Friday, July 09, 2010

My Audio Ebook Mis-Adventures: A Lesson in UX Fail!

[Warning: this is a total rant. There's a lot of "WTF" and other inappropriate language...]
Basically, I’m going to walk you through a process that might leave you saying - geez, can’t believe she didn’t know how to do that. But the moment you think that, I want you to stop. Because I’ve been involved with computers since I was in middle school. I’ve been a systems librarian effectively since 1998. Before that, I was the informal dorm expert on everyone’s computer setup. They sought me out because I could figure it out. It’s possible that I’ve lost iq points over the years, or just lost patience. But - put it this way - I can GUARANTEE that if I’M HAVING THIS PROBLEM, OTHERS ARE TOO!

But they’re voting with their feet. You aren’t hearing from them because they - like my brother-in-law (who is, yes, only interested in audio books & videos & having gone through his local public library’s collection & not being allowed to get a broader set of options through ILL, refuses to go back to the library - feeling that there’s nothing there for him). That’s right. He literally feels that his public library (which is a pretty progressive and moderately well-funded public library) HAS NOTHING FOR HIM. THE LIBRARY IS FOR SOMEONE ELSE. Is HE going to stand up and fight to pay more taxes to support his library? I think not.

But Webhead, you say, my statistics show that people ARE USING OVERDRIVE!!!!!! LOTS OF PEOPLE!!!! OK, NO. The answer is - according to Overdrive - I now have 5 (with a limit of 5 possible) titles out. I can’t listen to 4 of the 5 and the 5th I can listen to on the Mac Mini, but NOT ON MY IPHONE WHICH WAS THE WHOLE POINT OF THE PROJECT. YOUR STATISTICS LIE! PEOPLE TELL THE TRUTH ABOUT FRUSTRATION. (As an aside, the deal is this - people have enough frustration, fears, anxieties, and issues in their lives that they HAVE to deal with, that’s why they whine about the little things that don't work when they should.)

Ok, so here’s how the whole thing went down. I finally decided to return to my local library. I had garden and pool work I wanted to do this afternoon & an audio book sounded like it would fit the bill - I’d get to learn something & get the mundane tasks completed, simultaneously. Perfect. I went to the audio books section. It was lean. Not much in the way of new titles. I’d pretty much listened to the tapes and CDs that were there or else they weren’t of interest at all. But there was a big sign telling me about their Overdrive audio ebook section. Go online, it told me.

Now, I’d tried doing this exact thing before a trip in May. I’d banged my head against the Overdrive audio ebook wall for over an hour that go ‘round. Then I decided, screw it, I had to go to bed, and that was that.

But I figured - today I’m under less pressure, not packing to go away or anything, and I have this new higher-speed cable broadband. I also have my new wireless-N router to test out. So I went online to my local public library website. I saw the graphical link to Overdrive in the right-hand column, so I clicked on it. And voila! I’m at the local library’s automation network’s “Downloadable eMedia Catalog”. The welcome screen promises:

“Download digital media 24/7 to your PC, Mac or portable device. Now your library never closes!”

Wow! That sounds awesome, I think. I immediately want to search & see if the titles I want are available (& in the format that works for my iPhone). I can do a really basic search, but there's no easy way to specify that one of my search parameters is that I want the title to be an audio book & to be in iPhone-compatible foramt. That's a huge fail. (Yes, you can do this in Advanced Search if you (a) can find it; (b) understand the difference between these 3 options: "Adobe EPUB ebook"; "Overdrive MP3 AudioBook"; "Overdrive WMA Audiobook". Don't make the person search by these "formats", instead have them narrow their search by the intended use - something more like: "Read the ebook (Adobe EPUB)"; "Listen to the ebook on any device (iPod, Mac, other)"; "Listen to the ebook on a PC/Windows device")

Instead, the content that catches my eye are the streams of book jackets that show me what categories I can browse. There are 6:

1. Recent Additions: eBooks
2. Recent Additions: Audiobooks
3. iPod®-compatible Audiobooks!
4. Top 100 Titles
5. Just Returned
6. Language Instruction

Now, what’s the difference between #2 & #3? If you aren’t a librarian who’d heard about the big audio ebook nightmares that have been going on (since at least 2004, as I recall!) you would just assume that #2 IS playable on an iPod. And honestly, if the reason you’d ended up at this Overdrive site was because you got referred to it from the library’s physical audio books section, you might even be confused by #1 - you might assume that they’re ALL audio books.
But whatever. That’s being a bit picky about the ux.

So I focused in on “Hot, Flat & Crowded” - I really wanted to hear that one. But I forgot it wasn’t under stream #3, which is what I really wanted, because what I really wanted was something for my iPhone. I clicked on the title & got into an item record. Under the book jacket & description, there are little icons that were supposed to show me whether or not the title is something I can use. I see that this one has the following icons not greyed out: PC, WMA, & iPod. So I want the iPod one, I think. I click on the iPod icon. It does nothing. I look for a download link. There is none. I see two links up near the title: “Add to My List" and "Add to Wish List". (BTW, on some titles, there's only "Place a hold" and "Add to Wish List", so I'm GUESSING that you can tell if the title has an available copy w/o going all the way into the item record & looking at the #s of available copies, by seeing if it has an "Add to My List" option. If it does, it means a copy's available right now. Otherwise, you can place a hold or you're out of luck.)

I’m only scanning for a download link, so I don’t notice that it also says - across from these links - “OverDrive WMA Audiobook”. It’s a meaningless distinction anyway, since I don’t know what “OverDrive WMA Audiobook” really means (though what it’s warning me of is that it’s only usable in an OverDrive console and that it’s in Windows Media format). So don’t expect to just download it and play it (of course not!) More problematically, our home computer is a Mac. I got a Mac so I could reduce the amount of personal tech support I do and still get my husband online as easily & quickly as possible. If I were to buy a machine for my mom, I’d do the same thing - I’d stick with Mac. And you’d think that - if this is iPod-friendly - it would be Apple-friendly. But it’s not.

