Nine Considerations for Choosing an Abstract Management System
Published: May 1, 2013
Everything from Design to Usability to Support
If your Call for Abstracts or Final Presentations means endless email strings, clumsy spreadsheets with missing data or unnecessary headaches from using an outdated system, you may benefit from an online collection system that keeps all of the material and data organized in one convenient location.
But finding the right system to meets your needs can be challenging. If you want to move to an online collection system, or replace your current collection process, here are nine considerations when comparing systems.
1. System Flexibility
Is the system flexible enough to handle your desired collection process? Think about what you are trying to collect and what you are going to use the data and files for. Does the system facilitate this, or do you have to compromise your process to match the limited capabilities of the system? Are you going to have to pay for additional custom programming to get the system to behave as you would prefer?
Some collection systems have basic functionality and are locked down where you can’t change the fields you are collecting or alter the process in any fashion. These cookie- cutter systems are very rigid with what you can collect. Other collection systems rely on custom programming for any deviations you may have from a “standard” process, and these customizations require extra time and money. In addition, custom programming means your system’s uniqueness may be difficult to keep “bug-free” and challenging for the vendor to manage. Other systems are configurable, where the vendor has tried to think of customers’ various needs and built them into the system where they can be turned on or off. This vendor will typically build in requested functionality you need as long as they feel it will benefit all of their current and future customers. Which system will work best for you?
Because some systems don’t display the flexibility that is needed, organizations end up having to house their data on more than one system. Not only does this unnecessarily duplicate labor, but it increases your chances to lose data or have outdated information. The better solution is to choose one system where you can access the latest data real time and export it for any additional uses.
Other times, the system will be so rigid that you end up having to use fields for a purpose other than they were designed for, such as trying to collect the learning objective in four different fields because the character limit on those fields cannot be changed. Another example might have contributors typing their desired topic instead of choosing from a dropdown because you run out of fields. This can cause inconsistencies in your data and is unintuitive.
How flexible is your system after the collection process has begun? In a perfect world, you would know exactly what you want to collect for your final outputs and products. But the unfortunate reality is that sometimes you need more data or reports than you initially anticipated. Find out if the system you might choose allows you to add fields at a later time, after the initial set up. Can you send emails from the system asking users to come back to the site to complete additional data?
Another need for flexibility might be for staggered deadlines. Do you have completely different timelines for collecting different presentation types? For example, will you collect oral presentations until March, but accept poster submissions until June? Or do you have different deadlines for when a speaker can add new presentations, edit submitted presentations and withdraw presentations? A flexible system will allow multiple deadlines without making you change your process or simply deal with a system that does not meet your deadline needs.
2. Data and Reports
Can you get all the data you need out of the system at any time and in a format you can use? Or are there only canned reports? Ideally, your system will have the ability to create the reports you need, when you need them, and to save those reports for later. Do you have to manually revise the data to get it into a meaningful structure? You don’t want to have to contact your vendor whenever you want a new report, as this could incur more programming time and additional costs.
In addition to making sure the system has the reporting capability you need, you should consider how your system will share the data with committees, program chairs and others within your organization. Are you sharing the data with outside vendors, like printers, IT departments, or A/V companies? Does one version of the data work for every audience, or do you need the data in different fashions for different people?
If you don’t have custom reporting that can simplify this issue, how long does it take you to massage the data into a usable format? Or what’s the time and cost to have custom programming done? And how many times will you need to do that? Your system should be able to create the custom reports you need and let you extract the data you want – whenever you want it – without extra hassle or costly custom report fees.
3. Collecting Much More than Just Abstracts
You can use your system to collect content other than just the proposal. Since you are already asking you contributor to give you information regarding their submission, what other questions would you like answered now that you have their attention?
Here’s a list of potential information you may want to collect:
Does the system you’re using (or the one you’re considering) take these other elements into consideration, or will you have to figure out how to collect these items offline or via a different process?
Some systems also support social media crowdsourcing, where you can broadcast your Call for Abstracts and Call for Reviewers to your organization’s various social networks.
And many organizations collect many more proposals and abstracts than will actually be accepted for the final program. You may collect thousands of abstracts but only select 20% for oral presentations. You can use that data from past events for marketing your next year’s call for abstracts and call for reviewing. This is another way you can reach a larger audience.
4. The User Experience
Put yourself in the roles of an author, reviewer and site administrator (power user). What’s the user experience going to be like? Your users are busy people, and everyone will want to finish their tasks as soon as possible in a straightforward manner. Is the system you are considering intuitive enough that a user can complete his work with a minimum amount of instruction (i.e., a system that assumes that end users might ignore instructions)?
Systems that are not intuitive require greater support from staff because users are now going to be asking time-consuming questions on how to use the system in addition to questions about the event. You will also have a higher percentage of incomplete submissions that force you to come back and collect the data a second time.
In addition to being intuitive, is the system aesthetically pleasing? Does it resemble a modern design or is it stuck in the ‘90s? This site is a representation of your brand and your organization’s professionalism. Do your members and speakers consider this a system that’s commensurate with your brand, or does it seem like you’re taking a step backwards?
