10 Steps to a User-Friendly Library Website

20 steps workshop

What are you doing on the 25th of January? Maybe you should hang out and talk about websites with Amanda Etches-Johnson and me. We’re going to give it our all! Get ready.

Here’s the blurb from ALA Techsource:

A clean, well-designed website can mean the difference between an informed library user and a confused one. With a focus on the needs and wants of the library user, Amanda Etches-Johnson and Aaron Schmidt will help you develop the skills to make your library website easier to use and more interesting.

Topics include:

  • Determining the purpose of your website
  • Identifying your users’ critical tasks
  • Wrangling content
  • Writing for the web
  • How and when to conduct usability tests

You can register for 10 Steps to a User-Friendly Library Website here.

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Less Talking, More Doing: the User Research Jumpstart

Doing even a little bit of user research is more valuable than just talking about it. Don’t get me wrong; talking about research methods and user experience and design is fun and has its place. But actually doing even a bit of research often helps demonstrate the importance of thinking about our users.

Over at Influx we’ve been integrating actually doing something into our presentions. Even a simple 30 minute library patron observation exercise puts theory into practice and makes a presentation about UX much more valuable.

Building upon these observations we have a new get-your-hands-dirty package called the User Research Jumpstart. I’m really excited about it. The service is an effort to get libraries – in addition to learning by talking – learning by doing.

An added benefit of the User Research Jumpstart is that after it’s done libraries have some real user research that they can use to make improvements.

Here’s more about the User Research Jumpstart.

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Conversation Request: Non-Traditional Reference Service

Hey, I need some help.

I’d like to talk with a few folks that have experimented with and/or have implemented non-traditional reference scenarios for a LJ column I’m writing.

Let me know if you have experience with doing away with reference desks, roving reference, or merged service points. Or let me know if you know of libraries doing this stuff well.

Leave a comment or mail me at [email protected]

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Futura the Play

Last night I saw an early production of “Futura,” at Portland Center Stage. It’s a dystopian tale about electronic content, privacy, writing, authorship and the ownership of information wrapped up in a bunch of typography goodness. So if you’re into information issues (and if you’re reading this I bet you are) and in the area you should go see it. If you can’t see the play, pick some copies up for your library book. It would be perfect to read in an LIS class too.

The Oregon Humanities Council and PCS arranged a conversation between the play’s author, Jordan Harrison, and me this afternoon. Talking with the author was a real treat and nerding out about library issues with a bunch of non-librarians was pretty great!

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The Benefits of Less

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a daring pilot and talented author, also weighed in on user experience:

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

In some ways, libraries have been taking the opposite approach. We’ve gotten in the habit of tacking on new services and taking on new responsibilities, and many library websites can be seen as piecemeal collections of patron engagement tactics.

The problem of more

More content necessitates more design decisions and therefore more opportunity to make mistakes. Every piece of content on a website makes the site more complicated. For example, think about a single-page website with no links. The site’s architecture is really basic. Adding just one more page requires design decisions: Where should the link to the new page be? Could it be an image? Should it open in a new window? (By the way: no.)

Groups of content end up in different sections and require increasingly sophisticated architecture, labeling, navigation, and visual design. It isn’t impossible to get all of these things right, but more often than not patrons feel like they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack.

More content thins out our efforts. It sounds simple, but the more things a library tries to do, the less attention it can devote to any one thing. Without the attention they deserve, web content and services can’t be as effective as they should be.

The benefits of less

There are two ways to increase the amount of attention the bits of a website receive: either by increasing staffing and funding, or reducing the number of bits. An extreme example: imagine if your web team was only responsible for the page consisting of your library’s contact information, location, and one book recommendation per week. They’d be able to spend plenty of time on this page, testing, experimenting, and revising regularly. It would be a great page.

For years, I’ve heard talk about libraries cutting the cord on irrelevant services. Yet I haven’t heard as much discussion about which sacred web cows we can put out to pasture. This might in part be owing to the perception that a 200-page website isn’t more expensive to manage than a 50-page one. While probably true in terms of hosting fees, it isn’t otherwise true. Good content takes staff time to produce and arrange, and the navigational overhead can be a time expenditure for users.

I’m not suggesting that libraries shouldn’t try new things or add content to their sites. They should. Still, the library world needs to start a dialog about an additional way to prevent stagnation: subtraction.

How to reduce

Paring down website content certainly presents its own challenges, but determining your site’s critical tasks—the most frequent and important things people want to do there—isn’t difficult.

Ask library users. Walk around your library, or anywhere in your community, and ask, “What do you do on the library’s website?” Challenge yourself to engage up to 30 people and record their responses. Group all similar comments and rank them according to frequency. You can also put a short pop-up survey on your site asking the same question.

Another way to brainstorm the most important parts of your website is to imagine you’re building a mobile version. Given the limited screen real estate available, what parts of your site are essential?

Your site’s analytics might also help, but they can be tricky to interpret. Page hits don’t tell us much about motivation for visiting pages. They might get skipped either because the content isn’t interesting or because something is hampering findability.

While a lack of visits doesn’t necessarily mean a page isn’t valuable, it does mean that it probably won’t be missed. Use these stats judiciously. Once you’ve determined the most important things to have on your site, consider the rest nice to have but not necessary.

Shrinking pains

It’s a good idea to arrive at these conclusions collaboratively because it might not be easy for someone to hear that something they work on can’t be supported anymore. You also can’t promise staff that they’re going to have all sorts of free time once things are scaled back.

The goal here is to make your website and services the absolute best they can be. That means you’ll be spending what would be free time prototyping and testing revisions of your most important content.

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Sneak Peak 2: Remixed


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new column: the user experience

I’m writing a column for Library Journal called The User Experience. It’ll appear every other month.

In this month’s I explain what UX is, make the case for librarians as designers, and even talk about Paul Renner.

Every time librarians create a bookmark, decide to house a collection in a new spot, or figure out how a new service might work, they’re making design decisions. This is what I like to call design by neglect or unintentional design. Whether library employees wear name tags is a design decision. The length of loan periods and whether or not you charge fines is a design decision. Anytime you choose how people will interact with your library, you’re making a design decision. All of these decisions add up to create an experience, good or bad, for your patrons.

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New Content & Feed Option

I posted about the font service site Typekit at INFLUX’s blog the other day. Neat site. It inspired me to retool what’s going on here design wise. Funny thing is that I ended up having a he’s-just-not-that-into-you experience with all of the fonts available through Typekit. Oh well. Helvetica Neue/Helvetica/Arial it is. You could say I’m going through a real Crate&Barrel phase.

crateandbarrel logo
(Take a look at that custom uppercase C though. Hot.)

Posterous is Fun&Easy

I’ve been having a ton of fun using Posterous to collect things I like. I didn’t know if I’d stick with it but all the effort is in curating stuff, the fun part. It’s so easy to use it’s become part of my routine.


I’m going to use the Posterous autopost feature to send content here. It might not be strictly library related so if you get bored of the stuff I collect online you can use the Walking Paper strictly libraries only feed. There will certainly still be library content here but much of the library user experience stuff I’m into these days is ending up at INFLUX’s blog [feed].

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introducing INFLUX library user experience

INFLUX library user experience

Who Amanda Etches-Johnson and I
a library user experience consultancy
Why because we love libraries and UX work, so we put them together
For libraries wanting to improve their websites and in-house services
How many ways!
What Else
a blog and a fun contest to kick things off!
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The Original IBM Thinkpad




At the risk of people starting to think that I’m turning into a total retrogrouch (not true, btw) I’ll say that some of my most productive moments of the past year have been far away from a keyboard.

[via ACL]

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