Hit by the UXLibs freight train


BNSF Eastbound Winslow, Arizona by Clay Gilliland via Flickr Creative Commons

I made it!
I survived one of the hardest weeks of my professional life and feel like I’ve been hit by a freight train travelling at 150 miles an hour.
I’m out at the other side of UXLibs.

It’s really hard to believe that something that had such life, complexity, detail, joy and laughter is now done with, but there it is. UXLibs is now something I did rather than something I’m counting down to and inevitably as the dust settles I’m sat here evaluating. And for me, as much as anyone else, I thought it would be useful to commit to my blog some reflections on what the whole UXLibs experience has taught me. And yes, you guessed it – it’s a helluva lot.

I’ve been a leader and manager of teams and committees for many years but rarely have I headed one that has had such a strong shared vision. Now you could argue that this was inevitable given I chose who I wanted on board but it doesn’t change the fact that everyone continually rowed in the same direction and gave their time so freely without complaint. I can’t think of any suggestions that I felt compelled to reject or of any committee squabbling. And let me tell you not one of these guys is a pushover – they would all call me out on stuff, and have done in the past many times – and quite right too. The fact was we all shared the same broad definition of UX, the same desire for a practical and developmental conference, and the same belief that, in the words of Moloko, the time was now. In point of fact so compellingly together was the team life of UXLibs that it prompted me to do something I’ve never done before – resign from another committee that was going nowhere precisely because there was no shared vision.


The committee on Day 1 – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

When we first started planning the conference we were hoping to get a whole raft of ethnographers and designers on board to back up the glorious Donna, Paul and Andrew, but in the event, in fact within the very last month, several of them became unavailable. Significantly we were left with two whacking great gaps in the schedule. Did we panic? Did we weep and rent our garments? No! Heaven forfend! Instead three of the committee stepped up to fill the gaps. Hence Georgina’s ethnography workshop on Day 1 and The Matts’ mapping workshop on Day 2. I bet you thought those sessions were intended all along – right? Nope. Those sessions were examples of last minute confident brilliance for which the three of them should be riotously applauded.

If I had a pound for every time someone told me the conference would never work, because it was a) unclear what it was about; b) taking place in vacation; c) merely new fangled Emperor’s New Clothes… then I’d have about £14. OK so there wasn’t that much opposition, but definitely enough voices to prompt a second guess or two. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to ANY of them.

It’s no accident that Libby and I chose St Catharine’s College as the venue for UXLibs. The now legendary rising and falling wall, the lighting, and the classic Cambridge college setting, all had the potential to give the conference a bit of theatre and therefore engage delegates in a way that a bland hotel absolutely could not. Our Apprentice skit, twilight punting, walking tours, and formal college dinners helped too. We wanted the conference to not only explore user experience but be an experience for our users too and I think we ticked that box. I once bemoaned to our Catz contact about the lack of a smoke machine, only to discover that they are going to purchase one, we were just too soon to benefit from it. Just imagine Matthew Reidsma’s already mesmerising ‘myriad of stars’ keynote accompanied by dry ice! The pitch-offs also showed me just how willing the teams were to act and role-play. Every single one of the teams in the ‘Ramsden pitch off’ decided to bring their presentation to life with some theatre and each pitch was stronger as a result. I was surprised and full of admiration.


Pitch-off in the SCR with judges Matthew Reidsma, Andrew Asher, Georgina Cronin – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

On a directly related note I also received confirmation that we are all capable of staggering creativity in a very short space of time. Despite a punishing schedule and a looming deadline all the teams rose to the not inconsiderable challenge of the project brief and came up with a product, concept or service that would have given my MBA students back at my business school a serious run for their money. Brands such as The Open Door Library & Barista Librarians (Team Purple Haze), and the Get-A-Room app (Team Blue Steel) were immediately compelling and, crucially, firmly grounded in the earlier ethnographic fieldwork. A few delegates questioned whether their teams would be ready to take the project on and run with it so rapidly and I was thrilled that UXLibs proved that a ‘quick and dirty’ approach to fieldwork, innovation and ideation was valid and bore some amazing results that could very feasibly be implemented. Conversely. the process also underlined to me that ethnography, service design and field research must be a continuous iterative undertaking.

I asked in my closing address ‘How many conferences have keynotes as strong as these?’ Not many is the answer. I am immensely grateful to Donna Lanclos, Paul-Jervis Heath, and Matthew Reidsma for bringing it so completely. They are innately brilliant people but let’s not forget that they spent time making those keynotes as superlative as they were. Their commitment to their talks was obvious and it is something that will stay with me should I ever be tempted to phone it in.


Donna Lanclos – Keynote – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

This would have been a tough conference for me even if I had been on top form but my being ill added an extra dimension of difficulty. I couldn’t think on my feet or make the usual connections and it was both frustrating and upsetting. I firmly believe that you should never begin a talk with an apology but I felt compelled on Day 2 – when I looked like one of 28 Days Later’s ‘Rage’ victims – to honestly explain to the whole conference that I was ill. I am so grateful to Deirdre Costello for making the effort to tell me that not only was this decision the right one but that it was also pretty brave too. I guess it was more my being honest than apologising. Thank you too to the committee for their extra support throughout. Two impromptu hugs in particular – from Matt and Georgina – really helped. You guys!

There was a point a week or so before UXLibs that Georgina and I couldn’t look at the committee version of the programme, which we’d worked up between us, any more. Its colour-coding, timings and 8 pages became such a bewildering mass of data that we just had to put it aside until we had the courage to look at it again. This was a precision operation and no mistake and yet we STILL missed things by either underestimating the complexity, not thinking hard enough about the actual logistics or forgetting that delegates were not privy to all the information that we committee were. Organisation is definitely my most core competency but UXLibs occasionally defeated me on this score. There is no such thing as too much detail or planning.

One of the hardest things to learn as a manager is the art of delegation – not only how you do it, but, more crucially: when. I delegate far, far more than I used to and I’m pleased that, despite the fact that UXLibs often felt like my own baby, the experience taught me once again to trust people to play to their strengths and give them almost free rein in their area – Matt on the website, comms, AV and music (I believe a Spotify UXLibs soundtrack is on its way!); Georgina on the app and financial control; Ange on catering, leisure activities, taxis, and, of course, housekeeping (!); Libby and Meg on fieldwork planning, and so on.

What do Deirdre Costello, Costas Tsiamas, Serena Rosenhan, Arnold Arcolio, Catherine Cable and Darren Roberts all have in common? Yep that’s right they all contributed brilliantly to UXLibs – to the ethnography, to the teamwork, to the pitches. I got to know some of them a lot better and I enjoyed their company and their insights. But wait, aren’t they all vendors? Oh yeah – they are. Shouldn’t we keep our distance and behave differently with them as a result then? No. What? You mean it’s OK to like talk to them and get their perspectives on things? Yes, yes it is. Oh right. I had no idea. Well now you know. OK so this doesn’t fit with the ‘what I learned’ theme, as I knew this already: yes they sometimes have different objectives, but vendors are human beings with feelings too and they are just as fed up with standing behind stalls at conferences as we are seeing them there. There has to be a better way. We need to partner and work with them and LEARN from them. We need to stop being short-sighted. Does anyone who attended UXLibs doubt the commitment and integrity of UXLibs very own Matt Borg, just because he now works for ProQuest? No? Good. Time to make a change then.

UXLibs delegates – photo copyright: jtilleyphotography

It is now three days since UXLibs and I still feel a bit battered and bruised but I also feel completely sure it did good and was a worthwhile endeavour. As I said last thing on Friday: Go forth and do more UX in libraries!’ Oh and if you haven’t seen the official conference photos yet, here they are. The pitches and presentations will also be made available soon.

I’ll leave you with Deee-Lite’s Groove is in the Heart from the pitch-off finals playlist as ‘I’m still feeling kinda high like a Hendrix haze’. Spooky coincidence eh? (Team Purple Haze forever!)


Ethnography for Impact

Back in the summer I was asked if I would contribute to the annual SCONUL Winter Conference, attended by the UK’s University Library Directors, on the topic of ethnographic research methods in libraries.  As well as introducing the topic to the audience and exploring its relevance to librarians they were keen to hear about how this sort of research can have a direct and practical impact on service delivery.  I readily agreed as I knew by the time that I presented (last week) that I would have the details and outcomes of three separate ethnographic research projects conducted within my library service:behavioural mapping; show-me-round (known by anthro types as a ‘touchstone tour’); and cognitive mapping with both faculty and students. The audience seemed very receptive to the presentation content and asked all the right sort of questions afterwards.

I am available for half-day training courses on ethnographic research techniques in libraries.

Broken library communications and how to fix them

A little over 2 weeks ago Ange and I met with 15 visitors from Aarhus University, Denmark – a mixture of librarians, consultants and designers. They wanted to hear our take on library communication strategy, a state-of-affairs which prompted us to put together an approximation of our current take on the topic. Our main message was that its out with the linear and the singular and in with the matrix and multiple. Although I note that this is not exactly specified anywhere on the slides! Let’s just pretend that was deliberate.

Anyway, we quite like the presentation and thought that others might like to see it too.