I finally decide that - even though it practically hurts me to do it, since it SEEMS wrong - I hit “Add to My List”. (BTW, WTF is supposed to be the difference between “Add to My List” and “Add to Wish List”? just sayin’...) Ok, now what?

It shows a “My List” screen now with the title & lets me choose to either “Continue Browsing” or “Proceed to Checkout”. Now those are phrases that make good sense to me. I hit “proceed to checkout”.

Oh, son-uva-gun. I can’t tell you with 100% certainty what happens next. You know why? I’ve tried so many goddarned times that I’ve exceeded my 5 title limit. Even though I can’t actually get any of them on my iPhone. And no, apparently, there’s no way for me to return them without downloading them, even though I can’t use them. Ugghhh....

And yes, I downloaded, the damn iPhone app for Overdrive & tried downloading directly through my iPhone, which is a PAINFUL, AWFUL, TERRIBLE process that moves you into the Safari browser, then requires you to go through session authentication by choosing - 1st your home library - then entering your 14-digit library barcode # (which of course is not remembered by your iPhone browser... WTF does the Overdrive app not store this account info - iTunes does & I would've expected that to be the key piece of an iPhone app for Overdrive. And there's a whole world of other fails on the Overdrive iPhone app. It doesn't let you search your library's collection of Overdrive books - or any collection of Overdrive books for that matter - unless they're already downloaded onto your phone.)

Once authenticated (yes, you're totally in the Safari browser on your iPhone now), you can check your account & see what titles you've already "checked out" then hit a button that says "download". But even though I'd only "checked out" titles that were supposedly iPod-friendly, when I hit the "download" button, after the screen switched to the Overdrive app again where it was supposedly downloading the file to, an error 600: format (that it's a WMA file... no kidding!) popped up on the screen. I called the library automation network's help desk and they said that while you couldn't play the WMA's, even through the OD app, on a Mac, supposedly the WMA s that appear in the list of iPod-friendly titles can be played on the OD app for the iPhone. WTF?! Makes absolutely NO sense.

I tried downloading a title onto my Mac & then moving it over to my iPhone, but I could see no way to do that, but that wouldn't have eliminated the WMA format issue, anyway. I then tried just to get an audio ebook title to work on my Mac. The only combo that seemed to work was to go through the list of audio ebook titles, see if the icon for Mac was lit up (& it seemed like there were maybe just a few titles that fit that bill, but I couldn't really tell & was tired of paging through the list - there wasn't a search on that format option that I was able to find), then not only download that, but do so after having 1st downloaded an application from Overdrive for the Mac to play the MP3 title that was Mac-friendly.

And, BTW, despite the promises of the "iPod-friendly" titles that were in WMA, tthe only title I was ever ultimately able to get onto my iPhone was the one that I was able to get on the Mac mini - the Mp3 file. I haven't tried playing it yet. The whole afternoon was lost.

So much fail. Thanks a lot, local library. Thanks a lot, Overdrive. And no, I won’t vote with my feet. I’m a friggin’ librarian. I love my local library. I know that their heart is in the right place. I know it’s not them. I know it’s not the library automation network they get this through. I know that every organization I mentioned here is trying to get us into the 21st-century and keep our libraries relevant (I'm including Overdrive in this).

But honest to god, colleagues, if we aren’t going to offer a REAL, GOOD, USER-TESTED, USER-FRIENDLY SERVICE, let’s not offer the service at all. Because it’s worse to offer something that doesn’t work than to say - no, we’re not capable of doing this, so we only offer the old school services that we do know how to offer.

BETTER STILL, let's just work on making it better. Because it IS a service we need to offer. It's just that we need to do so effectively.


Lorri said...

I wouldn't believe this could happen to you except I know you wouldn't lie! What a fiasco - if you couldn't make this happen on your iPhone, then nobody will! It would be interesting to know if it's happening on PC / non-Apple devices too. Sounds like libraries subscribing to Overdrive need to do a serious check-up on if their patrons are really able to use this service. (BTW - I love it when you rant - you made my afternoon!)

Anonymous said...

YES, that sums it up !! I spent many hours trying to get an ebook on my iphone. just aint gonna happen in this lifetime! I was thinking I did it till I got the next error "error 100 check your network" = my network is fine. itunes just wants u to buy books from them... now that is easy downloading...... $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Alex said...

I feel your pain. The current model for ebook and audiobooks for libraries is broken. The most compatible format for most devices is MP3, which from what i've seen for most libraries is the format titles are least available in. At the moment Mac computers ONLY work with mp3 files, period. The same when using the OD app on an iPod or iPhone. The only way to get WMA titles on an iOS device is to use the media console on a Windows PC. (effectively it converts the WMA to an ipod friendly format which can take up to an hour or more depending on the length of the title).

All in all it's a frustrating experience for the average user, and many libraries end up going with the flow simply because they aren't that many options. I agree that it would be better to not offer the service, than offer a poorly designed one but that's just me.

This cartoon sums it up quite nicely.

Greg said...

Aaarrgghhh ! ! ! I have spent countless hours on many days on multiple computers trying to download books through OverDrive. I consider myself to be very tech savvy but have been totally stymied by this process. The list of my travails and related error messages is gargantuan and my attempted work-arounds heroic, yet I have still never succeeded in downloading a book. I too am a librarian who wants to believe in the process (and desperately wants to listen to audio books) but have exceeded my maximum stress levels too many times fighting this obstinate and unforgiving system.