5 tips on providing feedback to library database vendors

“Feedback” cc via gforsythe

Last week I had the opportunity to give some constructive feedback to a vendor. I met with my sales rep, as well as two designers/developers of the database interface, via telephone and Adobe Connect. Right from the start they made me a presenter and I was able to walk them through my thoughts and give suggestions for improvements. At the end of the one-hour conference call, I felt like I had told them good information, and they told me they appreciated the feedback. They even asked if they could contact me later in the summer to send prototypes. This opportunity to provide a vendor feedback (and have them listen!)  does not come by  very often, so I did not want to waste my time or theirs. If you ever have the chance to provide feedback of any sort, here are my  five suggestions to make the process valuable for all involved.

1. Come prepared

Even though I am quite comfortable with this particular database, I spent an hour the morning before our call to go through the database and make clear notes about what I wanted to show them.  I used Evernote to outline my thoughts, just as if I was going to give a presentation to a class.  To be honest though, I was actually more prepared for the meeting than I am with most classes I teach.  The vendor reps had multiple questions for me as I was taking them through my demonstration (which I appreciated!) so it was useful to have the outline to get back on track after answering them.

2.  Set the stage

When providing feedback, make sure you set the stage to the reps about who your users are.  This particular database vendor has both academic and corporate clients, so it was important for me to tell them that my users are predominantly undergraduates, 18-22, who only want to use Google, and require an answer in 2 minutes or less. I had to let them know that while I was providing the feedback, I was doing so on behalf of my users.  I know how valuable the information in this particular database is, but my students have a hard time getting to it, and that likely shows in the lower-than-they-should-be usage statistics.    I also hinted at similar products, which my students find easier to use,  that the vendor should check out for a comparison with their own product.

3.  Don’t gripe

This is a big one.  Don’t whine and gripe period.  Doing so will likely result in you losing credibility and the vendors stop listening.  If you have  gripe, think and rephrase into a reasonable suggestion that is based on your experiences working with your users.  Again, make suggestions on behalf of the users, not because you think the database interface was designed by a flock of turkeys.

4. Put yourself in their shoes

Understand that database design — both the in back end indexing and the front end interface — can be extremely complicated.  Even though you think that the team of turkeys who designed the database did so overnight, in actuality considerable thought likely went into making it work.  Sometimes in an effort to appease everyone (i.e., paying customers), vendors throw every single limiter and feature possible to the users, only to muddle the interface and make the resource more difficult to use.  In my conversation with this vendor last week, I did my best to let them know that I understood that they had an enormous amount of information to present to diverse user groups.  I also did not pretend to know what was technically possible with altering the database interface, nor did I make assumptions that all of my suggestions would be appreciated by all of their customers.  While I can be an expert in understanding how my community uses a particular resource, I can’t claim to be an all-knowing expert on how everyone should use a database, or in how a database should be designed to meet every user’s needs.  These vendors who care about these issues, such as the one I talked to, have an extremely huge job, and I’m not sure I’d really want to be in their shoes.

5. Follow up with additional information

Shortly after our meeting, I emailed my Evernote outline and notes to my vendor rep, as well as links to some videos I had made on using the database.  The notes show my thought process as I demonstrated how I use the database, while the videos show how I teach my community to use the database.  Both can be used, along with their own notes (and potentially the Adobe Connect recording, if they recorded) for them to follow up with questions.  The vendor also said they may be in touch this summer with additional questions and perhaps some prototypes, so it appears that the opportunity for feedback will continue.

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Giving credit where credit is due at #cildc

I gave a presentation yesterday at the Computers in Libraries conference and quoted Aaron Schmidt about the perception of libraries and the library symbol. Folks found a decent sound byte and are still retweeting what I said, but the tweets make it seem that the quote originated with me. I've tried to correct this with a targeted tweet with attribution to Aaron ( @walkingpaper) to make sure he gets the credit for his wisdom. My slide as shown in my talk is below. Thanks Aaron, for your eloquent words, and I hope I did your thoughts justice in my talk.

 

 

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What can Instagram teach you about photography?