Become a librarian. See the world! (EBSLG 2014, Part 2)

Hello again, it’s now Monday evening. After the penultimate session of our Social Media Driving Licence tomorrow, I’m off to Leicester for BLA 2014, so I’d better get this second EBSLG post out now. You may remember that we got halfway through my Top Ten of my recent week in beautiful St Petersburg…


The Russian flag with the Hermitage behind (taken from the middle of the River Neva)

Me winging it at the front. Photo: Fabrizio Tinti

Me winging it at the front. Photo: Fabrizio Tinti

5. Inventing a business plan (on the spot)
I regularly fail to listen to instructions carefully (or indeed at all). Most of the time the consequences of my lack of attention aren’t that serious. Let’s just agree not to talk about my A-Level Geography exam paper. Anyway, on the second day of the conference we had a session on business models and were tasked to model a library service for the next user generation. In other words ‘go a bit mad’ and come up with some crazee stuff. Trouble was everyone in our group, and I mean everyone, didn’t really hear that last bit, and we modelled our plan on existing users. Oops. Nominated individuals from each group were required to come up and present collective findings, and as they started to do so it quickly became clear that we’d messed up. It was our group’s turn all too quickly and guess who has to go and present at the front? I decided there and then to ditch our notes altogether and come up with some wacky stuff on the spot. Describing brain implants, technology so cool and unimaginable that even if you squint you can’t see it (I actually made all the delegates squint!), a new Twitter with more limited characters called Quikker (I bet it already exists), and various other bits of hokum, I somehow got through the presentation unscathed. Before I finished I asked my group from the front if there was anything I missed as if what I said was at all representative of our discussion. They played along, nodding their agreement that I had covered everything. As I returned to my seat I resolved once again to listen to instructions more. I won’t though.


Delegate coffee break. Jeff Wilensky is far right talking to Elke Parrez

4. Gin and kittens
Lunch on the second day. I’m talking to a vendor, Jeff Wilensky (see above photo) Vice President of Product Management at ProQuest, about the World Cup. I know little but manage to hold my own. It’s a running theme of my life. Jeff suddenly asks me what librarians typically like to see in a presentation. ‘Kittens and gin’ I reply almost without thinking. ‘Really?’ asks Jeff not believing me and knowing of old my propensity for mischievousness. ‘Yes’ I confirm. An hour or so later I’m sat watching Jeff present his first slide adorned with a kitten and a gin bottle. You have to applaud that. This is the sort of stuff that vendors don’t do enough of – listen to their customers, even when they’re being trivial. He even quoted my recent vendors blogpost on his final slide and although this was him being cheeky about what I’d said (I don’t remember which quote he used) it still showed that he’d read it. The rest of the presentation was pleasingly realistic too – a use case of an esoteric market research question, exactly the sort of weird enquiry we regularly get. All in all, nice work Jeff. One of the other vendors conversely decided to talk about Second Life rather than their product. I won’t embarrass them by telling you who it was.


3. River boat cruise
The last night saw a cruise along the River Neva which was less of a highlight because of the sights we passed, we’d seen most of them already at closer quarters earlier in the week, but because of the camaraderie of the delegates. With only around 50 delegates at every conference, by the end of the week we’re all very relaxed with each other and there were selfies, jokes and raucousness galore. A new face from the UK was heard to remark that ‘business librarians are much more fun than law librarians.’ I won’t show you photos I took of some of the delegates swigging direct from a champagne bottle you’ll just have to imagine them.

Voting cards. Not Labour, Lib Dem, Tory though.

Voting cards. Not Labour, Lib Dem, Tory though.

2. Europe, can we have your votes?
Probably the best session at the entire conference was not delivered by librarians but students. The students in question had been invited to present new library ideas. The three pairs of presenters were all Russian but spoke excellent English and presented confidently on: a more personalised library catalogue; a library mobile app; and a library space designed to be more conducive to study called CALM (Convenient Accommodative Library Model). The CALM duo had bags of enthusiasm and charm, and also benefited from a 3D layout video. It may have been style over content but I voted for them. Ah yes, the voting. It all briefly went a bit Eurovision, especially as our Russian host detailed the voting protocol. CALM ended up the winners, but all the students were quite rightly thanked for presenting so intelligently and professionally.

1. A Very Long Walk or ‘Domes and Death’
On our very first night in Russia a group of us decided that the next day would consist of sightseeing around the centre of the city under the heading ‘Domes and Death’. There’s an awful lot of both in St Petersburg (the murders per acre would give TV’s Midsomer a run for its money) and enough sights for another blogpost in its own right.


Church on the Spilled Blood

Despite the fact that our Very Long Walk was the highlight of the week and comes in at No 1, I will restrain myself (four blogposts about EBSLG would be just silly). Our Grand Tour took in a multi-domed church near the hotel that looked completely amazing but wasn’t recommended in any tourist guide because it ‘wasn’t important’, St Isaac’s Cathedral, the Hermitage, the spectacular Church on the Spilled Blood (great name as well as dazzling to look at), the Underground, Finland Station, the Aurora battleship; and finally St Peter and Paul Fortress.

