The Lords of Vendorbation

Vendorbation
ven·dor·ba·tion
/ˈvendər-ˈbā-shən/

noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.

Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.

Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.

Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.

Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).

Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.

Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?

Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.

Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”


Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.

26 thoughts on “The Lords of Vendorbation”

  1. This makes me think of the “update” done by our local library. An old and ugly – but usable and responsive – system was replaced by a system that takes a minute to load, is impossible to navigate, has a search function that doesn’t work, and is completely Flash-based. (Suffer at http://catalog.wrlsweb.org/Iluminar/home.asp?lid=wrls#wrls%20Home)

    The librarians hate it as much as (more than?) the users after having spent a six-figure sum on this debacle. I’m sure if someone knew how to search for a provider, they could have assembled a team of local programmers to build the system for a tenth of the cost of these scammers from the other side of the country.

  2. This is such a timely comment for me, especially with respect to intranets. I have just started working in a very large multinational organisation (60k+ employees), having previously worked in a 4 staff micro SME. I am shocked at the amount of money wasted on systems with such poor quality web based interfaces that no-one seems to be able to use them properly. No thought is given to the user interface and usability of a system, as long as it somehow meets the functional requirements. Apparently they don’t include being able to finish a task in the system without phoning the helpdesk.

    I now know how spoiled the world of freelancers and SMEs is when it comes the quality of the software used. I consider it a real privilege to have used tools such as Basecamp or WordPress when I look at the festering piles of sh*t that are now forced upon me.

    And that is the crux of the matter. I have no choice so there is no incentive for the provider to produce something usable. It’s something I remember Nielsen writing about probably more than a decade about: most menuing systems in gadgets are so poor because once you’ve bought the gadget you’re locked in. Whereas on the web if you can’t use something, you go somewhere else.

    We now have the exception that proves that rule: Websites that are forced up on you due to a choice you can’t easily reverse are universally crap. Examples include your child’s school’s website and your employer’s intranet.

    Rant over! Sorry!

  3. The big university here is transitioning – so thousands of students have to check two completely incompatible crappy intranets to keep up-to-date on all of their courses, and a separate system to register and see their grades. Their library catalogue has three completely different search interfaces, all of which break if you use the back button.

  4. Great post. A collegue and I have been calling this “Technological Masturbation” for years. I marvel at the money that is typically wasted. Companies and organizations may as well burn it. These folks don’t care or (still) don’t know about standards (sometimes both). Bring back WaSP! :-P

  5. I work in Higher Ed. This reminds me of a great metafilter post:

    “There seems to be an entire class of software vendors that supply products that allegedly meet the needs of education and other institutional clients (healthcare, military, etc.). These vendors produce ridiculously expensive and unusable crap- the sort of stuff that is bought by committees composed of upper echelon management types who will never need to deploy or try to use the garbage they’re spending vast amounts of other people’s money on. Software solutions too unfriendly, unstable, and incompatible to last a minute in the universe of competitive business.”

    source: http://www.metafilter.com/63880/Problem-Code-11-Piranha-plant-clogging-warp-pipe

    User interface design so epically bad you need a strategy guide to defeat it. Presenting The Legend of FacilityFocus: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/myl/FacilityFocus.html

    background: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004826.html

  6. I work in K12 web. The technology space in K12 is a mess. There’s no usability testing, no serious thought toward requirements beyond the absolute minimums and the final price. It’s full of people who seriously base decisions on what their kids’ college does, without any serious evaluation of solutions actually available on the market. People who still think social media is a fad.

    There are days when it burns. We try so hard to fight for solutions that make sense, but every school district web person I’ve talked with has a list of outrageousness we haven’t had the clout or resources to defeat.

    I know you’re there beside us, but please be careful not to beat on us too much. We’ve sacrificed the pay, perks, and freedom of the outside world to try to make a difference and support education the best we can.

  7. I know you’re there beside us, but please be careful not to beat on us too much. We’ve sacrificed the pay, perks, and freedom of the outside world to try to make a difference and support education the best we can.

    Beat on you? I salute you! Against tough odds, you work hard to make a difference. Hang in there! :)

  8. Best article I’ve seen all week. As a small web company we see this a lot:

    “Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down. ”

    After 8 years in business I’ve become pretty good at spotting this type of RFP and politely declining them, but it’s always with a pit in my stomach because I know good people are being mislead into thinking that these requirements will produce optimal software (and a fair selection process…). And when I check up a year later to see what the result was, it’s like you describe.

