How not to support advanced users

Oct 29 2011 Published by under information retrieval, interfaces

At first I wasn’t going to name names, but it seems like this won’t make sense unless I do.

Over the years Cambridge Scientific Abstracts became CSA and then now is just part of ProQuest. The old peachy tan-colored interface always supported advanced searching. When the tabbed olive colored interface came out a few years ago, some of the advanced search features were a little buried, but you could still find them (I blogged about it then, but was corrected by someone who showed me where they were). The databases I’ve always used on CSA are very specialized. I use Aerospace and High Technology the most, but I also use Oceanic Abstracts and Meteorological and Geoastrophysical Abstracts. For my own work, I also use LISA.

I find that for topics like missile design, including hypersonics and propellant formulations, and spacecraft design, Aerospace and High Technology does much better than the general databases like Compendex. Oceanic abstracts is a great complement to GEOBASE (and GeoRef, but meh) on other topics I research.

I have search alerts set up in these various databases. Some I review and forward to my customers whereas others I keep for my own use. The alerts take advantage of the advanced searching available and are tweaked over time to be as precise as possible.

So now that we’re all moving to the new ProQuest interface, it was time to translate my searches to the new format. Luckily, ProQuest has a help page that takes you from the searches in the old interface to the new. I have to say, though, that there are pieces missing. I found in Illumina (the olive colored interface), I could just use kw to get the primary fields out of the record and leave off the references. In the new interface, I had to list all of the fields individually. Also, I had a real problem nesting all of the searches I needed to do. Long story short, I did manage to figure out some satisfactory searches for the alerts.

Now, here’s what actually prompted me to write this post. I am an advanced user and I do have a lot of experience with different interfaces. When I do find a problem in the interface, I’ll report it – particularly if it’s keeping me from performing some task.

In the new interface, if you have something more than the basic search, it often will not let you see the last few pages of results.

For example, in Aerospace (the name now leaves off high tech, let’s hope it still covers the same content):

propellant friction sensitivity – is just fine and you can see all the results

propellant AND “friction sensitivity” – either done through the basic search screen or done through the advanced search, will not let you see the third page. It gives an error.

Fine, so I reported this to their help desk. They replied a week later and we’ve been exchanging e-mails ever since. They’ve assumed I was technologically inept, that my computer was broken, that my library had set up something wrong with the database, that our network was messed up, and that we had a proxy server causing errors. I sent them the error messages from the screen. I sent them screenshots. I tried the same search on three browsers and got another librarian to try from her computer. We could all replicate the problem. They said they visited my library’s web page and couldn’t find a link to the database. Well, *my library* doesn’t have an external web presence – at all! Further, I had already given them the direct URL and told them at least three times that I wasn’t going through a proxy server because I was on campus.  They wanted a screenshot of the search screen (?!?) so I sent that.

Yesterday morning, I got another e-mail. Upon further investigation, they found that this was… a known error… and that technical services was working to fix it. The work around is to re-sort the records until I had seen them all.

Do they have any idea how mad that makes me? How much time I spent proving I was seeing what they already knew was happening?  Did they even check their knowledge base or did they decide to screw with me for three weeks before even checking?

I’ve had it, but damn it, I need that stinking database for my work and there’s no other real option. GRRR.

Is this how to treat your advanced users?  The first search string I sent them should have clued them in (it’s not the one above, it’s much longer). Plus, they asked and I told them I was a librarian when I submitted the report.

3 responses so far

  • Alexandra says:

    Actually, that is the reason I never report anything to the support. I just know they will never answer you anything that would make even a tiny bit of sense! I used to think that's just how software support centers work, but this post was very useful - now I know that when using support, you have to explain the issue for ~3 weeks in order to get the result.

  • Grant says:

    It’s one reason why some software development houses have open databases of filed reports, so that users can see what’s be filed before, etc. Saves time for all players. It’s also another argument for user-help forums, where users can help eachother out. But you know all this already 🙂

  • Alaska says:

    I have had a very similar experience with Thompson Reuters, who now owns EndNote. The "support" people had a very limited understanding of the product, and were unwilling to consider that I was anything other than a neophyte as well. My request to speak with a developer was met with, "Oh no, we don't allow customers to speak with them."

    Later, when I made contact with the EndNote development team through a different route, we not only had intelligent dialogues about the concerns I raised, but they thanked me profusely for providing valuable input.

    So rather than getting worked up about what passes for "support", in this kind of situation I think the answer is that advanced users need to find a way to connect directly with developers. I know you're a good enough researcher to figure out how to do this 🙂