This will be an ongoing series of posts about my final project as a result of multiple requests from fellow friends and colleagues asking me to talk about the design process and the topic of data visualization in general. This post is about the journey that let me to discover the world of bioinformatics and finally the project, but it does not cover technical aspects of the it. That will be reserved for the following parts.
First of all, I would like to state that I'm certainly not an expert in either the field of data visualization or the field of bioinformatics/biochemistry. However, this project has given a new (lovely) unexpected turn to my career and I would like to keep exploring this area of my profession for quite some time.
So, how did I come up with this project in the first place? Going back a year I was working on my final courses at the university and trying to come up with a solid idea to develop with my professor PhD. Franklin Hernández-Castro. At that point I was very interested in augmented reality and human-machine interaction and I had the chance to experiment with the Emotiv, a portable EEG with scripting capabilities that would allow (in theory) to control a big number of physical and digital elements. At the time I was also preparing for my abroad semester at FH Vorarlberg in Austria and the week prior to my departure I met PhD. Allan Orozco, founder of the M.Sc. in Bioinformatics at UCR. He started to show me some examples of what I like the call the "internet of bio", i.e., the platforms, tools and databases used for and by scientists, bioinformatics, researchers and other professionals in the field of biology, biotechnology and the like.
I can state with a lot of confidence that the internet of bio is in desperate need of UI, UX, data visualization and overall design professionals; you can look at examples in PDB, Ensembl and EBI, just to name a few. This immediately caught my eye and I started to think of a 3D visualizer for protein structures using augmented reality and the aforementioned Emotiv EEG. It wasn't until I was in Austria however that I became immersed in the rich library of the university and that I began to get extremely interested in the field of Information Visualization. At this point I knew that any project that I wanted to do with the ridiculous constraint of four months of time would require inhuman speed or a second set of hands, and thus I asked my trusted friend and colleague Verónica Alfaro to join me for the project. Spoiler alert: she agreed.
Back in Costa Rica, I (we) still did not have a concrete idea of what we wanted to do and we were extremely ignorant: not only were we dealing with data we didn't know the first thing about (DNA, RNA and proteins) but we were also not particularly versed in data visualization. This situation however was in my opinion the key to the success of the project and the secret weapon of the designer: we approached the problem with extreme naivety and thought of possibilities that other scientist and experts could have probably never dreamed of.
There was an intense first stage of research and interviews and this was extremely enjoyable for me. I believe I'm a researcher at heart and I found myself at the same time learning about biology and biochemistry, about data visualization techniques and theories and about the needs and hopes of a variety of professionals and experts. It was at TEC where the a fellow Bioinformatic showed us the Ensembl database for the first time, which later became the foundation of our project.
At this point we began evaluating different project ideas, mind you we had already burned one month of the project. It took us about seven different approaches to finally come up with a project that was not a merely descriptive visualization but a real research tool with a lot of potential and insight-revealing capabilities. This is probably the hardest part of development for any data visualization project because it forces designers to think as the final user and theorize about the findings that an alternative structure of information could provide.
So, this is briefly how we came up with the project. We never imagined at that point that it would grow so much and take us where we are today, but tracing back our steps is a good way to know what we did right and what we should work on. On a final note, I promise the next parts will be more interesting and technical.