Tips For Choosing A Quality Vendor

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The Denver Public Library recently redesigned its main website. The new site is colorful, updated in looks and design, and appears to be an improvement over its old website. Unfortunately, this is another case of beauty only being skin deep.

The vendor that the library chose to deliver its new library website, which includes searching the card catalog, managing your library account, reserving items, and renewing check out materials, is called Aquabrowser.

The biggest problem with selecting a good, quality, vendor to work with is figuring out before you buy their software offerings and sign a multi-year service contract whether or not their system is a good one. Typically, vendors provide what the industry calls, "dog and pony shows," in which the vendor demos their software. These demonstrations are obviously crafted to show off the strength of the vendor’s offering and to downplay any short comings. Unfortunately, a great many software services purchases are made on the basis of these carefully scripted and artificial demos and big design flaws only become known after installation.

In the case of Aquabrowser and the Denver Public Library the flaws stem from what must be a one-size-fits-all library management system that the company markets as widely as possible to maximize sales and support revenues. In order to limit the resources necessary to install and maintain its library computer system, they resort to any number of cheap programming tricks that degrade the usability of the system in order to maximize its standardization.

The main issue with the new Denver Library website system is that anything beyond superficial interaction with the website requires a pop-up window to open. This requires accessing a new domain name (aquabrowser). Advanced users have blocking software that prevent new websites from randomly opening for no reason, and in this case, aquabrowser will be rightly blocked. This is, of course, a cheap web development hack that keeps the vendor from actually having to support the library’s own website infrastructure. Instead, users are redirected off to the generic systems run by the vendor.

In order to prevent supporting multiple browsers or window sized, the vendor makes the pop-up window static preventing the user from re-sizing the window. This is amateur design at best. With a fixed window, users with bigger monitors cannot take advantage of their larger size by viewing more rows at a time. The number of rows supported for something like viewing your checked out materials is only a dozen or so, far less than the number of items library patrons have checked out on average. Furthermore, the list cannot be sorted by the user’s choosing. Only a due date sort is possible leaving users to scroll individually through a small, unsortable, list to find a specific item.

Making windows that cannot be resized is the hallmark of design decisions made with the software in mind above the user’s needs. By making the windows unresizable, the vendor need not do any coding to dynamically resize columns nor to add additional rows (or vice versa) to larger or smaller windows. The fact that the library card account holder might need something different is of no importance.

The icing on the cake in this instance is that the vendor cynically places their own company information ahead of the library’s information. The windows opened whenever the user hits the vendor’s systems have titles that say, "AquaBrowser Library – Discover Denver Library". That way, the vendor can point to its "successful" installation at the Denver Public Library with easy, proof that it is their system "behind the scenes." As an added bonus, title tags are the key to search engine optimization, so the company has ensured that it will be present in as many web searches as possible.

Time will tell if the Denver Library bought into a bill of goods based on a dog and pony show that leaves the beloved Denver attraction with an uncustomizable user experience that people will just have to "get used to" or if this was only the default installation and that the library will be able to once again deliver a high-quality experience to library patrons.

Factors For Choosing Vendors

Whenever viewing a vendor presentation, look for things that never change, or that are not indicative of a typical experience. Software that looks great with 5 records displayed at a time may be worthless with 20 records shown. Ask to see more.

Also, ask to see less. What happens if there are only 50 records as opposed to the 5,000 in the demo? Is the system too bloated and cumbersome then?

Contact the vendor’s references BEFORE the presentation. In addition to asking what they think, ask what the main complaints were when the system was first installed and how they were dealt with. Then, ask about those same things in the demo. If the vendor starts hemming and hawing, you have a system in front of you that may not be all that it is cracked up to be.

If, on the other hand, the vendor has ready, acceptable answers, then you have a fully workable system.

There is more to vendor selection than just money. Choosing the low cost vendor may prove to be a high cost decision if too many workarounds are required or too many customers disenfranchised.

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