We recently wrapped up a poll exploring our readership's Digital Asset Management challenges. The question was: What's your biggest Digital Asset Management challenge? The top response? Usability. Are you surprised?

We discussed the poll results with a few DAM specialists, including CMS Watch analyst Theresa Regli. Here are the highlights and take-aways.

First the Poll Results

Our DAM poll brought in 477 votes, here's how they stacked up:

CMSWire Poll Results: Digital Asset Management Challenges

The results were actually very close, but usability of the system took a slight lead with Taxonomy/Meta Data development close behind.

We asked four people in the DAM industry their thoughts on the poll results, they are:

How Complicated Can Storing Digital Assets Be?

Now maybe you are sitting back asking just how complicated can a digital asset management system be to use. All you are doing is storing assets like images, videos, audio, etc. Tag'em and let people do searches. That's not complicated is it?

Well, it really isn't quite that straightforward as our experts tell us. And for the most part, they aren't surprised that usability topped the list of challenges. As Seth Earley told us:

Digital assets (images, photos, etc) are notoriously difficult to tag and if they are not tagged then there really isn’t any way to access them. So for DAM, poor tagging = poor findability = poor usability.

Stephanie Lemieux said that this is a top concern with many of her clients who are going through tool selection and customization projects. Along with a lot of really good functionality, many DAM solutions have issues related to complex interfaces, multi-step processes and alignment with current work processes.

Theresa Regli, agrees saying that usability is partly an issue because organizations tend to make product selection based on functionality and don't always test the tools to see how usable they are.

You need to really USE a tool before you can say it's usable - looks aren't everything. Sometimes when I work with product selection teams the best-looking tool ends up losing out after hands-on testing because it's just not as functionally useful as another tool.

Jeremy Wilker isn't quite as convinced usability is as big an issue though. He believes the results may have been different if user responses were separated between "current users" and "potential users".

In my experiences, the usability of the system isn't so much the user interface (most users seem fairly comfortable after a day or two) but the workflows they have already established and trying to fit the DAM into these long-standing processes.

According to Regli, who authors the CMS Watch The Digital & Media Asset Management Report,

Most of the 20+ DAM vendors we evaluate have debuted new interfaces in the last six months, or are about to debut new interfaces. So the usability challenge may well be on the way to being better met. The user needs tend to evolve and change more quickly than software vendors can improve their products, however.

How Can you Overcome Usability Issues?

So we understand there are issues, but what advice do our experts have to overcome them? Earley says organizations need to analyze their current creative and production processes and determine how asset reuse can be applied. As he says, it's a lot more fun to create new assets then reuse existing ones, so there's probably some cultural, process and creative issues to overcome.

And then there are the varying mix of users of a DAM system, from marketing to creative agencies. All have different needs and levels of expertise, so Lemieux says the trick is prioritizing functionality and metadata.

Every new feature -- from popularity ratings to download trackers -- means you have to add something to the user interface that is a source of potential clutter and confusion. Same thing goes for metadata: users will tell you they want to know 72 pieces of information about an asset before they can reuse it, but they will have a heart attack when they realize that they have to tag that information!

Is There a Trade Off Between Usability and Functionality?

Some say that there's often a trade off between usability and functionality, that you can't necessarily have both. Earley says that more functionality tends to mean more complexity, resulting in potential issues with usability. It's about "finding the correct balance for the process." He also says that if the application is built for a process, then even if it is complex, it can be highly usable.

Besides, we aren't talking about pretty here, as Regli points out "Usability is not looking good or slick. It's about whether the software functions in a usable way: can users get their tasks done? So I don't believe usability and functionality can really be considered separately."

However, in some cases choosing ease of user over powerful functionality is necessary as Lemieux tells us:

I just had this issue on a project, where we wanted to have a fairly sophisticated search interface, [...] It just got so difficult to make it functional yet intuitive that we ended up abandoning the fancier approach in favor of a simpler interface that we knew users would be able to use and still find helpful. We chose ease of use over more powerful functionality.

Taxonomy and Business Case Challenges

While usability of the system was top of mind, taxonomy/meta data issues and building the business and establishing ROI really weren't that far behind.

Taxonomy development is not a simple task as both Earley and Lemieux point out. Setting tags for assets like images and photos is much more subjective than what you may be use to with traditional documents and text-based content. And managing taxonomy across an enterprise where the same meta data may be used differently in different departments or business units can become a quite a challenge.

As for determining ROI. well it's not the key requirement to a business case necessarily. Regli says often DAM is implemented as a cost of doing business.

Though I've seen a lot of time savings brought about by DAM, the argument to bring in a DAM tool and the justification to keep one tends to be you simply can't accomplish what needs to be done without it. That's just as important as an ROI.

Need More Information?

A poll and its results only tells you so much. It may confirm that you aren't alone with your challenges, which means there's help out there. Here's are some additional resources that should provide insight and support: