5 tips to choosing a digital lab notebook

Tip Sheet

Choosing a digital lab notebook can be daunting at first, so it’s best to conduct thorough research to understand its capabilities and ensure it fits your needs. So, what exactly is a digital lab notebook? In its simplest form, a digital lab notebook (also known as an electronic lab notebook or ELN) replaces the paper notebooks that scientists, technicians and engineers traditionally use to record the details of their procedures and experiments. Yet, while digitizing lab notebooks is a common place to start, modern informatics software can do so much more. From automating data entry and reporting to streamlining sample management and even speeding up regulatory submissions, the right digital system could transform your business.

Tip 1: Clearly define and prioritize your current needs and business objectives.

Typical examples include eliminating paper, increasing efficiency and improving data integrity. How could a digital lab notebook help streamline your current workflows and reduce errors and rework? Do you need to collaborate with other departments and/or external partners? How are data collected, and how should data flow from one group to another? Do you have specific security or regulatory requirements such as GxP? What are the priorities of the group(s) who will be using the software: ease of use, access to data, standardization, etc.? It’s common for different groups to have different priorities and objectives, even those who work in the same department, so it’s important to consider all perspectives.

Tip 2: Do your research to find out what digital lab notebooks are available and what your peers are doing.

There are many factors to consider and questions to ask, for example, what are the options for entering data that might be relevant to your business: barcode scanning of samples or inventory items, drag and drop of image files, connections to instruments such as balances or pH meters, or even voice-enabled interactions? Can workflows be defined to ensure activities are performed in a specific sequence? What options are available to integrate with complex instruments? Can data be automatically tagged and associated with key information such as project, study, analyst, etc. to make it easier to find later? What data analytics, charting and reporting capabilities are available, and can you control which information is shared with collaborators? Even more important than feature/function comparisons is the track record of the digital lab notebook provider. Have they worked with organizations like yours before? What services and support can they provide? How are upgrades managed, and what’s planned for the next release?

It’s helpful to create a matrix comparison and be prepared to ask more questions along the way, particularly if a vendor has extensive experience working in your business area and can share recommendations of what’s worked best for their other customers.

Tip 3: Select the right type of system for your business.

Digital lab user with tablet

Web or desktop? On-premise or hosted? Most modern digital lab notebook systems are web-based for good reason: web applications enable access from a variety of devices, not just laptops and desktop computers. This can be particularly useful if scientists and technicians need to use handheld devices for mobility in the lab. Cloud-hosted systems (also called software as a service or SaaS) are increasingly popular because they offer numerous advantages including scalability, flexibility and security. Updates to the software can be available instantly and there is less work required by your IT department.

If you’re unsure or want to learn more, request a product demo and use this as an opportunity to discuss any concerns you may have. A demonstration can take away a lot of the guesswork in comparing providers. Is it what you expected, or has it given you new ideas for how digital technology can help meet your objectives?

Tip 4: Think about your future needs: Is the system scalable?

While you may not know exactly how your business is likely to change in the future, you probably have a general idea of growth plans. The research and purchase of your digital lab notebook should be based on both providing a solution for now and laying the foundation for future expansion. How easy is it to add additional users or groups when needed? Or integrate new instruments? Also, consider how all the data you’ll be capturing might be used in the future: is it possible to promote standardization and make the data F.A.I.R. (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable)? Does the software allow the capture of contextualized data needed to unlock the power of insights and enable faster and better decisions? Are there analytical tools that can help monitor system usage?

An experienced provider should be able to help you future-proof your investment and ensure your new system is agile and extensible to support your future growth.

Tip 5: Find out about training and onboarding.

User adoption is one of the most critical success factors for digital lab notebooks and training is a key part of the onboarding process. What kind of training courses are available: online, classroom-based, etc.? How are they structured, and how long does it typically take for a new user to get up and running with the system?  Are other educational resources available on-demand as needed? People have different learning preferences so offering the flexibility to choose between different training options and/or enabling users to learn at their own pace can help increase adoption and make onboarding a smoother process.


In summary, it’s essential, when choosing a digital lab notebook, to clearly map out objectives from the start and to understand what needs to be achieved and what problems are to be solved. This helps ensure your selection process is focused on what’s most important to your business. Digital lab notebooks are not one-size-fits-all; today’s scientists and engineers need more than an electronic system that mimics what’s been done with pen and paper for hundreds of years. Why automate the past with a basic electronic lab notebook when you can equip your team with best-in-class digital technologies? The best digital lab notebook for your business should be one that people enjoy using because it makes their work more rewarding and maximizes the utility of their data.


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