Fellow travellers - Mary, Lorna, Deborah

Fellow travellers – Mary, Lorna, Deborah

I think we walked around 5 miles in total, perhaps more.  Fellow travellers included Lorna McNally (with whom I effortlessly navigated the Underground with the motto ‘Never Primorskaya, always Rubetskoye. Nyet’), Mary Betts-Gray (who had to leave the tour early for an EBSLG Council meeting – that’ll be me next year) and Deborah Morrison (who had to taxi back to the hotel two-thirds of the way round). We had a fantastic time, but by the time we reached the Fortress, with Lorna and I the only two left-standing, we suddenly realised that we were just taking photographs of domes through force of habit having contracted what we dubbed ‘CDF’ – Chronic Dome Fatigue.


The Aurora battleship. A blank shot from the ship started the Russian Revolution.



It was also at the Fortress where I gamely tried on a Russian hat. I tweeted the photo later and got some unexpected attention.

It HAS to be recorded that Lorna has the worst sense of direction of anyone I’ve ever met. Anyone! I’m sure the poor thing regularly gets lost in her own house. Nevertheless, she’s great company and far wittier than me. My favourite Lorna line of the week came while we were traversing a road. In St Petersburg traffic lights have what we nicknamed a ‘Countdown to Death’ with green neon numbers displaying how long you have left to cross before the traffic callously mows you down and this particular crossing was going to be a close call. Lorna

: ‘So Meester Bond it is time for you to die?!’

Many, many thanks go to Elena Kosareva and her team at the St Petersburg Graduate School of Management for putting on such a great conference. Next year the EBSLG conference will be in St Gallen Switzerland with Edeltraud Haas as our host. Can’t wait.

It’s true what they say you know. Become a librarian, see the world!

Here’s my Flickr album with all of my St Petersburg photos


St Peter and Paul Fortress from the Neva


Become a librarian. See the world! (EBSLG 2014, Part 1)

On reflection, volunteering to become President of EBSLG (European Business Schools Librarians Group) on top of everything else I do may not have been the Wisest Move in the World, given small matters such as the ongoing Social Media Driving Licence course, the UXLib conference and book, and the fact that I’m also now chairing Cambridge University’s Faculty & Departmental Librarians Group. For one thing assuming this new presidential role (yes I admit I do like the sound of it) makes it feel more essential than ever that I blog about the annual EBSLG conference, which this year took place in glorious history-drenched St Petersburg a few weeks ago. I’m trying to write this post on Sunday morning before the 2014 Men’s Wimbledon Singles Final (sorry Edeltraud I’m backing Djokovic) so if it becomes disjointed further down it’s because I’ve failed and I’m simultaneously shouting at the television.


One of the main bridges across the River Neva

The annual EBSLG conference usually makes me feel very lucky to be in my job due to the promise of exotic climes, however, last year’s event was in Cambridge so being at home as its harassed organiser, I was feeling much less fortunate.  This year would be different, more ‘become a librarian and see the world.’ Hey, we should totally start using that slogan.

As you may have gathered from my previous post the defining moment for me was beholding the imperious Lenin statue at Finland Station, the site of his triumphant return from exile (I’m no communist but I found the weight of history at that place overwhelming, especially as I’d written about the event for a BBC drama series DVD release years ago and never thought I’d actually get to visit), however, there were many other highlights, some of them were even part of the conference itself (!). Here dear reader is the first half of my EBSLG 2014 Top Ten…

ebslg-stp-14 (1)

EBSLG delegates looking gorgeous

10. International delegates
One of the very best things about EBSLG is that you get to meet people from other European countries. That and the annual discovery that librarians everywhere are grappling with the same problems, for example, Lilian Luchi from Argentina (one of three delegates from beyond Europe) revealed in her presentation that 70% of Latin American academics don’t know what Open Access is yet. Meanwhile presentations from Bob Hebert (North Carolina), Nikolaus Berger (Vienna), and Irene Schumm (Mannheim, Germany) all demonstrated, and agreed upon, the demise of the printed book in our library spaces, and their increasing use simply as decoration. We even heard how they had battled architects to prevent them from putting far more books and shelves in newly designed libraries than are actually required. I was very pleased to hear Venkadesan Srinivasan – Venky for short – from the Indian School of Business tell us about his holistic and realistic approach to library services: allowing food and drink, mobiles, and offering a DVD collection for students that their partners and children can borrow from too. It’s a community approach that I’ve also been pursuing at Judge for some time. However, it’s not all parity and agreement, sometimes culture has a part to play. Take appraisals for instance, about which I had a fascinating discussion with Pascale Pajona (Head of Library at INSEAD, Paris) during the gala dinner at the Astoria Hotel (it featured in Goldeneye fact fans). I learned from Pascale that in contrast to my rather fulsome praising of my talented staff, over in France however hard one works, praise tends to be withheld.

