Beta release overview
More than 100 individuals, labs and larger groups - consortia, departments, centers, etc. - participated in the beta testing of eCAT between September 2008 and June 2009. Testers came from a wide geographical spread, including North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. During this period a total of four different versions were released.
The following were the most important changes that were made in the releases:
The first release included an initial attempt at the lab notebook interface. As noted above, much of the design was based on consultation with real scientists, in particular the design of the Project and Experiment templates and the signing and authorizing features.
The second release refined the interface and added a set of new features. The upload process was significantly simplified, and more power was given to individual users with the ability to edit their own preferences and, more importantly, the addition of support for class editing for users - this had previously been an admin level function.
In the third release performance was improved, and the application was scaled up to support millions of records. All parts of the system were improved, with the tree performance being the most obvious user level improvement.
The fourth release was a final bug fix in preparation for the first commercial release.
Reactions to eCAT
Of those who actively tested eCAT, the majority reported positive feedback. This is described in more detail below. Three reasons were given by the small number of testers who said they would not be inclined to adopt eCAT in its beta version:
1. A preference for a more free form environment where information is structured as a result of tagging.
2. A desire to be able to make all data in eCAT public.
3. Lack of support for LDAP integration.
The majority of the dozens of testers who commented on eCAT were positive. Many of their suggestions were incorporated into eCAT during the upgrades that were made during the beta period, and most of the rest will be included in the improvements planned for releases in the first six months after the commercial release. These are described below.
Observations about adoption and usage from the beta testing
A revamped Axiope website was launched to coincide with the beta testing of eCAT. The website included an online video structured as a step by step guide to using eCAT, and a detailed but practical user guide in the Help section to make it possible for most users to get started with eCAT making use of these materials, without the need for direct training. The videos proved particularly popular; a high percentage of people visiting the site watched the videos, and a number of testers reported that the videos had been useful in introducing eCAT.
eCAT was offered in two forms. Individual testers were set up with accounts on a service hosted by Axiope. Most groups were set up with a version of eCAT installed on a lab or institutional server. For these 'customer managed' installations an inhouse administrator then set up accounts for individual users. Where requested, for example by the FDA and Children's Hospital Boston, a demo was given to a core group of initial users. In other cases, the adoption process was left to the testing lab or institution. Some customer managed users adopted a very structured approach to encouraging adoption, whereas others took a more freeform approach.
A good example of the structured approach is the modENCODE consortium. The National Human Genome Research Institute has designated the modENCODE (model organism ENCyclopedia of DNA Elements) Project to try to identify all of the sequence-based functional elements in the Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila melanogaster genomes. The group which has adopted eCAT focuses on C. elegans and is a collaboration between labs at University of North Carolina, University of Cambridge, University of California, Berkeley, University of California, San Diego, NimbleGen, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and the Weizmann Institute.
ModENCODE designated two 'champions', Huang Pham of Lawrence Berkeley Labs and Morten Jensen of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. After viewing a demo of eCAT Hoang and Morten did a considerable amount of their own testing, including asking questions and making comments. They developed their own instructional materials including a powerpoint presentation and a video, and used these in introducing a few other users in the group to eCAT. They then rolled eCAT out to a larger group of users. They kept the larger group informed of developments throughout the process and held several online meetings and briefings at key points. These were interactive, and included a chance for users to provide feedback about likes and dislikes. During the process they also communicated regularly with Axiope, getting help with problems and questions that arose, making suggestions for feature additions and changes, and collating feedback from Axiope about which of these requests were likely to be implemented and on what time scale.
The commercial version of eCAT was launched in July 2009. The launch version includes the upgrades and improvements described above. In addition, the Axiope website has been completely revamped. Two aspects of the revamp are worth emphasizing.
First, the basic mechanics of delivering eCAT commercially are provided for. eCAT is being offered in three versions:
1. A Team Hosted version
2. An instance of eCAT installed on the customer's server
3. A Personal version (free of charge) on a server hosted by Axiope
A trial version is available free for a month, and an e-commerce facility has been added to enable purchase by credit card.
Second, reflecting what was learned during the beta, a significant redesign of the site has been implemented. This is aimed at making it even easier for prospective users to understand eCAT and to learn how to use eCAT, and for users to get the most out of eCAT. This has been done, first, through making the following additions to the website:
1. Two new videos overviewing the main activities that can be undertaken with eCAT:
1.1 Editing experiments
1.2 Managing inventory
2. A new section of the site called 'Learn', which includes subsections explaining
2.1 What can you do with eCAT
2.2 Who eCAT is for
2.3 eCATs features
2.4 Supported plugins and image formats
2.5 eCAT compared to alternatives like paper, spreadsheets, databases & wikis
2.6 User - feedback Q&As
In addition, there is now a link from the home page to a separate site; eCAT community. eCAT community is intended to take the level of user feedback and input into eCAT's ongoing development to a new level. eCAT community hosts the Axiope blog, and several forums. It also provides a messaging function to enable conversations between eCAT users at different institutions. And there is a space for upload of instructional and explanatory materials, like the modENCODE powerpoint noted above, that users themselves have created. It isAxiope's strong belief that the best person to teach a scientist how to use and get the most of our eCAT in their research is another scientist who is using eCAT. eCAT community is intended as a platform to let that kind of communication and exchange of information flourish.
Potential extensions and improvements
Extensions and improvements are planned for eCAT in a variety of areas.
Over the first six months after the commercial release in June, a number of feature improvements are planned. These include:
• Better handling of tables, including editing in table views, importing spreadsheets and the ability to edit multiple records at the same time
• Improvements to the search form, for example by adding multiple classes for search selection
• Image annotation
• Automatic saving and loading of data straight from other applications, e.g. Word and powerpoint
• Permitting specification of which classes are displayed as menu entries
• Removing restrictions on record naming
We plan to incorporate LDAP, to facilitate institutional users integrating eCAT into their existing IT environment.
Extensibility/interaction with other applications
After an initial breathing space of around six months to ensure that eCAT is bedded down, enhancing the ability of eCAT users to interact with other applications will be a high priority. Creating an API is top of the list, which also includes improved import/export capabilities, possibly integration with wikis, and smoother interface with other applications that scientists use in their research.
Also planned for 2010 is a major initiative relating to mobility, which will enable data entry and search in eCAT through smartphones.
The plan is for Axiope Community to evolve into an important source of information and support for users, and improvements and changes will be made on a regular basis.
By scientists, for scientists
The close involvement of users which has characterized eCAT's initial inspiration, and subsequent design and development to date, will continue to inform every aspect of e-CAT's development going forward.