Good reference

Directories tend to be things we turn to at particular moments, to fulfil defined needs – an emergency plumber or electrician, a new advertising agency, the right people to mailshot with the agency brochure and showreel.

We don’t tend to think about them much, unless we need that name or that number; and when we need it, we need it urgently. We don’t tend to have time to consider the aesthetic qualities of the reference work we are consulting.

So just how many of us have ever paused while we were rifling through the pages of a directory, and tried to work out whether it was a good one or not? Indeed, how can you assess the quality of a directory?

But that’s exactly the task that faced the judges of the Directory & Database Publishers Association’s annual awards, the results of which are to be announced next week. They had to go through 37 print directories, 15 CD-Rom directories and eight Internet directories from 42 publishers and select the best in each category. To be eligible for the awards, the directories had to have been published by a UK-based company between April 1 1997 and March 30 1998.

Ian Locks, chairman of the Periodicals Publishers Association, was chairman of the five-strong panel of judges, which in addition to himself included a representative of the DPA, a business librarian, a new media expert and an advertising directory publisher.

He observes: “It would be trite to say that we were looking for the benchmark product in each category. But I suppose we were trying to find something that was showing a way forward – a product which is demonstrably original and innovative. We wanted to identify those directories which were able to set new standards. In a mature market, that’s what helps drive the industry forward.”

The directories which impressed him the most were the ones which best married old and new technology: “The products that created some of the greatest interest among the judges were the ones which had developed the link between paper and online publishing, making them work together, and profitably.”

It’s easy for those of us who do not work in the directories industry or in the field of business information to assume that once a company has created a directory which works, it sticks resolutely to that winning formula. Not so: directories, like any commercial product, are constantly evolving – but it is an evolutionary process that ordinary users tend to notice only rarely – when the telephone directory alters the format in which it presents people’s names, for example – and then for just as long as it takes to get used to the changes.

But Rosemary Pettit, secretary of the DPA, who also served on the judging panel, stresses that the judges were approaching their task as directory users, rather than publishers. She says that there were considerably more entries this year than last, particularly in the new media field (Web directories made their debut in the awards last year).

As far as she was concerned, the most important criteria for judging an ad directory included:

Did it fit the title?

Were there others covering the ground which did the job better?

Was it easy to use?

Did the directory have colour coding or other aids to help find information quickly?

The titles which passed this first stage were then sampled to check the validity of the data they included, and compared with previous editions to see if they had improved their presentation. If there were no previous editions to compare with, then they were examined for completeness of information.

Hugh Look, a consultant to the online and Internet industries, was one of the judges for the new media directories. He believes that “what makes something jump out is where the people who developed the product have sat down and thought who is going to use it, how are they going to be using it and what information are they going to be looking for?”

This is the second year that Look has been a judge for the awards, and he says that last year’s winner in the CD-Rom category, the Conference Blue and Green Book, was a perfect example of how to present ad directory in an online form.

“Everything that you would need to know if you were setting up a conference was there – the size of the meeting rooms, the amount of accommodation, the location and so on. You could look at a map and draw a circle of a particular size and call up information on all the venues within that radius. You didn’t have to jump through hoops to get the information you needed.”

New media offers directory publishers huge opportunities. For one thing, they can provide enormous amounts of information in a portable form; for another, users can look through that information quickly. And CD-Roms are cheap to duplicate, particularly compared with bulky paper directories.

Technically, as Look says, “there isn’t usually a problem doing the sort of thing you want to do with a directory”. Unfortunately, the fact that something can be done is not a guarantee that it will be done well, and the judges “found it quite difficult, both this year and last, to find satisfactory winners. Some CDs got installed, got looked at for a minute or so, and got discarded”.

The kind of thing that would instantly disqualify a CD-Rom directory, as far as Look is concerned, would include “meaningless screens with absolutely no indication as to what you were supposed to do next; and over-complicated search programmes”.

Look believes that too few publishers look at their products through the eyes of their potential users. The situation is slightly different on the Web, where users look for clarity of information, the speed at which pages are downloaded and the way the different pages are connected together, rather than the actual depth of the data carried.

It’s not enough, he says, for publishers to simply port over a directory they have produced on CD-Rom: people use the Web in significantly different ways,and “have a completely different relationship with Websites”. This year’s winner in the Website category, Look says: “Hasn’t got the fullest content, but it worked well and quickly.”

But the main problem both CD-Rom and Web directories share is that developers tend to fall into one of two camps – IT or graphic design.

The former usually stick to rigid hierarchical structures, and using their directories can be rather like going up and down the scales on a piano. They also become obsessed with process, and will do things in a particular way just because the potential exists, without considering whether there is any real user need.

The latter often produce ex-tremely attractive collections of screens, which seldom hang together. “They go to pieces after the first screen,” Look explains.

Those companies which tend to produce the best new media directories are usually ones which have a marketing background.

But Look has noticed a marked improvement in the quality of Web entries to the awards. “There are evolutionary forces at work. Generally, as sites relaunch, they get simpler. But unfortunately that cuts down on the opportunities for branding.”

It’s also unfortunate that the improvement in Web entries has not been mirrored in the CD-Rom section. “I was disappointed to see there wasn’t more progress,” says Look.

As with any judging process, Ian Locks admits: “It’s always difficult. In each category, there were half a dozen entries that could have won. In the end, it wasn’t the products that were the obvious trailblazers that won, because trailblazers often don’t have any real staying power. We were looking for those products that were able to set a new standard, that were competitive and profitable and that would obviously provide solid growth for the company which produced them and would also help build the market as a whole.”

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