shutterstock_56909617.jpgEver had one of those discussions in which neither you nor the person with whom you were speaking seemed to understand one another? No matter how many different ways you restate your points, it’s clear that meaningful communication is not what’s taking place. What goes on between a DAM and a DAM user often feels much like this.

You: “Hi, Tech Support. My computer is running so slowly that I can barely type this message to you now.”

Them: “I am very sorry to hear that you are having problems with your computer and my sole purpose in life at this very moment is to help you in the best way possible. May I start by asking if the computer is currently turned on?”

The equivalent happens regularly between DAM and DAM user. The user asks a question (the query) and the DAM replies (the results) in a way that leaves the user thinking the DAM is stuck in stupid mode.

DAM vendors would say the solution is a new DAM. Information professionals might say you’ve got a metadata problem. DAM administrators, in turn, might insist that what’s really stuck in stupid mode is not the DAM.

The Language of Miscommunication

The real problem is that the user and the DAM aren’t speaking the same language. That is, they lack a shared conceptual understanding of the topic at hand -- the context of discussion. The search results DAMs provide are perfectly legitimate and in accordance with the software’s design -- usually. That is, software tends to do what we tell it to do, even if what we tell it to do doesn’t make sense 100 percent of the time.

As DAM users, we have a conceptual understanding of what’s inside our files. (This is what enables us to instantly recognize “stupid mode” when we see it.) But our poor DAMs can’t read our minds, nor do they have any real understanding of the content in our files, let alone the context in which we’re asking for things.

Consider the following points:

  1. My doctor is an expert in medicine.
  2. I address my doctor as "Doctor."
  3. A friend of mine is also a doctor, but he’s not an expert in medicine.
  4. I don't address him as "Doctor," but I sometimes call him “Dr. Bob” as a nickname.
  5. I need a CMS expert, but I don't care if that person is a doctor. And even if she is, I won't likely address her as "Doctor.”
  6. In the world of doctors, Dr. Dre and Dr. Suess are among the most famous, though neither ever obtained a doctorate of any kind, making them, technically speaking, not doctors at all. It would, however, be easy to classify each as experts in their respective fields.

This is all very easy for you to follow because you’re a human who has a sense of the context in which the terms “doctor” and “expert” are applied here. But now pretend you're DAM software and all this same information has been fed to you as metadata.

In response to the query “CMS expert,” you’re thinking:

You want a CMS expert. But maybe you meant to say you’re looking for a CSM expert, which would mean you need a Cervical Spondylotic Myelopathy expert, who might actually be a doctor. But since you didn’t specifically use doctor in your query, maybe you really did mean CMS. In that case, I can probably rule out doctoral graduates of MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, even though they are experts in CMS, but I would have considered them if you had used doctor in your query.

What I need to figure out is whether you meant CMS or CSM. Come to think of it, why are some experts doctors, while others aren’t? And why do you call one "Doctor,” but you call the other one "Dr. Bob,” even though he’s a doctor too? And why would one doctor be associated with cats and hats all the time when he’s neither a veterinarian nor a fashion designer? What the hell are you really looking for? I hate you humans. Find your own damned file."

Without some shared conceptual understanding of the “discussion” at hand, it’s unreasonable to think that people and software (or people and people) could ever understand one another.

The Art of Metadata Pollution

So what do we do to provide this missing context of discussion? We have metadata. We study taxonomy, business processes and (if we’re smart), we interview users about how they would like to find things. We think we’re doing this so that our DAM software will be able to “think” more like a human, but in fact, this isn’t what happens.