Front-line User-Support in the 90s
frank at sass.sari.ac.uk
Tue Feb 18 05:07:45 EST 1992
The following document is directed to resource managers and
user-support staff of multi-software collections at nodes serving
The document attempts to define (or redefine) the role of front-line
user-support personnel. It also looks at a way that national and local
nodes can work together to increase efficiency in user-support thereby
facilitating the work of biologists using computer-aided methods. We
suggest that user-support would better meet the needs of biologists if
it encompassed advice in the use of not only the computer-based
facilities but also computational biology methods.
The views expressed reflect our experiences with both using and
administering local and national UK facilities for computational
Throughout this document we refer to a `national node'. The European
countries collaborate as a group called EMBNET. They have in common
the provision of free national computational molecular biology
resources for academics. In some countries the `national node' may be
a collaboration between resource centres. For example SEQNET in the UK
is an EMBNET member and involves a central node at Daresbury, access
to a companion node at Edinburgh and strong ties with the HGMP at
We welcome comment.
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Improving Front-Line User-Support: Proposals for Greater Efficiency in
Computational Molecular Biology.
0 Background: Time to Upgrade User-Support?
2 Aims and Approaches
3.1 Role of User-Support
3.2 User Support Skills in Computational Molecular Biology.
3.3 Role of Management in User-Support
3.4 Section 3 Summary
4 User Self-Support
4.1 Aims of a Self-Support Group
4.2 The Knowledge Pyramid
4.3 User Education
4.4 Professional Education of Users On-site
4.5 Helping Communication in the Group
4.6 Section 4 Summary
5 Conclusion: National and Local Nodes Working Together
5.1 Efficient Use of Expertise At Both National And Local Nodes
5.2 Evaluating New User-Support Materials and Facilities
5.3 Local/National Links Promote Comprehensive Support
0 Background: Time to upgrade user support?
We are attempting to pinpoint areas where there is scope for
improvement in the efficiency with which biologists use computational
molecular biology methods. We have previously posted to the network
propositions on how to maximise efficient use of computer aided
methods by biologists at an archetypal node (SEQNET at Daresbury, UK)
(Oct. 1991, Bio-Soft: Future of Computational Molecular Biology).
Front-line user-support is an essential link in the chain between the
biologist and successful data analysis. Without proper support even
the best hardware and software cannot be used to its full potential.
The role of user-support is twofold, education (training and
documentation) and trouble-shooting. When user support is
inadequately resourced, there tends to be an emphasis on dealing with
short-term problems at the expense of organised user education. This
emphasis is exacerbated if user-support staff have additional
responsibilities. Administrative or maintenance duties, which
may be given higher priority than front-line work, could compromise
effective front-line support.
A lack of investment in user-support can lead to poor training of
support personnel and insufficient education of users, particularly at
academic rather than commercial sites. This, in turn, may result in
support staff being burdened with a plethora of low level queries. To
gain the necessary resources requires an appropriate definition of
user-support from management staff: this definition is an essential
prerequisite for obtaining sufficient funding.
We discuss two routes for the education of users, the traditional
user-support and organised self-support by users. Please comment.
This document is a product of the U.K. Science and Engineering
Research Council's collaborative computational project in Biosequence
and Structure Analysis (CCP11).
In this document we discuss the role of user-support in helping
biologists (the 'users') to optimally apply current algorithms and
methods in computational molecular biology. In employing these methods
biologists face a number of major problems, these include,
1) the difficulty of program choice owing to the fast-changing,
somewhat structureless, array of software from which to select.
This problem can affect both national nodes and local centres.
2) confusion in executing the software: this is partly due to the
low priority given by some program writers in providing intuitive
3) difficulties encountered in specifying program parameters (for
example, gap weights in alignment programs). These often reveal
an insufficient understanding by the user of how to apply a
method, i.e., the molecular biology, embodied in a program.
Comprehensive user-support should therefore encompass not only the use
of appropriate software but also the provision of education in the
methods used in computational molecular biology.
