Take home point

Researchers in the United Kingdom recently published an article indicating that a Blackberry and Android app increased usage of their website which provides mutation, geographical, and phenotype data on genes implicated in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease in the US. They saw an increase of 26% for total visits to the website and an increase of 230% for visits by mobile devices (including tablets). The full text of the article can be found here.


The researchers in this study set out to increase the usage of a website that provides targeted information to researchers, patients, and family members concerned with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. ALS is a terminal neurodegenerative disease that results in weakness of voluntary muscles and usually death in 2 to 5 years due to respiratory failure. Thus, researchers, patients, caregivers, family members, and clinicians are in desperate need of good information about the origins of this disease and possible innovative ways to slow down or stop the degeneration associated with the illness.

The ALS Online Genetics Database website is a free website which is funded by ALS Charities and sponsored by the European Network for the Cure of ALS and the World Federal of Neurology. According to the researchers, the site contains mutation, geographical, and phenotype data on genes associated with or implied to have associations with ALS. The website also provides links to bioinformatics resources, publications, and tools for analysis. The website receives about 300 unique visits a day which the researchers label as indicating high demand, however, no reference point (such as visits to other similar sites) is provided for this statement.

The website was developed for researchers and clinicians and can be used for analysis of ALS gene and phenotype information. We reviewed the site and it provides a highly technical initial webpage with very little user friendly information for clinicians or patients.  It’s structure currently seems to be more geared towards researchers than clinicians.

However, the website could use some improvements in order to truly meet the needs of this group. For example, an attempt to use the search function by our team resulted in poor return of results even for information which was clearly displayed on the website such as names of a gene locus. Although patients are mentioned in the research article as potential users, the website needs much more modification before it could be considered a website that is useful for patients akin to the ALS Association.

Approach to Address Problem

The mobile friendly version of the website was based on analytic data indicating which pages were most frequently viewed. The researchers modified these pages to make them mobile friendly by optimizing content layout of the screen, reducing image sizes, and summarizing information on the pages when necessary. They used the Eclipse integrated environment with Android and Blackberry plug-ins for this. The researchers then assessed data traffic before and after creating a mobile version of the website.

Key Results

The conversion of certain sections of the website was successful. Researchers noted that the content available in a display of a mobile device is restricted because of the device size. This is a challenge for individuals seeking to truly delve into the extensive amount of information on the website. From our review of the site, even viewing the site on a laptop was a challenge because of the size of some tables on the site. So, perhaps efforts to adjust the content in ways that make it more user friendly to a variety of devices would be useful.

The most useful results were the change in usage statistics of the site. The researchers saw an increase in unique visits and visits associated with mobile devices (including tablets). The unique visits increased from 2231 to 2829 (26% change) and the visits from mobile devices increased from 103 to 340 (230% change). The researchers did not indicate whether these changes were statistically significant. Also, they did not clearly indicate whether they changed their marketing of the website in some way that may have increased usage beyond the creation of a mobile version.

Implications for public health

This research is important because health literacy remains a challenge around the world. In addition, keeping researchers and clinicians literate in their fields is a challenge because of the daily development of new information. Websites that are mobile enabled are a key way to disseminate research information to various audiences. Database websites like this ALS site provide a useful tool for researchers and clinicians and some laypersons who have a strong interest in ALS.

The increase in usage of the site is encouraging and illustrates the need for continued innovation among organizations that provide research information online. More development of the website and the mobile version will likely lead to increased usage of the information provided on the site.

Future research concerns/challenges

There are a number of challenges for the researchers, but the most important appears to be making the website more user friendly. As stated, the non-mobile interface could be improved to make it more user friendly. The search engine could be improved. The structure of the information could be modified so that users are able to easily navigate the information and find what they are looking for. The site begins with a list of genes instead of asking a user what gene or other relevant types of information he/she is looking for. The database should offer an easy way to query it which returns all useful results.

In addition, some summaries of the research articles provided on the site would help researchers and clinicians. A ranking of articles would also be useful if it helped researchers and clinicians understand which articles provide the most significant findings for a given topic – such as a particular genetic marker. There is a great deal of potential for a website like this. The website could be linked to more patient centered ALS websites in order to provide patients/caregivers with more in-depth information when they need it. The research study would have benefited from more analysis of the traffic data and significance testing.