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Thanks to User Feedback, NCBI Blast Gets a Makeover

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Sometimes even if it isn’t broken, you still might need to fix it. Such was the case with the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s Blast interface, which recently underwent major design changes in order to offer new features and improved usability.

NCBI Blast project leader Tom Madden says that the revamp was brought about because users found many aspects of the Web interface frustrating. “When we started looking, we saw that there were a lot of features that people found hard to use on the pages,” says Madden. “We thought it was time to clean up the interface, make it more uniform, and I think we’ve succeeded.”

One of the biggest areas of improvement is the site’s navigability, which now includes the use of “bread crumbs” and tabbed browsing. Bread crumbs allow users to keep track of their navigation throughout the site. Other features include recent results, which provides users with links to their most recent Blast searches, and saved strategies, which saves Blast forms and parameters for later searches. Another improvement comes in the form of more manageable job search tickets that are provided to users in order to keep track of their submissions for 36 hours. Up until now, these ID numbers were often more than 36 characters long, making them unwieldy and impossible to remember. The new Blast pages automatically keep track of the ticket IDs, which have been reduced to 11 alphanumeric characters.

Madden and his team sought the input of a large number of NCBI biologists, as well as comments from users, in order to help narrow down exactly what should be tweaked. But he says the toughest part with arriving at a new-and-improved interface was trying to please everybody. “The biggest challenge was designing the page — that’s because there were lots of opinions on what the Blast pages should look like,” he says. “We’d bring in one person who would think that this is really clear, then the next person would stumble all over the place and not understand what was going on.”

Overall, the new and improved interface has been met with an enthusiastic response from the majority of users. “I’d say it’s been overwhelmingly positive,” he says. “People have been very excited about getting back their old searches and just some of the navigation and the cleaned-up stuff. It makes more sense to people now.”

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