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Librarians and Technology #3: How to Write Software Reviews (Databases, Services Too)

Posted by Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD on 1/8/2019
Miriam Kahn, MLS, PhD
How to Write Software Reviews

Reviewing and recommending technology, software, products, and services is integral to the evaluation process. As you evaluate new and old technology, recurring costs, and services, it’s important to consider how they fit within your mission and serve your staff and researchers.

With all this in mind, it’s time to write that review of the technology, product, or service you just evaluated. Software reviews are classic workplace writing that you’ll perform many times during your professional career.

Software reviews are a form of business or technical writing. If you haven’t written one before, you’ll want to look at some business writing manuals.1 The key to success is to keep your memo brief, succinct, and focused. Remember that you can put any extraneous materials and all supporting documentation in an attachment or appendix.

As you compare and contrast services, technology, or products, you must stay focused on your organization’s mission and the needs of your staff and researchers. Focus your review on core strengths and weaknesses. Direct your comments to the manager requesting the information, and address their ultimate purpose and needs.

Elements of Software Reviews

Reviews consist of three parts:

  1. Introduction and summary;
  2. Description of the product, features, and benefits; and
  3. Recommendation.

Reviews and recommendations are, by their very nature, short and succinct. One page is the ideal length—with any additional discussion or comments in an attachment. They may be prefaced by an “executive summary” or recommendation and then followed by the discussion. Remember the reader will invest minutes (not hours) reading the review.

The Introduction and Summary

In a few sentences, identify the piece of technology or services being reviewed. Identify what is it, how it fits within your institutional or departmental mission, and how it serves your users.

This part of the review is critical. It sets the stage for the review or recommendation. Pay particular attention to benefits for your user groups. Remember there are usually three user types.

First and often overlooked are your internal staff who work behind the scenes inputting data, cataloging, or troubleshooting the software and hardware.

Information professionals, librarians, archivists, and records managers are your second user group. They are the staff who answer the difficult and obscure questions, train researchers, and use the database, software, or equipment on a daily basis.

Your third and primary user group are internal and external researchers. They seek answers to their questions and an advancement to their projects.

This third group is the most important as you consider how changes in technology will affect their output. Internal staff and information professionals are much more likely to adapt to the new technology (perhaps with modifications to procedures and workarounds).

Consider how each of your user groups benefits from the introduction of the proposed new technology.

Describing the Technology

Clearly and succinctly, describe the product, its unique features, and benefits to your organization and users. Compare it to something you are already using. If it is something brand new, consider how it streamlines your work and access to your collections and institutional repository. This part should be two or three paragraphs long. Continue to focus on how the technology fits mission and users.

Constructive comments are imperative as you review what you’ve evaluated. Address the advantages and disadvantages of adopting the new technology. Consider how the new product or service will affect productivity. Consider initial and recurring costs such as leasing, licensing, and maintenance, storage, processing, and delivery of data and curated information.

The Recommendation

Having described the technology, software, or service, now you must make your recommendation to adopt, add, or purchase something new, or alter how you deliver information to researchers.

Address opportunity costs by reinforcing the benefits of whatever you are evaluating. Be certain to mention how it saves time and makes information more accessible to researchers and information professionals.

Consider return on investment (ROI). How will adopting the new technology, software, or service benefit the organization? Are you streamlining operations and providing better access to information?

Write the recommendation in declarative sentences. Be assured and confident in your recommendation. Don’t hedge. After all, you were asked to evaluate and recommend the item.

Whatever your perspective, stay focused on your end users’ needs. They are the ultimate audience for your review.

Summing it up

As the reviewer, you must invest lots of time getting to know the subject of your recommendation. You spend time evaluating products, technology, software, and services. Take good notes and then boil them down for your reader. Keep your eye on mission and users. They will be the beneficiaries of your carefully considered and crafted recommendation.

My next post will discuss testing and troubleshooting that new technology you’ve recommended.

1William Zinsser, On Writing Well 30th anniversary edition (NY: Harper Perennial; Anniversary, 2016).

 


Miriam B. Kahn, founder of MBK Consulting, provides education and consulting for libraries, archives, corporations, cultural institutions and individuals on topics ranging from genealogy and local history to database searching, government documents, and preservation. See also her post on Evaluating New Software, Databases or Technology.

 

Topics: Special Libraries, Technology, Strategy