Do databases realize they have student customers?

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After my annual frustrating experience working with database companies and iPad apps in our 1:1 school, I feel that it is high time that database companies start stepping up to the plate to make products easier for their K-12 consumers (and beyond).

Have you ever tried to:

  1. Interest high school or middle school students in using a database instead of Google? While it is a skill they need to develop particularly if they are college bound, at best, it is a hard sell. What high school student ever jumped up and down and said, Oh goodie, a database?
  2. Tried to explain the 10 or 15 minute process to install a database app to your students (Gale, Ebsco, etc.)? Now imagine doing that with your middle school or elementary students who have iPads.
  3. Tried to explain why an ebook app has changed names 3 times in the last year to a group of students who are reluctant ebook users to begin with or why Overdrive’s privacy policies keep changing?

As technology has become a ubiquitous part of libraries of all kinds, the lack of good user interface for students becomes more and more problematic for librarians, who intently want to help students improve their information literacy skills. The last two weeks in our library has been a case in point.

An anecdote might illustrate the week’s frustrations.

On Tuesday, I set out to help our students install the Ebsco and Gale apps on their iPads, since we are a 1:1 campus, and this particular class is working with databases throughout the semester on a frequent basis. The teacher had set aside about fifteen minutes for us to run through this process. First, we started with Ebsco’s app.

Ebsco has their app link buried within their databases, in tiny print at the bottom of the EbscoHost screen, a three or four click process to take students there from your website. The app link is necessary because it emails students an activation key. (So make sure students have their email set up first. And by the way, if your elementary students don’t have email…. I’m not sure what you should do at this point–#problem1.) So far, so good. We walked students into Ebsco, found the link, had them download the app, waited on the activation key to arrive in their email. Next step, click on the link and it will allow you into the app. Except that it doesn’t. Instead every student received an error message. My install on my phone went smoothly despite the tedious number of steps, so I contacted technical support for help. Thirty hours later, I got a response. (Consequently I jettisoned installing this app Tuesday, obviously–no matter that is when the teacher had time for me in the schedule). The emailed response I finally received? Just don’t have students use the app. Problem solved.

So, Ebsco has an app, but it is not supposed to be used for the iPad. Makes sense–why would anyone want to use that anyway?

So, onward and upward,I skip over Ebsco the rest of the day and attempt an installation of the GALE app. Despite the fact that it loads extreeeemely slowly during the setup process, students were able to navigate it much more efficiently than Ebsco’s “non app.” I noticed students were all logging into the same set of databases and could perform a search. All good. The last period of the day, a student updated the app (he had it from a previous year), and his screen loaded twice as many databases as everyone else’s. A mystery, I thought! I called tech support to determine what the cause might be (after ruling out IOS 8 which caused some students problems).

Turns out that when Gale switched Texas to the new statewide database, the app for our school had not been linked to the “new” collection. How to fix this, I ask? Answer: just have all the students uninstall the app, or update the app and reinstall it and log back in. (Just what we had spent the whole day doing.). And by the way, says the rep, you might want to know that GALE is issuing a new app later this week anyway for IOS 8, that he and colleagues in tech support recently learned about. When asked how a customer should know that, the tech rep was uncertain. Now imagine me, going back to this teacher the next day to let him know everything we just did was a waste of time. Not a thrilling prospect nor one that invokes credibility in the databases for our students.

And then we could move on to the matter of ebooks, of course; as any librarian using Follett ebooks knows, Follett has changed the name of their app 2-3 times in the last year. No problem, we’ll just have all 2600 students at our school reinstall it. Easy.

It is experiences like these that I’m sure many of you have had that make us feel like there is a total disconnect between developers, database vendors, and their customers. I think of my experience with various tech startups the last two years–who have been accommodating and communicative and personal in their communications with us. Their social media accounts have personalities; they take time on social media to engage with customers on a personal level, they tweet, email, and communicate frequently about updates to their products.

It puzzles and dismays me why companies who have served schools and libraries for many years do not engage us with the same level of personal connection, the same level of friendly communication, the same attention to updates and to listening to customers.

And who are the customers?

I’m not the customer, truly. The customer is the student (or students) I am trying to help. And students are customers that are used to the Google-ish world, where things work instantaneously and well; the world where it is not a massive effort just to get to a search box.

So I ask in all honesty, if databases didn’t have librarians, would they even survive in the free market? Design a product that is awkward to install, not that user friendly, and that doesn’t work the way it should and see how long users flock to that site.

I believe there is real value in the sources students can find, the archives they can discover, the academic journals that are still locked within database walls. I believe there is value for our students in learning about intellectual property, and in being able to use ebooks for free from our library. But you are making my job (and the job of many librarians) so difficult. The problems with your products are making your content seem irrelevant by design.

We aren’t in a 1.0 world anymore. My plea to you? Remember your customers.

Look across the table at your own 5th grader or 9th grader and imagine them installing your product. What do you want their experience to be? Imagine your frustration when you know as a parent there is great content and the process to access it is just too complicated and frustrating.

Imagine that your customers are children in a one-touch world. Then reimagine what you are doing.

This librarian will thank you.


Reprinted from Not So Distant Future.