Streamlining Drug Development Through UX


Streamlining Drug Development Through UX

Continuous Discovery

In the highly regulated, rigorous and mature business of pharmaceuticals, Erin created the first-ever design team to establish a user-centered design culture.
In this session, Erin will talk through the journey of the design team at Charles River Laboratories they rapidly built and released their MVP in conjunction with building their design systems, through:

  • Redesigning their internal & client facing platforms and democratising UX;
  • The biweekly research over-the-shoulders her team conducts with the overall product team;
  • How they team were able to scale this and;
  • Any future improvements she foresees.
Erin Howard

Erin Howard, Executive Director, Product and Design,Charles River Laboratories

Hey everyone, it's nice to virtually see you all. I'm excited to be here today. I wanted to say thank you, first of all to the UXDX team and the organizers for inviting me to talk to you and tell our story of how Charles River design team is helping to streamline drug development. I'm Erin Howard. I joined Charles River about a year ago. I lead the product service and experience design team focused on our digital transformation. My team and I explore the challenges and opportunities the Charles River faces with a Human-Centered Design Thinking point of view, and I'm excited to share our story of the growth and evolution of design at Charles River.
First, let me just tell you a quick note about Charles River. So Charles River is an early-stage contract research organization, otherwise known as a CRO. We with a wide range of clients, but most notably support the aspects of the drug development process. Over the past three years, we've worked on more than 80% of the drugs approved by the FDA and tested most of the COVID-19 vaccines that have helped us move forward in this global pandemic.
At Charles River, our purpose is clear and our passion is strong, "Together, we create healthier lives". This statement is one by which everyone at Charles River lives and works every day. But "together" is the word that my team is heavily focused on. COVID-19 has accelerated the need for a digital experience for our customers, and it's through our evolution and understanding of our customers that we've been able to bring that to market.
A digital strategy is no longer 'a nice to have' for Charles River. It's a necessity. And it's through this work grounded in design thinking that we will fundamentally change the way our clients interact with us, and the way we interact with each other across the future of Charles River.
So who is design at Charles River? Well, when I joined, Charles River design was in its infancy. We've grown tremendously in the past year. And I'd love to just take you through some of the ways that UX and design thinking has impacted our business.
But first, let me just take you to the beginning. We started with two women and an MVP. When I joined Charles River at the end of March, a little over a year ago, there was one designer, a fabulous designer named Nikki working on our very first customer-facing product. The delivery team was moving fast towards our first MVP, and our first product release was set for June, just two months after I started. We had a huge backlog of work, we were already stacked up for a design team that didn't even exist.
So what did I do? Well, first, I went and hired four awesome designers straight away, and we got to work. And across those first few months, we were definitely just treading water, barely keeping our heads above and juggling a lot. I looked back on this phase, and I wanted to articulate kind of where we began through this common methodology of the stages of the UX maturity. Nielsen Norman put this out. I'm sure many of you are familiar with it. And when I joined a little over a year ago, I believe that Charles River was somewhere between one and two absent and limited. We were new, we were undiscovered, and potentially a little bit aspirational. But you know, because I'm a researcher and a UX person, I wanted to make sure that I was pressure testing my own assumptions. So I asked my team, and they mostly agreed, they put us roughly in the same place.
A few people started a little bit later, a few people started around and I did, putting our range roughly in that same kind of one to two, slightly above two, positioning. In many ways, this was a great place to start, and all in all evidence we were brand new. The design capacity didn't exist to Charles River before 2001, and of course, we were absent or limited. But I truly believe if we will hone into that we were undiscovered, we were aspirational, and we were foundational to the beginning of this transformation.
Charles River is a 75-year-old company, never had design thinking as part of its wheelhouse. It would have been shocked if we'd shown up anywhere else on this scale. Across this first year, we grew and we continued to push her overall maturity, and we began to put a few basics in place. We defined how we work. We work together as a cross-functional team to decide on and achieve desired outcome. We work in a quick and iterative process. We have collaboration and we have joint accountability. We were kind of working this way across last year, but we finally put pen to paper on this towards the end of the year and really defined how we work.
We use this as part of the kickoff so of any new project that comes our way, it helps hold everybody accountable to how we want to achieve. We hope we have SMEs, engineering, and scrum masters across this cross-functional team. We hold everyone to the same sort of how we work standards. We also define our methodology. You know, our method is rooted in design thinking as many methods are, but it goes a little bit beyond that. We include the mobilization and delivery phases as part of our overall method because we don't believe that design just ends that, "Oh, hey, we've created a concept, and now we're ready to deliver on it". We move through these phases fairly quickly, you know, we can do the understanding phase in anywhere from two to four weeks. Sometimes we do it in two to four days if it's a tiny little feature. We move through them methodically, and we have checkpoints along the way that help us ensure that we're following our own method.
This leads us to MVP, everything. We start at the basics, we start at the bottom. But one of the pieces of the MVP sweet spot, if you will, that really hones in for us, is the concept of understanding and thinking about what will truly derive customer impact. We double-click on that. We are in that every day, all day. We are customer-obsessed.
At Charles River, customer obsession means many things. But for our team, it really means involving the customer in the whole lifecycle of the creation process. We include customers in feature prioritization, we ask them to rank and card sort our features based on their desirability, we invite them to co-create with us, and we ask them to design what they see and vision out their future, so that we can really prioritize and understand their needs.
This has a fantastic follow-on effect' the co-creation because it actually eases their adoption and their onboarding since they actually helped us design the product. We test at low, mid, and high fidelity anytime we can. Customer feedback is imperative. The fidelity is not. We include customers in ideation and divergent thinking. Really helps them get a chance to step out of their day-to-day, explore a little bit of their own design thinking, and maybe even bring some of it back to their organization.
And most amazingly, we do most of this through established bi-weekly sessions with customers. So every two weeks, the designers in partnership with their product owners and their delivery teams sit down with three to five customers and do some sort of session with them, whether that's ideation, a prioritization, testing, a co-creation. They define what they need from that sprint, they use that time effectively, and that helps to infuse the customer needs back into the product backlog, and help make strategic decisions about where features will go in the future. I'd love to show you a quick example.
So as you can see, this has been sort of anonymized, and you know, obviously, we don't have blue happy faces. But this is an example of a team member of mine talking directly to a customer, through Microsoft Teams, where we're showing them a prototype. Now this doesn't look like your traditional prototype. This is made in Power BI.
We've abandoned making design prototypes through sketches or Figma, for data artifacts, because it's too hard to maintain. We couldn't work on the fly, we couldn't do the data polls that the customers were asking us to do. So we worked with a fabulous data team, and we built a Power BI prototype. And we work at this very low fidelity level to help understand how customers read this data, how they interact with it, what kind of trends they are trying to see, and what helps them make decisions. And this has been really critical for us in pushing our data product. But it's also been an opportunity for us to learn a little bit more about science. By talking to them without the visuals of the high fidelity mockup, we've been able to really route ourselves in understanding the foundational aspects of the data.
You know, for the most part, customers love these sessions. They feel committed to the product. They're helping us learn, they're learning from us, and we've really been able to as a design team, and a set of designers engage in this science and learn more about what our customers are trying to figure out about drug discovery. It's been powerful. The designers feel empowered coming out of these sessions that they can really focus on the customer needs, bring that to their product owners as part of their backlog and iteration planning discussions, helps them make decisions quicker, and really continues to refine our process and ultimately helps us to create our, fulfill our mission of together creating healthier lives.
We held a lot of these last year. So last year, we did 115 of these in a short period of time. So far this year, we're tracking about 75, about 15 a month. We've also transformed this discovery to focus internally. We help team members across the organization whose customers are not external but internal, understand their needs, working with the likes of HR Service Desk to really enable them to truly understand who they are solving for? We've made multiple personas across the organization that's helped businesses make critical decisions about strategy, who they're solving for, and where they might need to go.
A few years ago, customer discovery at Charles River would not have looked like this, it would have been a very different way of working. And we've really brought this idea and shift into the organization of how important it truly is to understand the pain points and the value of our customer, and it's been a transformation in their understanding of what design can bring to the conversation. But we're not quite done yet.
So what happened next? Well, we hired five more designers, we expanded our scope, and we already rebranded ourselves, we started out as the "UXUI" team, we are now the "Product Service and Experience Design" team. We released two products last year. We have three to release this year. And we've really established design as a foundational discipline at Charles River. So not bad growth for a year. But where are we on that maturity scale? Well, we started out somewhere between one and two. And I can confidently say we are squarely at four. And again, I did a pressure test. And they all agreed that we're squarely at four, so we have some growth to g, but I think that's pretty good in a year.
What we've found is that our movement through this maturity scale has been overwhelmingly positive. And that comes from obviously having the foundation of not having existed before. But we have really strong support from strategic leadership and other parts of the organization that has made this move, almost feel effortless, because it's been from undiscovered to aspirational, to foundational and promising to now partly systemic, which is huge in the culture. We're super excited to get integrated and fully user-driven. I have every confidence that we can get there in the next few years. So what does that look like? Where are we going?

