat" screen user interfaces, like windows and buttons, as well as a soft introduction to 3D navigation elements such as a the view cube.

Users also need workflows that "make sense" and feel good for a persona familiar with manipulating molecules in the real world and on real lab benches. To succeed, we had to embrace new knowledge and understanding of the hard sciences involved, then add a healthy dose of contextual interviews and inquiry to learn more.


interaction design goals

Users in our community are initially unfamiliar and uncomfortable with navigating the 3D world; Therefore, we need "newbie handholding" to bridge the cognitive gap between using a touchpad on a flat screen, for example, and a pinch interaction that also rotates the camera or view in a 3D scene.

core workflow > patent artifacts

When we learned the current state of biovisualization presentations at conferences, we realized the core value of our solution is in the presentation of modelcular events in 3D. Using known interactions in science, we designed a workflow that leads the user step-by-step through a process that mirrors real life applications.

Here, a cell wall interacts with a molecule, depending on traits and paths users specify. Users can play the sequence of events they configure. The steps are combined into one smooth animation, demonstrating the dance that leads to the gateway opening. (U.S. Patented)

building blocks

One of the interaction design systems I created is a way for users to combine and break apart 3D things and code. The challenge lies in the chicken or egg first conundrum. Building blocks represent a generic container and connector that is relatable for users. Blocks can be nested and contain 3D content and/or code. Early concepts were sketched by hand and iterated upon daily. The design is based on a symbol/instance system with limited inheritance, like the Flash/ActionScript framework.

building blocks

We explored use cases using building blocks that align with common patterns in life science labs today. For example, combining molecules to form others. We used the process of the formation of molecules like aspirin to tell user stories. This is an example of a storyboard developed in partnership with our users, involving building blocks and other elements.

building blocks

I invented and used a specific format of artifact needed to describe 3 elements of a process at all once: (1) The workflow [chart]; (2) the technical specifications; and (3) a visual mini-storyboard. This is an example of the format, describing how users program objects in a scene to give them certain behaviors with the visual design implementation.

technology transfer

The Molecule Viewer for Gear VR is in beta testing with users at Autodesk Labs in Toronto, Canada as a spin-off design, created by Merry Wang.

further explorations

Given additional time to develop on top of the patented design and prototyping, I would explore: