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.

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.

 

 

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.

Librarian perspectives on working from home, flexible work schedules, and telecommuting

Can you work here?

In addition to being a library manager, I’m a father who has to make (and often coach)  the after-work basketball, soccer, and baseball practices, who has to lead the Cub Scout den meeting, and who has to occasionally stay home with a sick kid.  Like many professional librarians, this means that I often do work outside the “normal” 8-5, Monday thru Friday schedule.  In some cases the work outside the traditional workday is a means to stay ahead, in other cases it’s a way to make up for lost time.

I have a great office environment and I love to go to work each day.  In our office suite — a cubicle environment housing me(in an office, with a door that rarely closes) and ten other staff members –I get great ideas, energy, and motivation from the colleagues around me.  I really enjoy the conversations we have – some work related, some not – and appreciate our camaraderie.  However, there are times when I love to just kick back in my recliner with my laptop, a cup of coffee, and my favorite pair of sweatpants, and really focus on a project (or my inbox).  At other times I have done work in a different environment, sipping a hot beverage while mooching the wifi in one of our many coffee shops about town.

I’m a believer in giving my staff the resources they need to do their best work, and giving them the spaces and time to accomplish their tasks.  In addition to reading some books on the topic of work, I looked around the library web/blogosphere to see what librarians have written on the topic.  Below are some of the best articles and posts covering teleworking, working from home, and flexible work schedules/environments in libraries.

Tell Your Boss: Benefits of Telecommuting

At a time when we’re looking at reduced staffing in libraries, reduced salaries, reduced benefits, and reduced morale, it might be a good time to ask your boss about telecommuting (working from home) opportunities. Maybe your union could concede a 5% pay cut if every staff member gets two telecommuting days per month. Maybe you agree to a transfer or a reduction in health care if you get to work from home a half-day each week. I can tell you from experience that telecommuting is a positive thing: for both the employee and the employer.

Director’s Day in the Life: working from home

It also happens that I hear from a variety of librarians that they work for library administrators who don’t “like” or “approve” or “support” working from locations other than the libraries.

To which I say, “Why not?”

In my experience, offering library staff the freedom to intermittently do their work in the way they see fit isn’t a detriment to productivity, to collegiality, to collaboration, or to accountability. On the flipside, forcing attendance at the library can result in more paid time off being used, in lowered productivity from people who could have been more effective in a different environment, and some serious crushing of morale when the administration is perceived as being inflexible and unsympathetic.

Telework Guidelines — University of Washington Libraries

Telework involves the relocation of an employee’s work site to his/her home or alternative work site on a scheduled basis utilizing telecommunications and computer technology. Telework is intended to enhance employee productivity, creativity, and satisfaction through a mutually agreeable work arrangement between the employee and the University Libraries. Telework involves a formal agreement for a set period of time as approved by the supervisor, division head, and the appropriate Associate Dean or Director.

On occasion, a staff member may, with the approval of the supervisor, work at home but this short-term or ad hoc change of workstation is not covered by these guidelines.

Working From Home — A Day in the Life of  a Librarian post

At the time of writing I am recovering from a recent operation on my foot and am housebound. Because I am no longer a frontline librarian but a manager and thanks to technology, this does not preclude me from most of my duties – the most obvious being that I’m not attending face to face meetings at the moment. Even so, Skype also allows a restricted version of that too. Thus, for most of the working day, I am sitting on the sofa, my right leg extended on a chair, laptop on lap, writing and responding to emails. Even a few years ago I’m not sure this would have been possible.

Working from Afar: A New Trend for Librarianship?

Traditionally, librarians have been tethered to a facility either because their public service role demands face-to-face interaction or because they work with materials housed in the building. As collection formats and service mechanisms change, however, librarians may be poised to take advantage of more flexible scheduling arrangements. In Spring 2007, I embarked on a six-month telecommuting experiment between Washington, D.C. and Logan, Utah that proved to me that most of my daily responsibilities are perfectly compatible with a more flexible work arrangement.

Why librarians are well-suited for location-flexible work

Many library services and jobs are almost completely virtual and some libraries are completely virtual now. I don’t mean to say that I think physical libraries will disappear. I think they will continue to thrive, since they provide so many wonderful services to their communities. Working virtually is just another option that some of us may want to try at different times in our lives.

Librarians considering telecommuting, consider this

Not all employees or positions are right for telecommuting, but for those that are, libraries can gain advantages by opening up a telecommute option. Such flexibility may be key for recruiting and retaining employees whose specialized skills are difficult to replace. Library employees who negotiate a formal telecommute agreement may find more job satisfaction and be less likely to seek out other employment. For both libraries and library employees, then, here are four factors to consider when considering telecommuting.

Telecommuting for librarians

While not everyone has the liberty to do this, some kinds of tasks or positions are more suitable for telecommuting than others—generally tasks/positions that require little or no contact with the public, like cataloging, indexing, working on websites or the library’s intranet, developing user aids, virtual reference, and writing reports. However, even reference librarians might have time scheduled off the desk, which could be used for telecommuting.

Interesting comments on the future of B&N, reading, and libraries

With Christmas coming soon, I’ve been thinking about abandoning my Nook Color and going with an Amazon Paperwhite.  I’ve got several years in the B&N Nook ecosystem, but I honestly don’t know how many Christmases the company has left.  In looking for pundits’ thoughts on the future of the company, I found the comments from this post –more about libraries and reading than the Nook itself– interesting.

nookfuturelibraries