Uwe explains geocaching

Uwe explains geocaching

9. Uwe on Geocaching
One of my favourite presentations at this year’s conference was given by Uwe Boettcher from the Otto Beisheim School of Management who talked about the use of geocaching as a library outreach tool (‘using satellite technology worth billions to search for Tupperware’). Uwe ably explained the appetite for gamification amongst today’s users, a point which I took as a further incentive for me to finally use LEGO Serious Play with our students. We almost went on a geocaching trip around the city, but as there was so much else to do and see there wasn’t time.


The VodkaRoom menu. There was a separate Vodka menu.

8. The Vodka Museum
At the start of The Vodka Museum Evening, as it shall always be known, all ten of us present regardless of nationality (Brits, Swiss, Spanish, German, Swedish) rather meekly asked for ‘vodka’ from our waiter. By the end of the evening accompanied by a rousing trio of traditional Russian musicians we were thrusting our glasses in the air shouting for ‘wodka’ like natives. Along the way we settled upon our Vodka names. All I remember is that Lorna was ‘Putinka Soft’ and I was ‘National Leader Classic’. Obvs. Later that evening, well actually morning, a group of us walked along the river and watched St Petersburg’s famous bridges rise as part of the ‘White Nights’ celebrations. During White Nights the sun doesn’t set until midnight or thereabouts, but the bridges didn’t do their thang until 1:25am. We got very cold and some people gave up waiting and returned to the hotel (may they be forgiven) but a few of us stuck it out and watched the spectacle.

Bridge rising in front of the Hermitage and yours truly with Lorna and Thorsten

Bridge rising in front of the Hermitage and yours truly with Lorna and Thorsten

7. Engaging with the audience at home
This is 2014 right? So why (WHY!) are presenters still surprised and indignant about delegates live-tweeting? ‘I wondered what you were doing’ said the British keynote to me in front of the entire audience, before he went on to ask me what I got out of it (with a definite tone of condescension). I explained that live-tweeting offered me a fuller experience of the event, especially given the engagement with the audience beyond, and also acted as an excellent record of the event for when I came to write up my blog. He didn’t seem at all convinced. Ironically, back home it was also live-tweeting week of the Social Media Driving Licence, a fact that encouraged me to fight my corner a little more strongly than I otherwise would have done.  My experience of live-tweeting in St Petersburg was one of the best I’ve had at any conference as over the three days librarians from all over the world had conversations with me, asked questions about the talks, made me laugh, and generally enriched the event. Thank you followers, you’re great.  Special mention here must go to Fabrizio Tinti (from Belgium) @fabtinti for tweeting almost as much as me and for sharing my content with a wider audience.

St Isaac's Cathedral

St Isaac’s Cathedral

 6. History of Russia(n libraries)
During the week I was especially interested to hear from residents of St Petersburg who had experienced life in Soviet Russia. One told me about listening to the Beatles on her radio as a child and learning English so she could understand the lyrics. I was surprised to learn that the jokes we made during the conference about Lennon and Lenin had previously been used widely in early 80s Russia, indeed after Lennon’s death, Russian schoolchildren replaced ‘Lenin’ in a repurposed Communist slogan: ‘Lennon lived, Lennon lives, Lennon will live.’ We also learned about libraries in Soviet Russia, through a fascinating keynote given by Irina Lynden. Interestingly of the 3200 libraries in St Petersburg in 1980 (Soviet era) only 1,100 remain now. Called ‘mass libraries’ in the Soviet era, apparently when the name changed to ‘public libraries’ it caused some blushes as ‘public’ meant brothels to them. My stay in Russia presented me with just the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the country’s history and society and I resolved to buy lots of books on my return. And I did.


Russian reading

The tennis is about to begin, plus this post is plenty long enough already. Next time my EBSLG 2014 countdown goes from 5 to 1 – as I recount inventing a business plan from scratch, the moment when everything went a bit Eurovision, and how I contracted CDF (Chronic Dome Fatigue).

