Recently, while attending my company’s booth at the Pittcon® Laboratory Products Exhibition, a visiting lab manager began a conversation with me by stating: “The whole world is going mobile.” He went on to ask, “What can you do for my laboratory in this regard?” While answering his specific questions, I realized that the use of mobile devices in the laboratory is a hot topic, with questions being asked again and again in the laboratory world. This is especially true for LIMS users seeking dependable mobile functionality for remote data retrieval as well as for other tasks.
The consumerization of information technology, defined as the growing tendency for new information technology to emerge first in the consumer market and then spread into business and government organizations, is changing the face of business IT. Large business and government organizations dominated the early decades of computer usage and development. The emergence of consumer markets as the primary driver of information technology innovation is being seen as a major IT industry shift. There is also a rapidly expanding trend for connecting personal mobile devices to corporate networks, the so-called BYOD (bring your own device) initiative.
According to industry estimates, some 65% of corporate networks permit connections with smartphones and tablet devices, with the devices themselves frequently being employee-owned. Laboratories serving research and manufacturing organizations are evaluating the abilities of their LIMS to allow tasks to be performed on mobile devices, such as tablet computers and smartphones.
Clearly, the next generation of LIMS products needs to have robust and easily adaptable mobile applications. The days of being tethered to a desktop in order to interface with the LIMS are over. Mobility rules and will drive the future of LIMS product development and user acceptance. The guiding principle should be whether your LIMS enables you to use the right screen—desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet—for each task.
Selecting the right screen for the task enables lab managers to view laboratory key performance indicators remotely or to authorize and release urgent results. Laboratory clients can view sample status and available results in real time for samples they have submitted for testing, without having to call busy laboratory staff for the information. Laboratory personnel can record observations during laboratory tours or field inspections. The use of mobile devices also minimizes the potential for transcription errors and other mistakes associated with entering data that were collected elsewhere to a desktop in the core lab.
Let’s look at some of these examples in more detail. Modern pharmaceutical laboratory managers are busy, with pressure to do more with less. They may be frequently out of the laboratory, attending meetings in other parts of the plant or at a different site altogether. Frequently, they need to access historical LIMS data during these meetings, and mobile access to the LIMS would be very advantageous. The chemistry lab manager may also need to check lab key performance indicators, either for peace of mind that the work is progressing satisfactorily or to quickly identify bottlenecks and take appropriate action. It may be that production is demanding that a newly delivered raw material be released from quarantine, or the shipping department urgently requires a batch of final product and no delegate is available. In each of these cases, the ability to remotely release urgent batches or samples would be invaluable.
In the microbiological laboratory, staff can use a tablet-based pick list to retrieve media or plates, quickly view observations, or reconcile inventory location and status using bar-code scanning capabilities. Samplers who tour the facility taking swabs or air samples for environmental analysis would benefit from a mobile application that would guide their route and allow them to record observations and print sample labels in each sampling location. Generally, in many laboratories of all types, there are occasions when analysts need to perform a task in a location where there is no immediate LIMS access and it would be of great benefit for them to be able to use a mobile device to administer that task.
Within a given organization, many non-laboratory staff must interact with information held within the laboratory system. For example, production managers may need to access laboratory information. Laboratory clients generally have a need to remotely view sample status and download reports. Because of the diverse nature of these tasks, the LIMS should have the ability to easily transfer tasks to a mobile device as appropriate.
It sounds like it should be a simple task to engineer apps for LIMS that will satisfy increasing demand for robust mobile functionality—you just navigate to your LIMS web portal from the mobile device browser. However, you cannot just port existing LIMS applications to a mobile device. Why? People use mobile devices very differently from desktop computers or laptops. The compact screen size requires a minimal feature set optimized for common use cases. The ability to see only one screen at a time means features must be progressively displayed. Large buttons must be used to make interactions actionable (important for capacitive screens). The commonality of the mobile form factor means users expect adherence to mobile design conventions—interactions should be conventional and consistent. Limited content real estate means help text creates unnecessary clutter—the interface should be simple and intuitive so that the user requires little instruction.
Generally, users have different expectations for the mobile experience and often use their devices in environments filled with distractions. They want to open the app, use it briefly,and move on to something else. It is not recommended that the application relies on the user’s undivided attention for long stretches of time. Mobile applications, therefore, should enable specific tasks rather than attempt to replicate the entire LIMS functionality. Different tasks may be most appropriately performed on different devices. For example, a task like writing this article is not best suited to a mobile phone. It is much easier to complete at a desktop computer than attempting to type it into a smartphone. However, a consumer of the article could easily read it on a tablet or smartphone in a spare moment while traveling.
In evaluating the potential of a LIMS to accommodate mobile applications, another concern is whether the existing desktop software provides rich internet applications with full access to the hardware and system capabilities. Mobile applications should operate on the same “back-end” platform, using the same server-side scripting and database, thereby avoiding the need to purchase, integrate, and maintain additional servers, simplifying validation and avoiding bugs generated because different platforms use different code to perform essentially the same tasks.
In fact, a number of key questions come to mind:
- Does it have the capability to run LIMS applications that offer conventional user interfaces on a wide range of modern browsers as well as on mobile devices?
- Can the mobile applications access device hardware such as the camera and GPS, facilitating bar-code scanning or location determination?
- Does the system use the same server-side coding irrespective of whether the client-side platform is a desktop, laptop, tablet, or phone?
- Does the system support mobile devices from a range of manufacturers running different operating systems such as Android or iOS?
There are more, but I’m sure you get the general idea.
Every software application needs controls, such as buttons, check boxes, and dropdown lists. For optimal LIMS application development, it is advantageous to have multiple libraries of controls utilized by the LIMS software, some designed for forms that are to be run on desktop computers and others with touch-aware controls commonly used on tablets and smartphones. The touch controls allow user interaction on mobile devices in a manner consistent with what users of such devices would expect.
A major additional consideration is to determine if the LIMS offers an integrated design environment that enables users to develop their own mobile applications. This should provide integrated mobile application design capabilities with the ability to access device hardware components with no restrictions on the types of apps that could be developed. This feature means that laboratory managers can specify exactly which device is best suited to perform a specific task in their own environment.
Laboratories vary enormously and a task that is perfectly acceptable on a desktop computer in one organization might be much better suited to a mobile device in another laboratory. For LIMS providers and users, mobile applications are the key to enhanced versatility based on the ability to select the right screen for the right task.
Elian Winstanley, B.Sc., M.Sc. is Senior Architect, Applied Informatics Technology, Informatics Solutions, Abbott, Crossgate House, Cross St., Sale, Cheshire M33 7FT, U.K.; tel.: +44 161 711 0340; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.