Monday, May 07, 2007

Database vendors, I'm talking to you!

Yes, I know it's impolite, but fair's fair. If you're going to design user interfaces that you charge $$$ for, there will be expectations... and if you haven't met those expectations - despite the repeated critiques of 100s of 1000s of end-users - bloggers will be calling you on the carpet.

Database vendors - I'm talking to you. All of you. We've seen the calls on library management system vendors to improve their interfaces. We've seen discussion after discussion on the lousiness of the OPAC. And I've heard countless discussions among my peers about this - but I don't know if we've really made it public knowledge - we intensely dislike your interfaces! [I'm trying to be diplomatic here by avoiding that 4-letter h- word]
(EBSCO, ProQuest, Gale, etc., etc., you know who you are... yes, I'll be transparent, I'm using your names so that - if you check buzz on the blogosphere about your company, you'll find this little rant...)

Or maybe I shouldn't speak for the profession. But I CAN speak for the users. Why do you think so many people would prefer to Google than to use your services? [I've extolled the virtues of the commercial databases to many of my family members and friends, but when I actually demo the services, they are atonished at how lousy the interface is, how irrelevant the search results are, how difficult it is to get in (yes, trying to find your library card number to prove that you're a legitimate library user, typing it in, and awaiting the ever-so-slow load up of your search interface is a pain to people used to the Google model of searching)... I know that they don't continue using the databases after I've shown them - unless a professor in a course they're taking requires it... how do I know? (a) I talk to them; (b) I myself - librarian that I am - far prefer to Google everything than to go into a database. Heck, I prefer Wikipedia to struggling with the licensed online resources that I have available to me. And I'm not any more lazy than anyone else out there - like everyone nowadays, I'm overbooked, overworked, and overwhelmed. I'm always seeking to do the easiest thing. It's the only way I can reduce stress and get by. And my methods are working well enough to make me forego the extra hardships involved in getting info from a commercial db, unless I really, really, really, really need it.

You are data aggregators - that's what you are good at. Stick to that. Provide endless ways and means for us to get at that data and to shape a positive user-centered experience. Provide endless ways and means for our users to take and shape that information.

If I might paraphrase Dave Rogers in this article - :
"And the promise of Web 2.0 is going to remain unfulfilled until a few companies are brave enough to give away the keys to their well-fortified Web kingdoms."

I'm not trying to be deconstructive without offering solutions. A few simple suggestions (yes, simple in concept, perhaps not simple in execution - but that's why you're a big corporation with a great number of resorces) will keep all of us from pulling our hair out, ranting on blogs, and bypassing the many quality resources that these database vendors provide to use lesser quality resources that are easier to use:

  1. allow the users & library folks to shape their own data delivery experience - let them use RSS feeds (e.g., to plug into their Google homepages/their Bloglines, Feedburner email alerts, etc.); let them aggregate the database offerings available to them, regardless of what vendor provides; allow them to cross-search the many providers - they shouldn't need to know that this journal is in your so-called "academic" product and another vendor's "general" product (abstracts only!)
  2. allow systems librarians to more easily integrate your resources with their other resources, be they catalogs, RSS feeds from blogs/wikis, or anything else for that matter; allow systems librarians, for example, to provide a search that goes across their entire website, all of their digital archives, catalogs, and every vendor's database [yes, yes, I know that your specific interface can likely be plugged into a WebFeat or SFX or other tool, but even so, when the end-user clicks on the results, they usually end up at a wholly different interface (your proprietary one) and it can be hard to move among the different resources from then on..]
  3. allow users to share information more easily using collaborative tools like blogs and wikis, offer permanent urls that they can point their readers and co-collaborators to
  4. help libraries to provide better authentication mechanisms - stop burdening the user with barriers to use (how about the use of global ip - something that the iCONN statewide database program for Connecticut has pioneered?)
  5. last, but certainly not least, stop trying to dazzle the users with smoke & mirrors -- prettying up your interface's "buttons" or page layout. Instead, meet their expectations of functionality -- search relevance in this case. It was not a smart-looking site that moved Google to the forefront (G's creators, of course, admit that the so-called "clean look" of their search engine was simply due to the fact that neither of them were designers - instead they were developers). People needed a search engine that would mine the vastly-growing web in ways that wouldn't just burden them with irrelevant results. Google offered the most relevant search results for users, so they ignored the low-tech look and used it. Moreover, the popularity of Google spread person-to-person - no marketing $$$ were spent at all. It was just Google's functionality - users who decided to give it a try were so impressed that they not only came back, but brought friends and family with them. This is another lesson for all of you db providers out there - forget the glossy brochures & slick marketing - spend your money on more developers!
Everything that I've suggested will bolster your products' value and also help to preserve the value of the library in the Web2.0 world. If you don't help the libraries to provide experiences that the end users want, users will all be using Google, Wikipedia, etc., libraries will become increasingly irrelevant, and eventually you'll lose those libraries as your paying customers.

1 comment:

royce said...

As a graduate student I think it stinks that people want us to use some of these overtly clunky POS systems. I can't imagine the frustration someone new to one of these sources must go through. I use them every now and then and I have to teach myself the 'tricks' each time.

It should not be that hard.