Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Why don’t user groups include end-users?

Over the years, I’ve been involved with a number of different user groups. Those in the library field are certainly modeled after, and share many similarities with those found in other software industry segments. Yet, I continue to feel that the library software user groups are missing something very important, especially given the make-up of librarians at large. What's missing is end-users.

Admittedly, a tremendous amount of the work done in libraries using software is backroom, internal operations. Yet this is all theoretically in support of providing access to end-users. User groups have created elaborate democratic enhancement processes; frequently work with companies through focus groups and other mechanisms in order to provide detailed input to those developing their software in order to make sure the most important needs for the largest contingent are met. User groups elect boards from among their ranks and these folks set policy and guidelines and propose the mechanisms by which the group is run and financed and handles enhancements. However, the results, really through no fault of the people involved, have proven questionable with regard to addressing end-user needs. Why does this happen?

Perhaps it is the following:

1. When a software product is new, it by default, gathers much interest and if it offers truly a ground breaking capabilities, it draws interest from the highest level of the library organization – the Library Director or CEO’s office. They initially become involved with the user group and because these tend to be the same people defining the overall vision of the library, the conversations involving them tend to lean towards that visionary level. The results are that initially, this benefits the products immensely as large leaps of functionality are required to fulfill that vision.

As the product matures, the Director moves on to new arenas of development and cedes the user group participation to the leader of the systems office or the systems manager. These people, as defined by their job descriptions, are focused on supporting their immediate peers, those running the library operations. Consequently, the developments and functional needs they express are more internally focused. Product enhancements, as a result, follow suit.

2. Librarians are (with clear exceptions) quiet, introspective people. They don’t market their skills sets aggressively within their constituencies or across their campuses and most have moderate to minimal interaction with end-users. They know library operations with tremendous precision, but, for example, have problems understanding why end-users are not excited by multiple search interfaces that allow them to extract information with tremendous precision from multiple databases. Clearly there is tremendous room for disconnect between the wants and needs of the librarians versus the wants and needs of the end-user.

So how can “user groups” ameliorate these outcomes? I’d like to suggest that user groups should expand their membership to take in at least a panel of end-users. They could then involve them in the user group activities in a couple of ways:

1. For example, at the next user group meeting, they could invite two or three end-users, representing for instance, faculty, staff and students, to talk about what libraries could do to better serve them; to help them deal with the massive amount of information they’re searching/using? Then use these talks to serve as a framework for at least a track of the user group meeting that is focused on end-user needs and how to address those needs. They could ensure at least a portion of the pool of available enhancement resources is used to address those end-user needs.

2. Users groups could also work to educate their membership to address product procurement processes. Procurement of an end-user facing product should include evaluation by actual end-users as part of the process. Depending on the product involved this evaluation should be appropriately weighted in the final decision to ensure that end-user needs are met. This should not be an option. It should be a requirement in these procurement processes.

I’ll admit that I quickly tire of library software vendors being blamed for products that don’t meet end-user needs when I see such a dearth of end-users involved in the decision making processes concerning functionality and enhancements desired by libraries. This is a trend that can be altered and for the benefit of all. One step in doing that would be for user groups to include end-users.