I've been posting pictures to Instagram for almost two years. Some photographers might think that Instagram isn't where “real” photographers would post as the pictures are generally lower resolution compressed files and/or the pictures are just camera phone selfies. I'm not a professional photographer by any means, but I have found Instagram to more than just a social network for posting pictures of food. As a budding hobbyist photographer, here is what I've learned from Instagram.

 

What you shoot isn't necessarily what you post

Filters can make you more creative. Not only do Instagram filters have the potential to make your pictures look better, but the practice of using filters can get you in the mindset of editing almost all of your pictures. Before using Instagram I really never took the time to do any sort of post processing. I now do some sort of editing to almost all of my pictures that I share.

Square format can help you with creativity

The square format of Instagram does limit how much you can squeeze into a picture. However, the square format can also force you to think more creatively about how you compose a picture. Likewise, the square format can also encourage you to be more creative in how you crop pictures before editing and posting.

Practice makes you better

The more pictures you take, the better you can get with photography. It's often said that the Best camera is the one you have with you, and a mobile phone is always with you. While most phones today take some great pictures, it's important to understand that you aren't going to get dslr quality with a phone. Be content with what you can capture while on the go with your phone, and do your best with the camera's limitations. Sometimes the picture is more about how you frame the subject and use available light than the size of the sensor. Even if the picture you capture won't be good enough of a poster-sized print, what you learn in the process of framing, capturing, and editing the picture on your phone can help you with your “real camera” photography skills.

Sharing helps you learn

Instagram makes it very easy to tag and share your pictures and connect with others on Facebook, Twitter, or Flickr. It is also incredibly easy to find and follow others on Instagram. Connecting and sharing with others is a great way to learn from others and develop your photography and editing skills. Getting feedback and recognition from others when they notice one of your best shots is very rewarding.

While Instagram makes it very tempting to share every picture you take, try not to over share. Rather, only post your good, unique, or interesting stuff. I've taken tons of pictures I just deleted because no matter how I edited them or used a filter, they weren't worthy. At the same time, an interesting or unique photo that tells a meaningful story doesn't necessarily have to be a work of art.

What have you learned from Instagram? Has being active on Instagram helped you learn to take better pictures?

 

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Design your service desk for the future

As I write this post, I am sitting at the reference desk in our very popular Learning Commons, wondering how heavy, and at what velocity a wayward book truck would have to be to knock this monolith down. This desk is not even 10 years old, built in 2004 when the floor was remodeled, yet I loathe its existence. I have fantasies of sneaking into the library late at night (when we aren’t open 24 hours) with a chain saw and sledge hammer.

Selfie at my big 'ole desk

Me and my big ‘ole desk

The desk was built when two different cultures occupied the space. On one side of the desk, traditional library services such as reference, book circulation, and study room check-ins were offered. On the other side, staff and students from the Office of Information Technology (at the time, called “Computer Services”) circulated 50 laptops, unjammed and filled printers, and answered technology-related questions. OIT pulled the one staff supervisor out of the library in 2009, and the library retained the student employee budget. Over time, as students hired by OIT graduated, and as we hired our own students, the cultures became one. With merging the two cultures, the student workers who provide library and technology services are now trained and supervised by library staff, enabling us to provide more consistent and better customer service. As a result, it no longer made sense to staff two sides of the same desk, making the “good idea” from 2004 now obsolete. We now only staff one side of the desk (the right part of the image below), and the other side holds our staplers, office supplies, and paper cutter.

The two sides of our desk, designed for two cultures

The two sides of our desk, designed for two cultures

When the desk was built in 2004, it was basically an updated version of the traditional reference desk. The wood paneling was replaced by a Corian countertop, and the wood accents were lighter in color. If only we had known better and tried to work with a more-flexible design. It’s ironic that all of our chairs in the Learning Commons have wheels, allowing our users to position the furniture wherever they like, yet our desk is immovable. In the past year, my staff and I have changed our staffing layout on the desk three times in hopes of making the inflexible desk work better for us. Over winter break we changed the desk, hopefully for the last time, at least until we can bulldoze the thing.

