usability, dam, digital asset management, image from http://blog.avangate.com/

Beauty and usability are typically not words associated with digital asset management software, and for good reason. Have you seen the user interfaces of most DAMs?

Granted, DAM software is not meant to be gorgeous; it’s meant to be functional. Unfortunately, though, for the users of some DAMs, the hideous interface is often the best thing about the software.

“You’re going to love my DAM! It’s really smart and it has a great personality.”

Overblown UI

Some DAM UIs are so overly designed that you’d think they were inspired by the giant fins and chrome bumpers off a ‘59 Cadillac Sedan de Ville. It’s like these DAMs are asking you to forget your digital assets and focus instead on their stunning gradients, flashy borders, detailed icons and everything else a talented UI designer would have removed.

DAMs should be as close to invisible as possible. No one learns to create digital content just to spend time in a DAM. Let the digital assets be the stars.

And then you have the systems that have become downright antique in appearance. Are these DAM vendors paying attention to anything that’s been going on in UI design over the past, let’s say, 15 years? And I’m not just talking about the few DAMs still saddled with native software clients -- we expect them to look dated. But even some browser-based DAMs look like throwbacks to early UNIX windowing experiments, and there’s no excuse for that.

And we can’t forget the “dark skin” DAMs that are trying to mimic UIs introduced by studio production applications used for 3D animation, video editing, etc. This UI design concept for DAM makes no sense for one simple reason: Studio apps adopted dark interfaces because their users work in dark rooms

Who does DAM in the dark?

It’s clear that even Apple and Microsoft have caught on to the idea that it’s time to tone things down. Apple is going in a “flat” direction with iOS 7, and Microsoft turned off all the shiny features of Windows 7 and called it an entirely new operating system.

It’s time for the DAM UI to get out of the way. DAM vendors need to find themselves some good professional UI designers and start all over again.

Feature Follow Through

Another usability problem with DAMs is what I call feature disconnect. This describes features that have been added over the years without any thought given to the notion of using them together to achieve something none can do on its own. You know, 1+1=3 -- that sort of thing.

This isn't something you can fully appreciate until you've spent some time working in a DAM, so only experienced DAM users will know what I mean here. We see rich feature lists and we just assume that it all works together. After all, when buying a car, do you specifically ask whether the headlights and engine can be used at the same time? If you don’t test-drive at night, you could be in for big trouble if you don’t ask these things.

Editor's Note: Another view on DAM: Digital Asset Management: Finding the Right Fit for Your Company

Workflow Weakness

Another ailment common to too many DAMs is a feature set that was designed without workflow in mind. The distinction between this and “feature disconnect” is subtle but important. The problem here is that functionality required to make a complete workflow happen is missing.

For example, say you need to build an airplane that can fly passengers between San Francisco and London on solar power. You do your research and you build your airplane. On your maiden voyage, you can’t believe how amazing you are as you’re midway across the Atlantic and everything is going perfectly.

Then, an hour outside of Heathrow, you realize that the switch you installed to raise the plane’s landing gear doesn't actually lower it too. You’re thinking this can’t be possible; you must be doing something wrong.

You call the maker of the switch because, in this story, you can use your mobile phone on a plane. The person you speak to listens to your flight plight and responds, “That is an awesome use case! Thank you so much for letting us know! Would you like me to submit a feature request?”

Experienced DAM users are thinking right now, “Yep, that’s exactly how it is.”

When Ben & Jerry created their “Half Baked” flavor, they must have had digital asset management software in mind.

Show Us Your Screenshots!

Any DAM vendor who is proud of its user interface and usability will share it with you. Look for screenshot galleries, examples of customer sites and more. Don’t buy the “it can look like anything you want!” excuse. That just means it’s a DAM you can’t afford. Something must be available out of the box. See it. If the UI is ugly or it makes no sense to you, consider that Strike One against the system.

It will be much harder to assess feature disconnect and workflow weakness by looking at pictures. But here are a few things you can do to gain a better sense of these things:

  1. Ask other users. Find them on LinkedIn or other forums. Or, if you’re a real hell-raiser, ask a DAM vendor to connect you with some of its users.
  2. Come up with a few workflows that are based on real-world use cases. When you get a demo of a DAM system, ask to be shown how that workflow would be accomplished, from start to end. If what you see seems cumbersome, it is. A software demonstrator isn't going to show you a DAM from its ass end. Keep in mind that what you see might the best you can hope for.
  3. When software demonstrators show you features, ask for a few use case examples that depend on each feature. After all, if a feature is in there, it must be good for something. Here’s an example: “So, you can export metadata in XML format but not in CSV format. Can you show me the Excel menu option that lets me edit XML metadata and re-import it into the DAM?” 
  4. If you have access to self-guided demo software, make a list of the things that confuse you. If you can’t figure out how to do something, make a note to follow up with a representative who can show you. In fairness to DAM software designers, it’s not easy to build software that’s entirely self-explanatory; some training is virtually always required. (Check out Can I Get a DAM Demo Meant for the Audience?)

Until DAM vendors realize that software design should be about solving real problems, not theoretical or potential problems, you won’t likely find the perfect DAM. And until these same companies realize that “smart with a great personality” must also be gorgeous in order to succeed, you shouldn’t take anything for granted when evaluating DAM software.