Well, we're going to maybe take over the world of Charles River. Just kidding. But we are still hiring. We've learned a few years... few things we want to continue to work on. We learned that the life sciences industry comes with an incredible uphill knowledge-gathering, and an overwhelming feeling if you've not worked in it before. And it feels like you're drinking from a fire hose, when you first start. So we're starting to adjust our onboarding. Change the way we bring designers into the organization so that we can learn from our mistakes and our experiences in the previous onboarding.
We've learned that design needs to run even further ahead than from... then product delivery needs to run further ahead than product delivery than we'd even planned. We have customer obsession, customer discovery and user research at the start of every project. We're bringing that into other parts of the organization where they haven't even thought about it. Stuff like Salesforce, and HR, and excited to continue that expansion. We learned that we needed to design and create and build a design system alongside our MVP. It was a critical aspect to our ability to scale.
So we hired a designer for that. And we have a designer working with a small group of engineers to build our first design system in partnership with our customer-facing product team. We also learned that customer obsession is not just a mindset for our team, but it's a mindset that the whole organization is ripe to adopt. We've begun evangelizing, teaching, and growing design thinking skills well beyond the design team, and have brought design thinking into business strategy sessions, marketing strategy conversations, HR and human resources processes had many other focus areas across Charles River. We learned that we set a great foundation and we have an awesome future for design at Charles River. We are excited to be on this ride. Thank you.

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