Christina's LIS Rant

It’s, um, fine… I guess

Is that all our vendors hear when they ask us to try out their new
interfaces?  A couple of us were kvetching on friendfeed about
this.  

Lemme tell you a little story.  A little while ago a really
important society publisher in the geosciences re-did all of their web
pages and they were pretty – jewel tones (not what I would have chosen,
but pretty none the less).  If you had a doi or were using an
open URL resolver, you would go straight to the article and be
satisfied – I pulled a bunch of articles for people this way and didn’t
notice.  Then one day, probably 6 months after the site had
been re-done, I was on the desk and this very, very, very smart and
savvy scientist was completely befuddled.  I asked if I could
help, and he asked me to show him how to find the article cited by the
article in his hand. I looked, and he was already on the journal web
site, you see, because he knows how to go directly from the catalog
(yay!).  So we looked, and we looked, and we looked and we
clicked, and we clicked…. Whoa, what on earth (or whatever planet
this guy studies)?  So then we tried to browse by date – no…
 Finally, I looked the stupid thing up in a research database
and linked out using Findit – our sfx instance…. and e-mailed it to
him.  As soon as I got off the desk, I tried a few more
things.  It was really crazy and nothing on the site made
sense. So I sent an e-mail to a listserv, asking who is on the library
advisory board for the publisher and (well, I guess this publisher
knows my place of work) immediately got 2 phone calls and an e-mail
from the publisher.  I sent them screen shots and I railed at
them… they were extremely concerned and they said:  but we
did user testing.  I asked, did you give the user a citation
like this one from a reference list and ask them to find the full text?
 (no answer so I’m not sure if they did or not). I explained
exactly what the problems were, and they made immediate changes – that
day, right then, to make the links make sense.  By the next
day they had fixed all of their journal pages, and checked back with me
that everything was ok.  But what else could they have gotten
done if this stuff had come out when they asked originally instead of
fixing it in an emergency?

Another case, a large multi-national corporation put up a set of
engineering handbooks where you could not find individual books by the
title. HELLO! Engineers know the names of their handbooks and don’t
search across them by subject (in my experience).  Who was the
librarian who was cool with the only access being search?

The final case I’ll give right now is a database vendor who rushed to
catch up with peers and added facets – aren’t we happy?  Um.
No.  Top facet was United States and the second was Human.
Oops – they put the affiliation field and the research subject in a
psychology database in with descriptors and identifiers…. But the
site was a pretty light blue and green – very springy.

In each of these cases, the vendors had gone out to users and to
librarians to get feedback.  They pretty much heard, “oh,
that’s fine” or “oh, pretty!”. Now come on – we are in this together.
 If a vendor’s interface, policy or whatever is AFU, then darn
it, say so. Say exactly what is wrong, where it’s failing.  If
you have suggestions, tell them.  Run the thing through its
paces with actual reference questions – isn’t that what you were taught
to do when evaluating electronic resources for the collection?
 If, when you’re using something, it’s non-intuitive and you
know how to fix it, then talk to the publisher.  I’m not sure
if I’m hated or loved, but I try to be pretty blunt:  listen
you – this policy won’t work, that’s not how people work, I can’t get
it to do what I think it should do.  

Sometimes, when I contact the help desk, I get blown off – if so, I try
to dig up a business card from the last conference or an e-mail. If
not, I blog it or I post it to the listserv.  Oh, they hate
that, but what else am I to do?

Oh, and if you are a scientist or a librarian, and someone from a
vendor or your acquisitions department or wherever asks you to look at
something – do look at it.  Please.  And seriously,
don’t be offiended if some for-profit publisher asks for the names of
some people who could give them feedback on a product.  I’m
not saying – hey you vendor – to go around the librarian and spam the
chemistry department. I’m saying that it’s ok if you can find some end
users who can look at a tool and run real queries against it.

Comments

  1. #1 Sue
    June 2, 2009

    Resounding agreement. Recent experience- we do a LOT of citation counts but only subscribe to one particular vendor so they have become our organization’s standard. We keep finding issues and reporting them. It’s culturally easy for us. For reinforcement we can verify amongst the 20 odd of us that it is an issue with the database and not us alone before reporting back to the vendor. Some of them are basic UI stuff (why oh why have your next page navigation at the top of a long page of results???). But we are often left wondering if and why we are the only ones reporting these issues when the vendor responds with same sorts of comments that you record here.

  2. #2 Rob W
    June 3, 2009

    Hear hear, and thank you for mentioning this.

    Most of the time, the developers and owners of a site aren’t using the site themselves… so they don’t always know how actual users are going to use it (or attempt to & fail…).

    I’ve developed and run a few different sites, and personally make feedback, bug reports, and suggestions as simple as possible to submit …and quite a large portion of new site development is based on input from users.

    Who am I, to pretend I know their needs better than they do?

    One additional note on submitting bug reports: details are very important. You need to include enough so that someone can recreate the problem — and that could depend on the browser & operating system you’re using, the specific record you’re manipulating on the site, and your specific input.

  3. #3 fusilier
    June 3, 2009

    I’m not a librarian, but I am wearing trifocals. Why is it imperative to have pastel background and teeny fonts?

    Black 14-pt on white is a lot easier to read, and keep me on that site.

    fusilier
    James 2:24

  4. #4 John Dupuis
    June 3, 2009

    I was at a publisher library advisory group meeting a few weeks ago — a small commercial engineering publisher. And let’s just say, they were quite taken aback by how vociferous and strongly worded a lot of our commentary was. We dug down and looked very closely at both details and conceptual level stuff.

    I think they were mostly expecting us to rubber-stamp the work they’d already done and that might be part of the problem. They spend a lot of time doing something that they think is right and they get a kind of emotional attachment to it. At that point, it becomes hard for the vendor/developer to look at the product really objectively.

  5. #5 Max
    June 3, 2009

    Amen. Actually I think this problem applies to all sorts of fields. People seem truly reluctant to actually look into a product’s weaknesses and speak out about it.

  6. #6 Jaki
    June 4, 2009

    Great post – and can be applied consistently across being asked to edit anything to be made public. If there is a process that will be run from a document, get as many people as possible to not only proofread the document, but to run the processes as well. Thanks for this.

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