The role of traditional user-support is discussed and a different type
of support, user self-support, is introduced.
2 Aims and Approaches
General Aim: To maximise the efficiency of sequence and
structure analysis by the biologist on a
computer system, such as SEQNET, which
provides a wide selection of programs and
Specific Aim: To achieve the general aim, in part, by
optimising the education of users.
Approaches: This is achieved by both a rational
definition of the role of user-support in
the education of users and the introduction
of organised user self-support. These two
approaches are complementary.
3.1 Role of User-Support
User-support for molecular biologists is intended to mean support at
the level of direct interaction with biologists. Some sites are
fortunate to have a front-line team of user-support personnel
trained in molecular biology. Other sites may provide several bureau
services and therefore have a front-line team with expertise in most
service areas but which will pass on complex queries to dedicated
support personnel in a specific area. Ideally, in the latter
case, the front-line personnel ought to be trained to a sufficiently
high level so as to be able to answer most queries in all disciplines
for which they provide support.
The role of user-support is the education of users through the
organisation of training courses for novice and advanced users,
collaboration in the provision of biologist's-eye-view documentation
(as discussed in a previous document) and problem solving. Effective
education and documentation limits the amount of problem solving
required. This approach entails,
(1) aiding the biologist in the choice of the appropriate
methods and programs to help answer questions
concerning a protein or DNA sequence,
(2) once a program is chosen, to help provide the
command knowledge to execute the program,
(3) helping the biologist to interpret the output
produced by the program.
3.2 User-Support Skills in Computational Molecular Biology
As defined, the job of user-support is a professional one. An array
of important skills are required, not the least of which is the
ability to think like a biologist, programmer and a novice user. Such
personnel also need skills in education, communication, research,
synthesis of information and problem solving.
Front-line support staff must, in general, better understand the work
of molecular biologists than hardware/software support staff and
programmers. They are ideally recruited from people who have been
trained as biologists, especially molecular biologists. It is easier
to train a biologist in the required technical aspects of the support
work than to train a computer science graduate to be a biologist.
User-support staff educated as molecular biologists and then
subsequently trained in computational aspects have first hand
knowledge of the problems faced by a novice user. They can usually
foresee potential problems and communicate effectively with the user.
This insight is an advantage in accurately targetting and producing
system and method documentation for users.
The active involvement of user-support personnel in the education of
users is essential in order to prevent them becoming too software or
hardware-orientated. Participation in research by support staff also
helps to maintain their correct orientation. Over-specialisation by
support staff can distance their appreciation of the user's viewpoint.
Obtaining feedback from users is the empirical test of whether the
message is getting across. From experience, when users are asked for
feedback in a login message, no replies are received. Molecular
biologists do give plenty of feedback when you visit a site or are
involved in research with that site.
Support material can be road-tested on new users to determine its
clarity and to pinpoint what problems they have. This is a potential
role for self-help groups as discussed in section 4.
As training courses are not generally available to educate the
educators (the user-support personnel) they must currently educate
themselves. In the future, on-the-job educational material and then
training courses must become available if we are to produce adequate
numbers of sufficiently trained personnel.
3.3 Role of Management in User-Support
Management plays a key role in front-line user-support. Professional
management staff should be involved from the outset in the deployment
of personnel thereby creating a practical definition of user-support.
Management will ensure that proper resource is supplied for
user-support in all areas; this includes provision of personnel and
training. In exceptional circumstances even the best user-support team
may be overburdened; the role of management is then to assess and set
priorities according to demands imposed. Where several support
personnel are employed, management staff can ensure effective
coordination of effort.
a) User-support is a professional job for which full resources
should be allocated.
b) Staff should be involved with education, documentation and
research (either alone or in collaboration with bench workers)
in order to appreciate the user viewpoint.
c) Training of user-support personnel is essential in order to give
them the necessary professional expertise. Continual involvement
with research is needed to maintain their effectiveness in the
face of changes in both computer and
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