Here’s my Flickr album with all of my St Petersburg photos

A railing beside the Church on the Spilled Blood

A railing beside the Church on the Spilled Blood

Arrival at Finland Station

The escalator seemed to ascend forever, while an endless stream of workers descended alongside into the depths of the Russian Underground system. Finally we arrived at the summit and I noted an impassive uniformed member of personnel, in a glass booth ahead of us, checking tickets. We had travelled from the Nevsky Prospect station, (bravely) changed lines twice already, but had no ticket, having been required instead to insert coin tokens into an entry barrier. ‘How did the coin know how far I was going?’ I wondered. Could I travel the Underground for as long as I wanted? Thankfully the guard did not wish to see our tickets and we followed the steady line of people leading from the escalator through the rather Spartan station foyer. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I caught a flash of red, looked up to my left, and marvelled at a huge mosaic of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin which covered the entire wall. Imperious in countenance he watched over the crowds below who conversely paid him no attention in return. This is no chance mosaic, for it was here at Finland Station in April 1917 that Lenin arrived ahead of the October revolution in Petrograd (today St Petersburg), then Russia’s capital, an insurrection which led in turn to the wider Russian Revolution and the birth of the Soviet era. Lenin, who was returning from exile, met his followers here, and climbed onto a waiting armoured car where searchlights picked him out for the benefit of the gathered crowds before he began his historic speech:

‘The people need peace, the people need bread, the people need land. And they give you war, hunger, no bread… We must fight for the social revolution, fight to the end, until the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution.’

On leaving the station, we looked up at the stone facade which depicts intentionally glorious scenes from the revolution – the station was rebuilt in the Soviet era in a deliberately drab utilitarian style – before crossing the busy road, the objective of our journey, now in our sights. Our destination: the huge statue of Lenin, which sees him looking out to the River Neva, and captures him part way through the above speech. First erected in 1926, the statue survived a bombing in 2009 that only succeeded in removing a small patch of his long coat. Looking up at Comrade Lenin I’m not at all surprised as he is as imposing and impressive as I had hoped.

Despite the fact we felt a little in awe we were not going to miss a photo opportunity and snapped away for some time like the tourists we so obviously were. We had successfully arrived at Finland Station and like Lenin before us were not disappointed by what we found there.

Lenin at Finland Station

[This trip, for which I was accompanied by Lorna McNally and Deborah Morrison, took place on Monday 16 June 2014, the day before the start of the 45th EBSLG conference in St Petersburg. I hope to blog more on the event soon.]

42 things that database vendors need to do to secure AND keep my custom

42This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a Very Long Time and which is finally seeing the light of day thanks to interest shown by Sarah Wolfenden during a conversation we had at the recent LILAC conference: ‘I’d like to read a post about that’ she said, or words to that effect.

A bit of background will quickly explain why this is topic is a big deal to me: I manage a £350k+ per annum budget for databases at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. I’m effectively buying for the whole University as we’re its business and management department, but that said, by far the most extensive usage of the products I purchase is made by members of Judge. I’ve been dealing with database vendors since the mid-Nineties (in fact a quarter of them are the very SAME database vendors, but both the products and people have changed) so I have around 20 years experience of these relationships and, for the past 6 years, direct purchasing power.

It’s important to say that this post isn’t intended to be a quick cathartic vent of my spleen. For one thing I’m not particularly annoyed with any vendors at the moment, not even mildly, however, I like the idea of some of them being alerted via this post to where they commonly go wrong and to better understand why they regularly drive us librarians up the wall.

N.B. For obvious reasons I have deliberately anonymised the experiences and vendors in question.

Without any further ado, those 42 things (in no particular order):

1. Authentication 101
You’ve not heard of Shibboleth. You want me to spell it for you? You want to know what a proxy server is? Not cool. Sort out how your database is going to being authenticated to all of our users before you pick up the phone to me. And if your solution is multiple usernames and passwords accept that this is not going to be a viable solution for 99% of your academic customers.

2. Serial phoner
Hi it’s Zack again. Have you thought any more about buying our product since I last called you ten minutes ago? No Zack I haven’t and from now on I’ll be screening your calls.

3. The Only Librarian (really?)
Don’t tell me that I’m the only librarian experiencing issues with your database unless you know this for certain. We talk to each other you know. And in the past 20 years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times when the fault has purely been a local problem.

4. Browsers 101
Develop your product so that its compatible with ALL browsers. And that means Safari too. What? You didn’t get the memo about the fact that students are on phones and tablets all the time now? Check your in-tray.

5. No hard sell
Don’t hard sell to us. It almost never works. I vividly remember a conference at which a vendor stepped in front of another vendor, who I was busy speaking to, in order to sell their product to me. I was not impressed. Go back to Vendor School, and if you pass Go, do not collect £200.

6. Price chat  ban
Some of you think banning discussion of prices between librarians is appropriate. Newsflash! It isn’t. It only means we all talk about you in hushed angry tones and nurse negative thoughts that may well contribute to some of us cancelling our subscriptions, and leads others, who don’t yet have your product and hear of this practice, to never buy from you. And get this, this is regardless of how good your product is. Drawing board.

7. How is our product really used?
‘How is our product really used in your institution?’ This is a key question and should be asked a lot more than it is. High fives to the two vendors who asked me this recently.

8. Great (big silly) expectations
Sponsoring and attending conferences because you think you will secure around 10 new subscriptions just like that <clicks fingers>. This rarely happens for lots of reasons, some of which include: most deals occur after vendors have already built a relationship with us; lots of us have to cancel another product before we can buy yours; we rarely have both the spare cash and/or authority to purchase a product on a whim.

9. The discount line
Don’t, just don’t tell me that the price represents a really good deal because it’s a huge discount on the commercial price. Well of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of even considering purchasing your product! We are not the commercial sector. We don’t have that money. The price you charge that sector is utterly irrelevant to us. We are not pleased or impressed that the price is considerably lower – we actively expect this to be the case <breathes into paper bag>.

10. Invite and ignore
This one particularly frustrates me as I’m A Terrible Gasbag Who Needs To Be Heard: don’t invite us to focus groups or advisory forums and then take all the airtime yourself. Yes I know you want us on board with your product, but talking at us without any opportunity for comment or feedback is not cool.

11. But the contract says…
The moment that has made me more angry (Grrrr…) than any other in my professional career was when a vendor read out a (or similarly numbered subclause, other subclauses are available) of a contract to explain why their current appalling level of product support and customer service was OK because a minimum backstop was worded in the small print of the contract. That legal small print, dear vendor, is intended to prevent anyone from suing you, not an appropriate basis for a discussion to either solve the problem at hand, or to get me back on board and/or liking you and your product again.

12. Product oversell
My product is the answer to all your prayers. No it isn’t. In fact I’m struggling to understand: why it’s any different/what it is/why it has all those tabs/the clunky functionality/the colour scheme/why you like your product so much. Delete as applicable.

13. Research your market
We are the only supplier to offer this. No you’re not. Research your market.

14. The Academic Bypass
I’m going to bypass you and talk straight to your academics cos you’re only the librarian. Bypass me at your peril!

15. Price lockdown
Me: So what’s the best you can do on this database? Vendor: £10k. Me: Oh, that’s not going to be possible, we’d need it to be nearer £6k. Vendor: £10k. Me: We just don’t have the budget. Vendor: £10k. Me: The very best we could do would be 7.5k including VAT. Vendor: No. Me: Goodbye, it was lovely talking to you. Question: Do you want to sell 5 subscriptions at £7.5k or no subscriptions at all at £10k? Your call.

16. Life sharer
While I’m all for building a good working relationship with a vendor and finding out about them as three-dimensional people, I don’t want to have to navigate past this chit-chat for too long every time we talk and email, especially if I’m busy and just want an answer to a question. Building relationships is key but there’s a line here and I don’t really care if you’ve had falafel and a refreshing walk at lunchtime.

17. Angry customer service
Guess what? When I’m annoyed about a product glitch or loss of service, you being angry back at me when you guys are in the wrong, or have failed us in some way, is really not the best way to go. I am the customer. Say the word slowly: c u s t o m e r. Recommended dosage: Repeat daily forever until you realise that this is what I am and that I’m helping to pay your wages.

18. Accept my advice for what it is
Too often my advice to vendors is not taken for what it is: genuine altruistic advice to help you make better decisions when you make bad ones and to ensure that we librarians don’t get more frustrated with you. Don’t get huffy about it, use my advice. And remember, if you are going to get huffy and tell other librarians about what I said – we all talk to each other. It will get back to me. It did get back to me.

19. PowerPoint 101
Death by PowerPoint isn’t funny, and it could mean the difference between people buying your product or not. Learn how to construct a good PPT or equivalent. There really is no excuse anymore.

20. Presentations 101
Honestly how did most of you get through Vendor School? Learn how to present well – to engage, to sell you proposition, to focus on the key points, to entertain. It is an art, granted, but it can be learnt.

21. Death by demo
Almost as bad in my book as Death by PowerPoint. Just remember that we are intelligent people with many databases already that we have been navigating for years. We don’t need to be shown every page, tab or view. Give us the functionality highlights and a clear summary of content and coverage and leave it at that.

22. Free Trial! Free Trial! Free Trial!
Well whoopty-do. Just as we actively expect an academic discount, we expect a free trial of your product. How else can we evaluate whether we should buy it?

23. Socialise at conferences
Yes we know conferences can be a bit awkward and some of us librarians are a bit weird but don’t ignore us at conference socials. Talk to us rather than each other. You’re missing the opportunity to build relationships and ultimately sell your product.

24. Social media
Use it and use it properly – not just for product updates and announcements, but to engage with your audience with wit, wisdom and character.

25. Databases that try to do everything
‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is that the reputation you want for your database? No? Well then.

26. Make your products better (with our help)
In all my years as a business librarian I have never been invited to help make a product better. I’ve been asked my likes and dislikes, but not to assist with real development or actual usability testing. You’re all missing a trick here. Use our knowledge, improve your product, and get our buy-in along the way. If you want someone to really buy-in to something you give them some ownership.