5. A Single System
Ideally you will have a system that integrates your Call for Abstracts (or Proposals or Papers), Reviewing, Final Collection and Scheduling. Separating these tasks into different systems increases the risks of having different data in different places and struggling with determining which place has the most current data. Even if you “lock down” all additional systems before you move the data and try to make sure that no changes are being made on any other systems, as soon as unsynchronized changes are being in systems, you again run into version control issues. This can be particularly troublesome when you have multiple administrative users in different systems.
The best solution is managing the entire collection process with in a self-contained system. Even better is if the system is optimized to work with your final outputs, whether that’s print, CD, flash drive or online. It can be frustrating when your collection vendor can’t work with the vendor who is printing your program book. You can easily end up wasting time and money with unnecessary finger pointing. And, delays are the last thing you need when you’re at the eleventh hour in your schedule and your event is happening in a matter of days.
6. Communication Options
Most collection sites have at least some ability to send an email to your submitter pool, but what are the system’s other email capabilities?
Here are some things you should consider:
- Does the “from” email address come from the system, or does it come from you or can different emails appear to come from different people?
- Do you have to create a new message every time you want to send something, or can you save email templates for later?
- Can you personalize blast emails with mail merge functionality?
- Can you filter what users you send it to? For example: only corresponding authors, only speakers with incomplete submissions or only speakers with oral presentations.
- Does the system keep track of sent messages and bounced messages?
- Does the system send emails in plain text and/or HTML?
- How do people reply to your emails?
You shouldn’t expect your online collection system to replace your everyday email program; However, it should facilitate communicating with the different users in the system. The more complex your process is, the greater the need is for a system that offers more functionality.
7. Reviewing Capabilities
If you’re going to have a Call for Abstracts or Call for Proposals, it’s likely that you will be reviewing submittals for acceptance.
- Will this only be one person, a small internal committee, or hundreds of peer reviewers?
- Will the system handle the number of reviewers you need and give them the appropriate access?
- Will you be assigning reviewers on a submission-by-submission basis, based on a certain topic/presentation type, or randomly?
- Do you review after your Call for Abstracts deadline, or are you reviewing as submissions are coming in?
- Does your system match your review process, or do you have to revise your process to match your system?
- How flexible is the review form? Can you ask multiple questions with multiple field types and collect multiple scores?
- Is it intuitive for the reviewers?
- For administrators, can you get the reports you need from the reviewing process?
- Can you hold an open Call for Reviewers?
8. Who Needs Access?
Another important consideration for a collection system is system access.
- Do you need to provide different levels of access to different people within the system?
- Does your administrator need to be able to do everything, while your intern only needs to be able to access reports?
- Will you have Program Chairs who only need access to their sessions or tracks?
- Can you restrict access to the public while allowing access to only invited speakers?
- How will you handle adding late submissions (after the deadline) when the site is closed without opening the entire site to everyone?
Sometimes you can coach your other power users of the system on how to use a part of the site and tell them to not access other areas. But this system relies on a number of leaps of faith, including trust, competence and honesty. The more control you have, the less special instructions you need to give and the lower the risk you take by not giving someone the keys to the entire system.
These access considerations should be determined up front. List out your different roles and where they will need access. Will the system support this? It’s rare to find anyone willing to do custom programming to allow and limit access to sections of your system. It’s best to start with a system that offers flexibility upfront with roles and access.
9. Considering an In-House Solution
If you are unhappy with your current collection system, or can’t find a collection system that meets your needs, you may be tempted to try to build one on your own. When deciding if that’s a route you’d like to take, ask yourself all of the previous questions listed here to determine if it would be a realistic undertaking.
Other things to consider:
- Do you have the staffing capacity, knowledge of collection concepts and technological expertise to succeed?
- Would you have to hire an external development team to build the system, and does that team have the staffing capacity, knowledge of collection concepts and technological expertise to succeed?
- How would you expect to manage the development process? Have you ever managed software development before?
- How long will it take to build? Development cycles can go a few months to years long depending on how many people are assigned to the project, how much money you’re willing to invest and if it’s properly managed.
- How much are you willing to spend in money, time and personnel? Is this the best use of these resources? It’s not uncommon to spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars on homegrown systems.
- Who will be responsible for testing the product?
- How will you maintain the product? Will you have a team that’s tasked with maintaining the software for bugs and additional functionality requests?
- Do you have a development roadmap?
- If you hire an external team, will they be able to support you after they build the initial product?
As you can see, there are many factors in deciding which collection system is right for your organization. In summary make sure:
- The system is flexible enough for your needs
- You can get the data you need out of the system at any time you want
- You collect as much as you can from your submitters – make them do the work
- The user experience makes it pleasant for everyone and supports your brand
- You can keep everything in one system so you’re not duplicating efforts and potentially poisoning your data
- Your system allows you to communicate with your authors and speakers efficiently and in a focused manner
- The system supports your review process whether it’s simple or complex
- The collection systems provides the appropriate level of system access to the various types of people associated with the site
And realize that your current collection process might significantly change in the future due to meeting restructuring, emphasis on different final products, new content that you want to capture, a changing mission statement, new technologies, etc.
Are you considering a change for your collection process? Feel free to consult one of our representatives to discuss your challenges and objectives. We’re happy to learn more about you and your process. Should you want to see a demonstration of our online system, we can do that too.
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