    Your post should be required reading for anyone in charge of investing an organization’s money into software.

  9. I’ve seen this from the inside for government-contracted web work. There is something structurally wrong with the way government contracting works, but I’m just not sure how to fix it. The fact that contracts go to the lowest-bidder who has navigated the Byzantine paperwork seems key. The incentives throughout the process are perverse. Good people essentially have to make personal and professional sacrifices in order to make the software better, in spite of the decision-makers on both sides of the contract.

  10. True story all over the world, I guess.

    Welcome to Italy, motherland of all beauty and gorgeous design… unless it involves any kind of web technology, of course. :D

    Something is slowly changing, but please note: SLOWLY.

  11. Well said! As a former government contractor, I saw this kind of thing all the time. As you and several other commenters have already said, the winners of these contractors are very adept at navigating the “requirements” which are often poorly laid out themselves, leading to faulty solutions.

    To add to this mix is an old school boy’s club of corporate executives who buddy up to bid on projects. An “integrator” company (large gov’t contractor) will pair up with a “solution provider” (large tech company) to provide an official public bid on a project. However, they they know they have already won said contract because they just had lunch at the Ritz with the lead government executive in charge of the program. None of these old boys knows anything about technology or what the users really need, they are all just trying to promote their careers by claiming to have run a multi-million dollar project without any glitches. If the “solution” is installed on time and within the budget, then the project is a success, even though us plebeians obviously have a different definition of “success.”

  12. So…. Did you make a phone call to find out where / when her classes were? We’ve found that even if they have contact info on the site, it is usually wrong cause no one can update it. Great Post / Vent.

  13. True, why do we let it be like this, we are now in an enlightened ere and we still get Vendorbated at 90% of the service websites, 99% of government, and the list goes on, I’m done bleeding through my eyes and i boycott anything and anyone that did not think of my eyes feelings … The good news is that great design is on the rise we just need to let the designers do their job. I think it should be illegal to do software for a firm that the boss/manager has a “feeling for design”

  14. The fact that contracts go to the lowest-bidder who has navigated the Byzantine paperwork seems key. The incentives throughout the process are perverse.

    Very true. When you are contractually bound to award your project to the lowest bidder, it pretty much guarantees that you will not get the best work or best thinking. (It also pretty much guarantees that you’ll end up being hit with hidden charges down the road that bring the lowest bidder’s eventual payday up to the same level as that of the “higher priced” vendors, but that’s another sad story.)

  15. It’s just sad to know that these people can move in and make these horrible websites and there’s no one to stop them since the people who sign the contracts almost always know nothing about the system they are buying.

    My town of DeSoto has been trying to be more “social” they signed up for a service called Next Door and they would alert people of town news. Recently, there was a post saying that a new website was going up for our police department that would post “most wanted” and other related information.

    The website that went up looked like some script-kiddie just learned how to use jQuery UI and was now going to vomit it all over the page. A third of the page is taken up by a pixelated picture blown up to full width.

    I replied to the announcement asking if I could help improve the website and was told “well this was the system that was given us; updates will come later.” And I was shut out. Turns out that horrible design is licensed by a company that works with police data. It’s really sad, but not even offering free help could work.

  16. I have seen this while I was working in k12. I tried helping the district out by providing solutions with the use of current software. They didn’t quite understand that what they were using was extremely outdated so I found new opportunities and moved on. In speaking with old colleagues, nothing has changed. In fact, IT fees have gone up and the latest software they use is around 15 years old. Embarrassing waste of taxpayer dollars.

  17. I have had a long, hate/hate relationship with the USPTO Web site. And I believe there should be a special circle of hell for gov’t agencies who combine vendorbatory practice with their own, low-cost, in-house design resources. In 1999. And never change a damned thing because the merry-go-round won’t stop, but they could clearly have seen the horrified, desperate faces of the other passengers when they bought the ticket to ride 14 years ago. If only HTML were flammable.

  18. In all fairness, the guilt often lies with the people hiring the company that will produce the monstrosity. After 12+ years developing sites for big and small companies, I have been in the terrible position of having to choose between doing the right thing or losing the job: clients often hire us to put their ideas in practice. They know *exactly* what they want and we are just the hand that will do what they can’t do by themselves. We are not hired to educate, create, or solve any problems. We are hired to execute – whatever there is to execute.

    I decided a long time ago, that I need to make the money, so I close my eyes, do the best I can and try to minimize the damages as much as is practically possible. The alternative is to watch someone else do the same bad job from the unemployment line.

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