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TURI P2OASys site relaunch builds on previous success

Creating a powerful online presence is an iterative process of trying new approaches, finding out what works, and building on that success. Developing a website framework that supports continuous growth not only extends the value of your investment – it also encourages your team to constantly look for opportunities to improve your product and processes dramatically.

That was certainly the case for the Toxics Use Research Institute (TURI) at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The institute wanted to add a memo field to records in its Pollution Prevention Options Analysis System (P2OASys), a database devoted to evaluating and comparing the safety of chemistries. Adding a field to any database record is no big deal and could have been handled as a simple maintenance task by the team at Mugo Web, TURI’s development partner.

But TURI saw a bigger opportunity. Working with Mugo Web, the institute had successfully rolled out a major re-launch of its site last year, complete with a new design, database architecture, and content approval workflows, all based on the Ibexa DXP. And TURI’s leadership saw the opportunity to leverage that project for a similar relaunch of P2OASys, which had last been updated about five years ago.

“There were a lot of positives to the project, but the real selling point was that we’d be bringing P2OASys in line with the public branding we created for, which has been very well received,” said Jason Marshall, the institute’s laboratory director. “The workflow and ease of operation have been a big plus, as well.”

Screenshot of the P2OASys landing page. From here, users can start assessments or upload information from databases.

How P2OASys fits into the big picture for TURI

The P2OASys site is a database-driven system that evaluates chemistries against a matrix of about 150 attributes, such as inhalant toxicity, based on a quantitative ranking scale of 1 to 10. TURI created the P2OASys methodology that defines the site’s functionality, and it’s an essential part of the institute's overall mission to help reduce environmental toxins. The database currently hosts evaluations for about 2,400 chemicals and products, Marshall said. 

Evaluators – either students in the TURI lab, other researchers, or consumers – can view existing evaluations of chemistries as a starting point for their own analysis. “They can view the information we’ve already put in the system to see where they need to do some additional research or double-check their findings,” Marshall said.

Evaluators can also add qualitative feedback – the new memo field that initiated the whole project is to add such notes to attribute rankings.

After safety assessments are completed, reviewed, and approved by TURI lab managers, they are aggregated and can be acquired by users for comparison on the P2OASys site. The assessments are also shared within the broader TURI network, including the site, which is devoted specifically to cleaning solutions and can be used to evaluate the safety and efficacy of both products and application scenarios.

“P2OASys is a methodology, really, that creates very detailed safety evaluations – it is very finely honed for its purpose,” Marshall said. “It’s extremely granular, and so broader tools such as CleanerSolutions rely on it to provide that level of specificity. So the value of having it not only be very usable itself, but also closely integrated with other systems, is real.”

A long road to improvement

Prior to this year’s relaunch, P2OASys ran on a public-facing site developed by students in PHP. To update data, users had to log into a freeware phpMyAdmin tool and download and upload their changes in CSV format. Admins had to go through a highly manual process to approve their work in the site’s CMS. (Even this experience was a decided improvement over the previous tool, which was pieced together from Microsoft Excel macros. “There were maybe three people using it, and I was two of them,” Marshall joked.) 

The P2OASys site had no clear TURI branding, Marshall said, and integration with was accomplished via a nightly scheduled import job.

Marshall said the previous tool worked well for lab staff, who understood the basics of the P2OASys. The Mugo Web team’s challenge was to help translate P2OASys’s highly detailed functionality into a site experience that was easy to use for everyone and fit the visual style established with the project.

“The functionality was mostly there,” said Anup Saund, development manager at Mugo Web and lead on the P2OASys project. “We just needed to map it to the design and architecture we had put in place already for TURI.”

The project

The first step in Mugo’s process was to drill down into each page of the existing P2OASys site and determine what each field and button accomplished, Saund said. The project was already on strong footing since Mugo has been a strategic partner with TURI for about a decade. Still, the P2OASys methodology is so precise that a comprehensive discovery was required.

Mugo and the TURI team worked through a small number of UX options, Marshall said, and decided on a design that he hopes will encourage more people to use the tool. 

The design and color palette of the new site closely follows that of Visitors are invited to click on large, boldly labeled blocks to initiate each stage of the user experience. Collapsing input menus make navigating the complex attributes matrix more streamlined, and comparison search results are clearly presented in table format.

From there, Mugo extended the database architecture that already supports the new site to include the data structure for P2OASys safety evaluations. The two sites now run on the same “stack,” as Saund put it, with MySQL as the database and Ibexa as the front-end CMS. This eliminates the need for a nightly import job and makes bi-directional data updates much easier.

Screenshot of the PS0ASys assessment start page. Here, users can input individual chemical information to add to session.

The P2OASys workflow

P2OASys tool is designed to allow anonymous public users to submit their evaluations for review by lab administrators. So the site has a browser-based data entry workflow that’s designed to cut down on random submissions, Saund said, while still making it easy for anyone to create and submit an evaluation. It also eliminates the constant need to edit data within a spreadsheet, which can be tedious and prone to mistakes.

From the site’s home page, users can elect to:

  • START a completely new evaluation using web-based forms
  • LOAD the current aggregate evaluation of one or more chemistries from the P2OASys database. The process pre-populates the attribute matrix fields for the chemistries to provide context for the person entering a new evaluation. Data entry is stored entirely in the browser at this stage, Saund said, limiting unnecessary calls to the database that can slow site performance and result in incomplete or undesired input to the approval workflow.
  • EXPORT the current version of their evaluation session to a CSV file for external sharing or review. Marshall added that some users might not want to share their evaluation data but can still use the site as a structured guide to the P2OASys methodology and export their data for private use.
  • IMPORT an unfinished evaluation to complete it in the web-based forms.
  • UPLOAD their completed review to the MySQL database and a role-based approval workflow in the Ibexa CMS. TURI staff check submissions for completeness and other notable issues, then flag them as approved to be added to the composite evaluation.

Users can also COMPARE their ongoing evaluations of multiple products to ensure they are gathering comprehensive data about all similar products.

Screenshot of the P2OASys comparison page. Chemicals users have added can be compared side by side to help analyse human & enviroment effects, properties, and lifecycle information.

Marshall noted that the CMS approval workflow, available only to logged-in users, reads and writes directly to the database, making that process go much more smoothly and eliminating the risk of error. 

Not surprisingly, Mugo implemented a similar workflow for the site, so the team already had a solid understanding of how the TURI team operates, Saund added.

The reception

“Initial reaction to the new P2OASys site has been positive”, Marshall said, both from a select group of users and executives at TURI who are excited about building a distinct visual brand for the institute. 

Lab staff and students also have found the browser-based workflow and streamlined approval process to be a big improvement. “They like it, and more importantly, I like it,” Marshall said.

Taking what's learned and moving forward

The new P2OASys site just launched, but Marshall and the team and TURI always have ideas about how to improve their processes and the website built around them. They may soon review the attribute matrix used for P2OASys evaluations, a process that would be supported by the site’s new integrated database and tagging toolset.

Down the road, TURI may also consider encapsulating its other evaluation and assessment processes on the same UX, database, and workflows that now support two of its most mission-critical projects. “This has really jump-started an internal project at TURI to look at how this kind of tool can support our other work,” Marshall said.