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.