In my last post I looked at three examples of Web 2.0 services that had changed in unexpected ways and the impacts on their users. I also identified some of the associated issues with Web 2.0 applications, including data security, service closures or change in focus, the ability to extract data and unanticipated changes in fee structure.
Its time to look at some steps councils and small organisations can take in evaluating Web 2.0 applications they are interested in. But first, an extra disclaimer – the web is a volatile place and Web 2.0 applications are particularly subject to market forces and competitive pressures. In other words, there is no guarantee that even if you do thoroughly evaluate a service it won’t change in the future, possibly in ways that you don’t like.
So, what can your organisation do to help protect itself when looking at a Web 2.0 service?
Evaluate what the service does and how well it does it. Don’t be seduced by the hype – most Web 2.0 services have a free version which you should systematically evaluate (though these often involve a cut-down feature set). If you are seeking an online replacement for an existing application it should be easy to develop a checklist of your requirements; if the service promises something which you don’t already do, you still need to check that in fact it can deliver on this promise. Also check out how easy the service is to use, how quickly it loads and runs, what browsers it is happiest with and, if there are different service levels, what additional options they provide (see next point).
- Confirm exactly what you are paying for. Beyond the limited free version most sites provide two or three service levels with increasing fees, usually paid for on a monthly basis. These service levels may be distinguished by different features and/or different limits on the number of users or concurrent projects. Make sure you are not paying for a higher service level than you actually need; if you require additional facilities for a once-off project, some applications will allow you to upgrade and downgrade on a month-to-month basis. Also find out how much notice you need to give to terminate a service – again, this can usually be done on a monthly basis.
- Find out about storage, data security and backup systems. Check out if the service website provides information on how data is stored, whether there are adequate back-up systems and how secure your confidential data will be. If there is no information on the website, contact the service provider to request this information.
- Clarify if you can extract data to backup and use outside the service. It’s important to sort out whether and how easily you can download this data and the formats in which it is provided, especially if you want to integrate information with other services or applications. How important this facility is depends on the nature of the service and the value of the data; for example, for online survey services you probably only need to be able to download the questions and the survey outcomes, whilst for online databases you would need to able to backup the whole database offline.
- Setup your own backup systems. Obviously you will also need to setup your own systems to backup downloaded data. If the Web 2.0 service you want to use is event related – for example, Poll Everywhere, which provides a mobile phone-based polling and voting facility for meetings – consider the possibility that the internet might be down on the very night you are holding your meeting and take along a manual voting system as a backup (I’ll review Poll Everywhere in a future post).
- Assess the service’s maturity and popularity. Find out how long the service has been around and how often it has been updated – and whilst this may be harder, try to get a sense of whether it is attracting interest and users. Obviously an application that has been online for longer than a year or two, has been updated a few times and appears to be popular is likely to be more stable and financially viable – though newer services are worth considering if they appear to be well-designed. Also be wary of older services that look like they have been neglected for a while and seem to have few users. These services could be struggling financially and the owners may already have plans to close them down.
- Review service guarantees and support arrangements. See what if any promises are provided about continuity of service provision and carefully review the application’s user help and support arrangements. At a minimum, Web 2.0 service sites should provide a set of frequently asked questions and answers as well as an email address or form for support requests. Better sites will also provide product tours, webinars and/or tutorials on the service’s key features, knowledge bases, a list of tips and tricks, templates (if appropriate) and user forums.
- Test the service provider’s response to support requests and feedback about product development. If you have any questions regarding the service after trialling it, ask them. Apart from getting an answer, this will also test the site provider’s responsiveness. Likewise, provide suggestions about the service and how it could be improved. Most service providers appreciate feedback and may indicate whether your suggestions are being considered for a future version.
- Check out the views of users and reviewers. Some services will list prominent companies using the service and may even provide testimonials. Other Web 2.0 services may host user forums which can provide an insight to common problems. These may be moderated, however, so you should also search the web for references to the service in independent forums or blogs by either users or reviewers.
These are just a few suggestions for your council or organisation to consider in evaluating Web 2.0 services – please leave a comment if you have any additional ideas on how to review and choose web-based applications.