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New Terra team created to tackle feature requests

Have you noticed the data tables now display 100 lines by default, and up to 1000 on demand? Did you know you can now save different column views and easily switch between them?  These are just a few of the first batch of improvements made by our newest team based on feature requests, interviews conducted by our User Experience (UX) team, and other direct interactions. They are on track to roll out some more in the coming weeks, so we thought it would be a great time to give you a little bit of context about where all this is coming from, and what you can expect to see moving forward.


A team named SUE

The new team is called SUE for Scientific Usability Engineering, and is led by our wonderful colleague Christine Loreth, whom you may recognize from a previous blog post

For the past two years, Christine has led the Data Sciences Platform’s COVID-19 genomic surveillance response efforts, working in collaboration with the Broad Institute’s Viral Genomics group and Genomics Platform. Most recently, in partnership with the CDC and Theiagen Genomics, the DSP has been supporting public health labs’ use of Terra for analyzing SARS-CoV-2 genomic data. In the course of those projects, Christine has logged a stupendous amount of flight time actually using Terra, setting up data processing and analysis capabilities, which has given her valuable insight into the day-to-day experience of using the platform.

Under Christine’s leadership, the SUE team brings together a constellation of software engineering, UX design, and tech support skills — much like the other teams in our engineering organization — but with the mission of specifically tackling improvements requested by Terra users at a rapid pace. 

What kind of improvements, you ask? For example, making it possible to view more than 100 rows at a time in a data table, and boosting the data table search and filter capabilities. Or another classic request: having Terra email you when your workflows finish running.

Any one of those isn’t particularly hard to address on its own. But when you’re building a platform with the scope and scale of Terra, there can be a lot of things like these that seem small but add up to a non-trivial amount of work.


The necessity of strong priorities

The reality is that developing a platform like Terra is a balancing act between adding big new features and refining the user experience for existing features. 

In our first three years of building and operating Terra, our top priority has been to establish core functionality and infrastructure, which was critical to meeting our commitments to project funders, collaborators and early adopters. We learned early on that if we tried to make everything perfect before releasing new features, we would never meet any deadlines. To be successful, our development teams had to be allowed to focus on major feature work in support of strategic initiatives.

The downside of this singular and necessary focus was that it required us to accept that we couldn’t be immediately responsive to community feedback regarding the day-to-day experience of researchers using the platform. 

Until now.


Achievement unblocked

So what has changed? Simply put, our organization has matured: we are now able to support an additional team dedicated to addressing the pain points revealed by community feedback. Not only do we have the resources to fund this new team, our development and operational processes are robust enough to support a layered approach where multiple teams might touch the same code for different projects.

Having the SUE team on deck means we’ll be able to be much more responsive to community feedback, addressing pain points and increasing convenience of established features on an ongoing basis, without compromising the delivery of major new features.

The team will be keeping a close eye on the Active Feature Requests section of the community forum, so be sure to upvote any existing requests you think should be prioritized, or add your own feature request if what you need is not represented there.


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