Synapse Hero Screen


A study to investigate the usability of a recently released bulk download feature for Synapse, an online platform used to conduct and share data from biomedical research. 


Sage Bionetworks


11 weeks

My Contribution

Participant Interviews 


Data Synthesis 

Project management


Fiona K.

Aaron C.

Research Proposal

Study Guide

Research Report

Research Presentation


Open collaboration and data sharing in the biomedical research community is vital to expediting advancements in healthcare. Synapse, a collaborative research platform, was built in response to the need for a secure place to exchange and track research data. Recently, the platform has been upgraded to allow simultaneous download of multiple research files. No prior usability testing had been done for this site, so Sage Bionetworks sought to collect user feedback on overall site use with an emphasis on the new bulk download feature. 


The team set out to address the following: 

  • Uncover pain points associated with identifying and downloading bulk data sets 

  • Determine the users' perceived value of the new feature

  • Identify opportunities to improve interaction across the website 

The Study


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We recruited participants with little to no experience using the web version of Synapse: 

  • 3 Laboratory scientists - these users generate the data on Synapse and primarily use the web platform for small downloads

  • 2 Bioinformaticians - these users download large amounts of data for statistical analysis using code


Lack of physical proximity to users prompted moderated testing sessions to occur online using an online meeting platform. 

Each session lasted about 45 minutes and followed a standardized protocol to ensure consistency across participants. 


Each session followed the following structure: ​

  1. Pre-task questionnaire to collect demographic information and details of Synapse use

  2. Pre-determined flow broken into 4 discreet tasks: 

    • Identifying data sets to examine use of the search function

    • Adding multiple files to the download list to establish ease of use

    • Downloading files to explore use of the bulk download feature

    • Troubleshooting remaining files to gauge error recovery 

  3. Post-task questionnaire to collect perceptions of value and usefulness of the website

Finding and adding files

Downloading files



All users were able to complete the tasks within a few minutes and with minimal assistance from the moderator. Informational pop-ups were helpful and prevented participants from taking unnecessary steps to achieve tasks. Overall, users had a positive impression of the bulk download feature and stated it would expedite their work process.  


Through testing our team identified 4 major areas for improvement. These themes were consistent across users, who provided valuable insight into the misalignment of their expectations and the interface. The list is ranked in order of severity. 

1. Iconography

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All 5 users misinterpreted this icon for adding items to the download list, believing it would trigger an immediate download. Reactions after clicking ranged from confused to mildly annoyed. 

I expect it to start downloading immediately.- Lab scientist

2. Multi-step download

Participants assumed that downloading items with the bulk downloader would be a one click process and expressed frustration when realizing they had to zip files in order to initiate download. 

I'd be pretty pissed if this took 20 minutes to zip and then I had to download it. - Bioinformatician

Additionally, users did not understand the term "create package" to initiate zipping files and expected to see a download button instead. 

Create package doesn't mean anything - zip means something to me. - Lab scientist

3. Search Results

Participants had trouble distinguishing search results when attempting to locate data files and expressed confusion when they saw multiple results with the same file names.  

I don't know why I have 6 results for the same thing. - Lab scientist

4. Troubleshooting List Items

Users expressed difficulty in identifying why certain files were unable to be downloaded. It took users spending a considerable amount of time investigating to establish why these files had download restrictions. 

There's no explanation for why you can't download . - Bioinformatician


Clarify Iconography 

Further research should be done to determine whether different icons would provide greater clarity and decrease frustration. Replacing icons with links should be explored due to positive responses to other existing links. ​

Simplify Multi-step Download

Downloading files should be a one step process - zipping and downloading

should be combined and supplemented with status indicators. 


Differentiate Search Results

Search results should be easily distinguishable, either by clearly indicating version

numbers of documents​ or highlighting other unique file indicators. 

Highlight Restricted Files

Restricted files should be clearly indicated for users without requiring further investigation. Alternatively, prevent restricted files from being added to the download list until access can be obtained. 

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Because our users for this study were fairly new to the online platform for Synapse, our findings could be indicative of a learning curve. Additionally, a greater number of users with varying experience level could have yielded greater insight. 

Future Directions

Expert Users

Targeting expert levels of the web platform in future studies could surface other issues that may not have been uncovered with this study.