Front-line User-Support in the 90s

Frank Wright 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
registered users.

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
molecular biology.

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
Northwich Park.

We welcome comment.

Duncan Rouch
Frank Wright
Alan Bleasby

<-----////////////////////////// CLIP //////////////////////////----->

Improving Front-Line User-Support: Proposals for Greater Efficiency in
Computational Molecular Biology.


0    Background: Time to Upgrade User-Support?
1    Introduction
2    Aims and Approaches
3    User-Support
     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
6    Acknowledgements

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).

Duncan Rouch
Frank Wright
Alan Bleasby

1    Introduction

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
     program interfaces.

     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    User-Support

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.

3.4  Summary

 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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