We currently have a librarian or paraprofessional (another post entirely on whether that is worth our time) and two students staffing the desk most hours of the day. We’ve tried to locate the librarian in different locations to increase visibility, work productivity when he/she is not busy (thank goodness for Remote Desktop), and supervisory view of the student workers. In our various ways of configuring the desk, we found that the librarian sometimes was too far from the questions to make sure our students were answering them correctly, had her back to the front door, or the  was checking out more than his fair share of laptops and study room keys.  I think we have found our ultimate configuration, and the funny thing is, it’s almost identical to how we staffed the library services side of the desk in 2004.

If I was going to design a desk today (yes, we still need a desk of some sort) here is what I would suggest.

  • The desk should consist of multiple modules, with the ability to break the different section apart to reconfigure as needed.  Wheels on the sections are a must. Ideally, the legs of the desk should be adjustable, allowing us to raise and lower the desk height as needed.  We should be able to change the footprint of the desk depending on our need.
  • The desk modules should be able to be powered and networked anywhere on the floor, allowing us to move the desk to experiment with new locations on our open floor plan.
  • Instead of desktops, we would have docking stations for laptops.  Library staff could bring their own laptop (or tablet) to the desk, allowing them to be more mobile around the floor.  If they needed to go help someone on the other side of the floor, they could take the laptop with them and still be connected to the chat service, email, etc, as well as their own files.
  • The design of the desk should be more transparent and inviting, rather than a huge barrier/bunker that guards/walls the library staff from the patrons.  We should have adjustable comfortable seating for our patrons, should they like to sit down for a longer conversation at the service desk.
  • When a desk module is not in use, we should be able to transform the module into something that can be used by our patrons, such as a scanning station, hold office supplies, or general seating.
  • Shelving and storage at the desk should be highly adjustable to allow us to change up where we store items.
  • Monitors, keyboards, and wires should be flexible in how we can position our displays.

Fortunately, our library is planning a renovation over the next several years, and it is likely we will have the opportunity to redesign my service desk, as well as others around the building.  My hope is as we make plans, we look for the most flexible design options available, and distance ourselves from our wood and Corian past.

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Using WordPress P2 theme as a communication tool in our organization

This week we had a soft launch for our new internal WordPress blog, running on the P2 theme.  I’m hoping it will be a better way to get our local knowledge out of our inboxes and on the web so that all public service workers, even students, will have access to the same information.

An internal blog is nothing new to us, having used for a while in 2005.  We moved from a WordPress blog a year later to a MediaWiki wiki because at the time, the wiki offered better organization of content.  Our departmental wiki later merged with an organization-wide wiki, and now it’s incredibly hard to find the content that is relevant for our department.  The wiki has grown too big for our department to use effectively, resulting in our searches returning false drops of someone else’s content.

Another problem with the wiki is that there isn’t a good way to view the most recent content.  In a public service environment, we need to let communicate among our staff about printing outages, tough research assignments (with links to resources), workarounds for tech/computer issues, etc.  In our big organizational wiki, the current issues get lost in the mix of archives of staff meeting minutes, cataloging procedures, and internal policy documents.

Therefore, we’ve started to blog again like it’s 2005.  We’re using WordPress again, but any blogger knows that the platform has come a long way in  decade.  To make it easier for our staff and students to post, read, and comment, we are using the P2 Theme, which allows you to post and comment directly on the home page.  Users don’t have to visit the admin page within the blog to add content, which will hopefully make it a lot easier for all staff to participate in the conversation.

Our blog is just in it’s infancy, so I can’t really report about its use right now.  However, I found WPUniversity’s articles on using WordPress for project management (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) very useful. Also, WPCandy has a nice list of plugins to use to enhance your P2 installation.

Matt Mullenweg discusses how P2 Changed Automattic.

A quick overview of the P2 theme is shown in the video below.

Also, Beau Lebens of WordPress.com explains the evolution of P2 and the future of O2.  It’s really neat to hear how the folks at Automattic use P2 for 80% of their communication.  Email is almost forbidden and highly frowned upon within the organization.

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