Aspen Discovery

Aspen Weekly: Aspen Roadmap

Volume 123: Aspen Roadmap

Libraries that are new to Aspen or are considering adding Aspen frequently ask us about the Aspen Roadmap and some are shocked to learn that THERE IS NO ASPEN ROADMAP???!!! Gasp! Shudder! Whatever shall we do? Do you even have a plan?

Yes! Of course we do! But we also recognize that the traditional software roadmap is not good for libraries or their communities. The best plans are a combination of short-term needs and long-term goals with a good amount of flexibility built in.

Before we get into how we think about roadmaps and planning with Aspen, let’s take a look at the traditional library technology roadmap. It’s typically organized into quarters of the year (3 month increments) and planned out for 12 to 18 months. Very specific features go into columns for each quarter and it’s presented annually during a webinar or large user group meeting. We cheer when we see our pet feature on this beautiful roadmap, but most features are not completed in their initially targeted quarters and nearly everything is delivered late if ever. It’s not a great experience for libraries because the dates mean nothing and they only get the vaguest sense of what the upcoming features will be. This model creates a very pretty picture for a slide deck, but it is clearly broken. Let’s take a closer look at why.

Technology is one area that is always changing, typically at a much faster pace than most other industries. Especially the realm of consumer technology, which is where Apen and library discovery fall in the minds of our patrons. A year ago, Artificial Intelligence as a topic of conversation was barely on the radar for much of the population, but today AI is in the news daily.

The expectation of responsiveness to world events is also on a much shorter timeline than the traditional library technology roadmap allows for. We all learned this with the pandemic when the entire world was forced to shift their mindset and their daily workflows in a matter of weeks. Patrons in communities with libraries that were able to quickly transition to curbside models were much better able to get resources to those who needed them most. How silly would it have been to say, “Well, we’re full for the next 18 months, so I guess we can start to figure out this curbside thing in about a year and a half.” By the time curbside would have been ready, the world would have been opening up again!

Obviously the pandemic is an extreme example, but when you’re too focused on the exact deadlines and contents of a plan and not on what would most benefit your users, you’ll fall into the same trap. Take the example of a new econtent integration. Let’s say that all of a sudden 20% of Aspen libraries invest in an amazing new children’s ebook collection. Should we wait 18 months to begin work on that integration or should we shift things around a bit to try to accommodate integrating this new resource at the expense of other features we were considering building? The answer is nearly always it depends; however, flexibility is key. If we are relying on an inflexible annual plan, we are doomed to get progressively farther and farther behind as we struggle to deliver on date-stamped promises that were made far too early to understand the implications of meeting those deadlines. So what should libraries focus on and how should they hold their vendors accountable?

On the Aspen team, we ask ourselves two questions: “Are we doing the next right thing?” and “Are we meeting the Aspen Discovery Goals?” Now whether or not we’re doing the “next right thing” is a very simple question with a very complicated answer. I’m guessing most of you reading this had the immediate follow up question, “The right thing for who?” Here’s where it does get really tricky, but it’s also where the Aspen Roadmap magic happens.

We first look at the enhancement requests that we’re getting frequently from a number of different libraries and the features that our community groups are prioritizing. All of you working in libraries know best what our patrons need and what their pain points are because you work with them every day. Every ticket that you put in is tagged with metadata that allows us to uncover patterns in these requests and link them to similar requests. I also attend our various Aspen Community group meetings to hear what’s top of mind when libraries sit down to talk about Aspen. You can bet if an idea comes out of one of those meetings as a priority, it will be considered soon.

But what about the requests that might only benefit one library or a small group of libraries? Within Aspen, our partners have a place where they can rank their top priorities, regardless of who else would benefit from their request. These priorities give extra weight to features that lots of other libraries have requested, but they also give us insight into the relative importance of features for that particular library. We do our best not to let a library go too long without getting one of the requests on their priority list. We also tend to have a focus on more situation-specific or library-specific requests from individual partners when libraries are in implementation. The reason here is two-fold. First, libraries that are working in Aspen for the first time see things with new eyes and are not yet used to the way things are. Of course this also has to be tempered with learning why things work the way they do in Aspen, which is quite different from other systems. Also, every library is a little different, and Aspen is incredibly flexible, but from time to time we do need to accommodate a local practice that we just haven’t seen before.

The final way that we decide what to build for Aspen Discovery revolves around the big picture, whether that be the big picture for Aspen libraries specifically, the library industry, or for the direction of patron expectations and how everyone will be interacting with technology moving forward. This is where the Aspen Discovery Goals really help guide the way. Here we’re talking about large new product areas and specific feature sets that require longer timelines to plan and execute. These are the big blocks that get shifted around and sometimes chopped into smaller blocks of feature sets that we can Tetris around with all of our other requests. This is the long term vision that we execute on consistently over the course of a year or more.

Perhaps the best example of this is Aspen’s first goal, to “create a unified experience through deep integration with ALL library technologies.” This started more than a decade ago with the vision to include ebooks in the library catalog, specifically OverDrive ebooks. Guided by that goal, we accomplished that integration and then went on to integrate more econtent sources, databases, archives, events, and even external library websites. The goal itself has even evolved over time, having been expanded from the previously worded goal of “complete integration with the underlying ILS and econtent providers.” Aspen can now integrate with more content sources than any other library discovery layer, making the library catalog the single place to uncover everything the library has to offer.

So if we don’t have a roadmap, how do you know what we’re working on? Every month, with the same cadence that we release new features, we talk about what we’re doing at the Aspen Gathering. We hold ourselves accountable for what we said our plans were for the last release and we share our plans for the next release. When we don’t get something done, we talk about why and typically what libraries got instead. From time to time we get even more done than we planned. It’s an honest and transparent view into what we're working on. At the Gathering and other Aspen meetings, we’re also frequently talking about our longer term plans, which currently revolve around sharing content across the community, building even more content integrations into Aspen, building and improving content creation tools in Aspen, and creating even better technology tools to allowing both for more collaboration across the growing Aspen developer community and transparency into what all Aspen partners are requesting and prioritizing.

“But Jordan, when will this be done?” We will work together to get it done at the best right time. We will be honest about what we’re working on and what our priorities are. We will try to serve all libraries, whether they are big or small, more or less resourced, and whether or not they have deadlines they are trying to meet. We will do this in a world that changes every day with partner libraries that have shared and conflicting priorities as they serve their patrons whose expectations of how technology should work shift faster today than yesterday or last week. We ask that our partner libraries continue to work with us to let us know how we’re doing, with the understanding that we’ll never be perfect but we’ll all be doing our best for our communities as long as we’re working together.

Instead of asking us for our roadmap, commit to paving the way with us.

Read more by Jordan Fields