27. ‘Oh shit – they’ve changed it’
Tell us if you’ve changed something, don’t wait for us to find out ourselves. It’s called common courtesy. And please stop unveiling new interfaces at the start of the new academic year after we’ve already prepared the supporting documentation for the old version. This sort of behaviour makes us want to wear a necklace made from your teeth.

28. ‘What’s the problem again?’
I’ve sent numerous emails, had countless phonecalls with you, and now you’re asking what the problem is again? Seriously? This is a joke right?

29. On file
I have never understood why I regularly need to give you my email, my phone number or my address. You have these all on file. Unless the paperwork we fill in is all a vast joke and goes straight into a shredder at your end?

30. Customer satisfaction (is dropping all the time)
If you send me endless customer satisfaction surveys I will become less satisfied each time one pops into my email inbox. It’s both a simple equation and a fact.

31. Students
You sell an academic product. For this reason you need to allow students to talk to you about your product and ask you questions about data and functionality. They are not beneath your notice, they are your customers. And, more than that, potential future subscribers.

32. On your marks, get set, chase invoice
Stop chasing invoices almost immediately after they have been sent to me. Even if I turn them around immediately, and I do, our finance office will still take 30 days to pay them, sometimes more. This early invoice chasing is pointless and waste’s your company’s money. And… I find it intensely irritating.

33. Know your product better
If you can’t tell me what your product does and what is on it then you probably shouldn’t be selling it.

34. More conference freebies (and wit)
Pens and notepads don’t cut it. You need to be giving away stuff that makes us smile, or sparks a conversation. Only one company whose product I subscribe to gets this right and their sales people also have a great sense of humour. Don’t underestimate the value of the latter or the reach of the freebies.

35. No follow-up support
The deal is done, the money spent and suddenly, guess what, that endlessly ringing phone goes silent. Don’t be that vendor guy. Support us after and during our subscription. You never know, we might subscribe the following year as well.

36. Carrot dangling
However much you dangle a ‘cheap first year carrot’ in front of my nose I’m not going to bite unless I know that the price for Years 2 and 3 is reasonable. I’m not stupid.

37. The North-South divide
I thought this only really truly existed in stand-up and comedy shows, but no you vendors really don’t like going oop North to support your subscribers up there. Yes they’re all busy playing bingo and racing their whippets but they paid the same for the product as me and shouldn’t be penalised for being based further away from London. It’s bad enough that they have to live up there. Poor loves.
N.B. I jest about the North, lived in Newcastle for years.

38. Dodgy competitions
Dodgy competitions for which we have to disclose the names and contact details of our faculty members in order to enter a draw to win an iPad. Nuff said.

39. Online training
The MOOCs bubble has burst. Everyone knows that everyone hates remote online training. Start training us and our students in person again.

40. Loyalty
I have subscribed to your product for years and years but this doesn’t appear to be mean anything. Some of you even cut the database off if an invoice is a little late in being paid. Look after your customers, don’t bully them.

41. Name the month (don’t name the month)
If you’re not sure when an update, enhancement, or new release is coming don’t name a month. That would be a stupid thing to do.

42. Honesty
Be honest about what you think could be improved in your product. This will earn you far more brownie points than pretending it’s all brilliant. And we won’t believe you anyway.

And if you take ALL of that advice on board I might buy or keep buying your product, it’s not much to ask now is it?

But wait I’m not done. It wouldn’t be fair not to have a bit of a dig back at librarians too, so here’s 4 more just for you guys, all equally maddening to me as the 42 above.

1. Complain more
We librarians don’t complain enough when products go awry or vendors don’t behave reasonably. Stop sitting back and taking it. We pay for these products. It’s my belief that in our personal lives we librarians are the first people to complain when something that we bought from B&Q or John Lewis stops working, but conversely we’re ridiculously reluctant to sort out faulty products in our work lives.

2. Bargain more
Don’t just accept the first price you are given. Bargain with vendors. Try to knock them down on price. There’s far more room for manoeuvre than you think. Far more.

3. Be more realistic
I’m heartily sick of those people who complain that vendors are just out to make money. Well of course they are and you’re stupid if you think otherwise. Similarly there is of course the same ulterior motive for them to build relationships with us, but that shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable. That’s part of the deal. Play the game.

4. We’re more important than you think
We’re not as lucrative as the corporate market, no, but altogether the academic market still adds up to a whole stack of moulah. We are far more important to them than you might think we are, and what is more we can be a force to be reckoned with if we stick together on matters like poor customer service, ridiculous pricing and unreasonable service changes.

There I’m done.

Librarians: any more advice for vendors?
Vendors: any more advice for librarians?

Message ends…

[’42’ image by Iguana Jo via Flickr Creative Commons]