A recent poll on CMS WiRE on digital asset management (DAM) challenges cited “usability” and “taxonomy/metadata development” as the primary challenges followed very closely (statistically essentially as important) “building the business case/ROI” and “user adoption of the system”. While the poll provided no demographics or information on whether these were actual digital asset management software users or not, the results are not surprising. Usability IS important.
CMSWire Poll Results: Digital Asset Management Challenges
Usability often includes a number of things. To me, usability is defined by a combination of functionality and user interface (UI). How well does the user interface allow me to do what I need to do, in the most efficient manner? Or said another way: How easy is it for the user to perform a specific task or set of tasks? With respect to a DAM system, it is about how easily the product allows me or a team of us to complete a particular workflow.
To me usability is about simplicity. Not so much making the function simple, but making it easy to do the function simply. In it’s finest form, it is elegant. Elegance is about making the difficult easy, and the easy beautiful. It’s the end result of continual refinement, and a lot of effort that went into that process of refinement. Elegance demonstrates a certain simplicity and ease of movement that hides underlying complexity. I often think of dancers who move fluidly across the floor — they are making very complex dance steps look easy and simple. With respect to software, elegance would imply that performing the task is easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to do. Apple’s iPhone is a great example of this — it’s very easy to use, to get the device to do the task you want. Another term that people apply to user interfaces and usability is “intuitive”. Intuitive often means that the approach is so simple that it’s obvious and natural. I think intuitive interfaces are hard to design, and hard to define, but you know it when you experience one.
Few DAM systems are elegant or intuitive. For that matter few software systems are. But they’re getting better. As Theresa Regli of Real Story Group (formerly CMS Watch) points out, a major theme for DAM vendors over the last year or so has been the revision of their user interfaces. Many of these incorporate new technologies, like Flash, Flex, Ajax or other user interface component frameworks. These new technologies may make the DAM appear more sexy, but using these new technologies doesn’t necessarily make the DAM more usable. It’s how the framework is employed and applied to present the functionality, the task or series of tasks to the user that makes it more usable.
Let me offer an example. Prior to joining North Plains, I was consulting on a digital asset management selection project for a major manufacturer considering a DAM system for their global marketing teams, and got to see several of the DAM vendors present their systems several with their new user interfaces to the client. I was most surprised by one of the vendors who touted their new user interface based on one of these new UI frameworks. While watching them demo the product, it completely miss the mark in terms of usability in one fundamental way. The problem: users could see operations they couldn’t do. Specifically, capabilities or operations that users couldn’t perform were still available in the menus and user interface — they were grayed out, not removed completely from view. I was stunned. How frustrating is that? The client noticed this immediately and it became a concern for them because they would have to explain in the training process and global rollout to every user why they couldn’t do things they could see. Usability had just become a fundamental part of their decision process. And further, it was tied to system adoption (#4 in the above poll). This may seem obvious: If users don’t like, don’t understand, or want it to work a like how they’re used to, they will hesitate to use it or not use it at all.
By contrast the other DAM systems used an approach that took into account the user’s role, permissions or privileges to inform the UI what to display and what to hide. The user interface was tailored to the role, set of tasks or in some cases the user’s level of sophistication. As a result users only saw what they could do. Under the covers, such an approach is a complicated implementation; one that takes a lot of refinement over time to get right, but one which enables greater simplicity and ease of use. In essence a better, more elegant and usable DAM.
The poll had “taxonomy/metadata” in a statistical tie for greatest concern. First, in English, “metadata” is the information or tags that describe the file, the asset such that we humans can know what’s in the file, and later it can used for searching and finding the asset. This is clearly important as most rich media files — video, audio, images — provide very little information that makes them searchable and findable. And as Seth Early points out in the article (to paraphrase) if you don’t tag an asset, you can’t find it, and thus it’s not usable. So metadata is also tied to usability.
But further, there are two parts to taxonomy/metadata development that are critical and relate to usability. First there is the creation of the taxonomy, in English, the overall, up-front scheme, approach or specification taken to defining what information (metadata) to capture and apply for each file for later retrieval. This is a concern for many because, for most newcomers to digital asset management, they often don’t realize it’s need, value or importance or the fact that they have to create such a scheme when they’re first exploring the use of DAM for their company. And implementing one, can take a lot of time and effort to get right (hence the need for companies like Seth’s who are skilled in guiding companies through that taxonomy development process). With respect to usability — having a good taxonomy, a good scheme or approach, or more simply stated, capturing the right information that people can easily search, makes a DAM much more usable.
Secondly, with respect to metadata, is the actual creation, update, and ongoing maintenance of metadata — of that descriptive information. This applies to both the DAM products and how they implement these capabilities, as well as to the processes you and your organization employ around the DAM to create and manage the metadata. At the core, if you don’t tag it well, or with the right information, or in a consistent manner, your users aren’t going to find what they’re looking for, or it will take longer, and thus the DAM will be less usable.
More to the point, the digital asset management system vary significantly in their approach and usability for metadata creation, management and maintenance. Let’s consider a common use case: You have a bunch of photos with mostly the same metadata because they were all shot on the same day, by the same photographer, for the same marketing purpose. But they’re different photos and thus will vary in a few key pieces of information. You need to upload all of these into the DAM and tag them properly — with the common information and the few differences — in the most efficient manner. How well does each DAM help you to perform this task? Does the DAM allow bulk (“en mass”) upload of all these assets? Does it provide a way to bulk tag all the assets with common information, AND provide a way to easily update those fields which are different? And how automated is it? And if human intervention is needed (because we often have to have someone check to make sure the information is entered consistently, is valid, is appropriate, etc.) how well does the system support this repetitive metadata examination and update task? And this is just upload. What if you have to bulk change a value or several values after it has been uploaded (e.g. to change the expiration date of a group of assets)? How well does the system support the tasks of editing and managing the metadata once it’s in the system? So usability and metadata are related, in fact very closely.
So where does this all lead? I’m not picking on the poll to point out that many of these answers are actually, on greater inspection, seen to be intimately related. For me, all of this leads “backwards” — back to the beginning to the vendor selection process. It points back to the absolute need and importance for buyers to create “use cases” — scenarios that represent in as much detail as possible, how your team expects to use the DAM to perform the tasks or workflows you need and expect the DAM to facilitate. To me use cases are a critical, must-have tool for buyers to have when evaluating the DAM products. Why? Because you can give them to each vendor on your short list to use demonstrate their product to you in a “back-to-back” or sequential product demonstration phase of the vendor selection process. Doing so will enable you to consistently compare the products against your specific expected use cases and see, in most cases immediately, how well the product aligns to your needs, where it doesn’t, and where, perhaps the vendor has done something elegant or intuitive… They will help you to gauge where each product will make your life using their product easier, simpler, and better, or more difficult, more challenging, and worse. You may find as a result, that the sexiest user interface, is not necessarily the most usable. And that functionality or capabilities you need are not well represented through the UI. With “use cases” (pardon the pun, but it’s accurate) use-ability becomes evident.
Usability is important. And for some it is a critical part of their digital asset management vendor and product selection process. Is it part of yours?