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IL2009: Library Website Improvement Face-Off

Speakers: David Lee King, Amanda Etches-Johnson, Aaron Schmidt, Jeff Wisniewski

This panel talk was focused on usability and user-centered experiences on library websites.  I liked this presentation as it has some very practical, common-sense takeaways that we can now take back to our libraries and colleagues and say “hey — somebody with authority & expertise said we should do this.”  Maybe that’s the way you can finally get some of this common sense website change done!  Hey…whatever works 🙂

Amanda Etches-Johnson’s Talk

Amanda started by discussing search boxes.  We’re doing a pretty good job of putting catalog searches on our homepages.  Amanda wants to see more of is to put search boxes on pages other than our homepages.  On Florida State University’s subject guide for English has the search box front & center at the top of the page.  The Articles tab should also be there – you can put search boxes up for databases you already subscribe too.  Why not add a search box for the most relevant database along with the catalog search on other subject-based pages.  Collingswood Public Library used to have a massive search box right in the middle of the page.  The search box also includes a phrase of what is in the search capability – “books, movies, etc.”  Amanda did a great job improving when her presentation exploded and she could not see her slide.  The lack of a QuickTime compressor on the presentation machine caused a problem (good note for future computer configurations).  She also says to be human and be whimsical – think about how we write & present things on our websites.  She gave an example of some language describing a change to the interlibrary loan policy at her library.  She had changed the wording from “the library” to “we.”  She also cut the word number down quite a bit.  Be human when you communicate with users.  The library is not a being who can communicate with your users.  Make yourself more approachable by working through your text on the website to shorten & personalize it.  Dopplr is a website that lets you set up a profile of where you’re going to be traveling and when and connect with close-by friends.  Amanda points out that they put a lot of thought into the experience of using their site.  She also recommends testing the heck out of all of our webpages.  Two tools to use: (upload screenshots and get designer feedback) and (a usability tool you can upload to your own servers and test the designs with your users right away).

Aaron Schmidt’s Talk

Aaron says that the first thing you have to do is watch people use your website.  People have tasks they want to accomplish on your website.  You can choose the most important tasks for your website and watch where they do well and where they don’t.  Luckily it’s pretty easy and you can have a quick debriefing and make your changes.  Aaron recommends only testing four people–anything more has diminshing returns.  He recommends hte book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.  You can present content on your website in different ways to see which one people like better.  Present two different layouts, two different designs, etc. and then see through statistics how people work.  “I don’t care about what people think.  I care about what people do.”  Aaron thinks that focus groups are not helpful – actual task-based user groups have better results.  The second thing is cutting content.  Aaron says that recommending 1/4 of pages on library websites or more would be okay.  Look at analytics, find out what people need to do through user interviews, and cut the rest out.  Then you can concentrate on making the smaller website much more effective.  You should also write for the web, which is very different than writing elsewhere.  The DC Public Library’s “Get a Library Card” page got a lot shorter when Aaron re-wrote it.  It’s an FAQ instead–Who can get a card?  What can I do with my card?  He recommends the book Letting Go of the Words regarding writing well for the web.  People will click all over your site if you give them the confidence to do so.  If you provide adequate wayfinding through sensible links and good breadcrumbing people will find the content they need.  The idea that everything has to be findable within 3 links is a myth.  Do not use the wording “click here.”  He recommends going back right now and getting rid of any of those types of links.  (Sarah’s Comment: Absolutely true.  Those links look not only outdated but dysfunctional.)

David Lee King’s Talk

David promotes Google Analytics – a year and a half of looking through stats at his library’s website.  There are a definite top ten things that their users want to do on the website.  Look at the top ten most popular things and make those ten things much, much better.  “Make them rock!”  Words we find on our websites that suck: account, databases, catalog, materials, Literacy, ESL, Audiences, Research Resources.  Ask customers what words they use and then use those words.  David showed his library’s calendar of events and other examples of database-driven pages.  With some simple CSS work you can create different colors, weights, sizes of the fonts in your database driven pages and make them look much more interesting and easily scannable.

Jeff Wisniewski’s Talk

Jeff started by joking that there’s nothing wrong with our websites; the problem is our users.  Muah ha ha ha.  In talking about our library websites we tend to not take into account our whole information universe and from a user’s perspective we are our databases and we are our eJournals and we are the catalog.  That stuff and the website are not separate entities in the eyes of our users.  We need to focus on the usability of these resources where we are taking people.  Most of us don’t have stuff on our own sites that we want people to linger on; the goal is to get them off of the site to the other resources.  (Sarah’s Comment: I know that is likely true for some types of libraries & some types of websites, but I don’t know if that’s totally true.  If we’re trying to get people to participate on our sites, they want to read through recommended reading, they want to look at the library’s events pages, etc…I think that people will be spending time on our sites as well as these external resources…we are more decentralized & outsourced with our content, which is great, but at least for public libraries we do have info on our websites that is not portal-type in nature).  Easy solution — go out and get a new OPAC.  For so many users the library is the OPAC.  If you are dumping people in a catalog that does not work well and looks old and unusable, that is not good usability practice.  Jeff did a small survey with seven library websites (public, academic, & special).  Some libraries are posting multiple search boxes on their homepages, which is confusing.  One library website had seven search boxes on the homepage — argh!  We need to work toward less search boxes and even a single search box using federated search.  (Sarah’s Comment: I’m sure that’s true for academic libraries, but I don’t think public library users want to search the catalog at the same time as all of our newspaper/magazine databases.  Most people want a book, a movie, music, or articles…rarely do they want a full search of all of them.  I guess it points out the real difference in public & academic libraries’ priorities).  If you are creating advertisements on your websites, especially graphics that look like banner ads, then users are unlikely to pay much attention to them as they have learned on the web to tune them out.

The Results of the Talks

The winner was Amanda Etches-Johnson’s concept to “Be Human & Be Whimsical.”  Being human is always a good idea, right? 🙂  After some complicated voting with people holding up their cellphone screens to vote, there was some confusion about whether we were voting for a single idea, a group of ideas, or a presenter overall.

Fairy Godmother Wishes

Each speaker was also asked to presented one “Fairy Godmother of Library Websites” wish that would make library websites fabulous, what they would use as their single wish if they could wave a magic wand.

Amanda: She wants to make the “long wow” happen in libraries – what we need is to get customer loyalty from library websites.  We want to wow them enough that they will keep coming back.

Jeff: He wants to have about half of the words on everybody’s library website magically disappear and only leave the ones that are necessary and make sense.

Aaron: He wants to provide a unified experience across all the different products — our websites, catalogs, & database products.

David: He wants all of our administrators to magically become geeked-out people who understand what we’re trying to do with our digital presences and support new projects.

The Results of the Wishes

Aaron won with his “unified experience” idea.  Here here!


“IL2009: Library Website Improvement Face-Off”

  1. Erin Says:

    Just wanted to say THANKS for providing all these IL session summaries, Sarah. Some valuable information to be shared with those of us who couldn’t be there!

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