I am going to tell you a story about how the library website at my place of work went from this:
in 18-months. I thought it might be fun to take a look behind-the-scenes at how the site developed. Describing the process may help other designers — or at the very least make for a good laugh or cautionary tale.
As many have noted, it’s hard make a good website for a library. You need to provide access points to all of your services, resources and information silos, all in a clear and clean format within the tiny real estate of about half a computer screen.
Even if your library serves just one school or department, you usually still have the problem of varying audiences (such as students in various programmes, faculty and staff). And, of course — for us, at least — there is the need to convey that we are not just a dusty repository for books, but a responsive and tech savvy organisation, key to academic and employment success.
So, what’s a library to do? Most seem to solve the problem by grouping resources by type with, for example, major navigation categories for ‘databases,’ ‘catalog’ and ‘services.’ We surveyed the library websites for major business schools around the world, and nearly all take this approach.
Either this or they use a LibGuide — which is very good but, no matter how you configure it, always seem to look like a LibGuide — which is to say, solid, but not terribly customisable and a bit formulaic.
Both approaches seemed unsatisfying to us.
I began working for JBS Information & Library Services in January 2011. Four months earlier, the library site had moved from a text-based portal of resources that required users first to authenticate. The interface was based on the University VLE and was virtually uncustomisable except for text and links.
The old VLE site looked like this:
And there is not much to say about it except that it was dreary , behind a firewall and uncustomisable — i.e., not even minimally fit to be the base of a library website in the 21st century.
In the summer of 2010, Andy Priestner and his team at the Judge decided to change all that and create a publically available site with links to services and resources all consolidated onto the interface of a WordPress.com blog — a move inspired, incidentally, by his participation in a 23 Things @ Cambridge programme that summer.
The new site looked like this:
And it was a massive leap forward. The library could customise the site’s look and feel (up to a point, which I’ll talk about later), update it in real time with announcements and changes in links, and provide access to its social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook and Delicious. The team created descriptions to databases, various help guides and information about library resources.
But the problems with the site — despite its incredible advances in terms of access and customisation — were that it was basically grouped on the major navigation categories mentioned above — meaning it was more based on what we had instead of what we do or what users wanted most.
And it wasn’t actually all that user friendly — the header and blog took up nearly all the ‘above-the-fold’ real estate, and it it didn’t provide a means of interacting with us. The blog, as well, was mostly boring announcements without lively graphics which we doubted anyone actually read.
The more we talked about it, the more we realised we needed to change our look and content. Our mantra at the Judge has always been that we are not merely custodians of a physical collection but partners in the school’s mission to provide world-class business education and research. We provide access to information, yes, but we also assist in the creation and dissemination of that information, and offer particular expertise in social technologies that help students, faculty, and staff work more efficiently.
We needed our website to reflect that mission and brainstormed how to do that. A website based on ‘what do you want/need to do’ and ‘what are our most popular services’ is very different from just saying ‘here’s what we have, just in case you might need it.’ And while there’s nothing novel in making a task-based website , it was new thinking for us and quite refreshing.
In terms of content, we wanted a way easily to be able to point users to how to do their research, based on the types of questions our users most frequently ask. This led to the development of four things:
- ‘Wiki-style’ pages that explain the differences of various databases based on topic groupings
- A ‘popular links’ section with links to content users need most
- Database links that only require one click to get through to the database
- Blog posts more like news stories accompanied by really good graphics
The idea was to create an actual destination that users would want to come back to continually for reference and to check for changes and updates.
These exercises led us also to realise that WordPress.com has its limitations, and we decided to switch from wordpress.com to wordpress.org. It’s important to note the differences between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. You can get started with a blog from wordpress.com in about 5 minutes. It is free and hosted on the wordpress.com site. For basic blogs this is great, but you cannot easily customise the site, use tools called plugins which massively extend WordPress’s functionality, or have a custom domain that doesn’t have the word ‘wordpress’ in it.
WordPress.org offers those features but you must either host the blog yourself or pay someone to host it for you. We decided to do that latter as we’d be able to get to work faster on our blog that way. And so, we were off…
And then of course we were staring a blank canvass in the face. How were we going to construct this thing? The first few iterations were a bit of confused mess. We started with a very blank black and white WordPress theme — the theme is the bulwark of a wordpress blog and there are thousands of free and paid ones to choose from. We also chose one that had built-in navigation tabs and lots of spots for widgets.
The raw theme out of the box, called ‘Pico,’ looked like this:
And this was all good, except that our first couple of goes were flat, black and white, hard to understand, and really boring. Discussions about how to jazz it up lead to some nice innovations — such as moving the blog content to the left and adding the drop-shadows in the margins — but also led to a busy and difficult-to-understand interface.
During this time, at my darkest moments in the middle of the night, I really regretted not going with LibGuides, which would have been far simpler to configure!
However, many hours later of playing with the theme’s style sheet and various WordPress plugins, I have come to realise that we made the right choice. With wordpress.org nearly every time we said, ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this’ there was a way, such as easily making sortable tables, java-script toggle lists, rotating our information-rich blog posts, and displaying our latest ebooks.
Our first real go at the site looked like this:
And we were pretty chuffed about it…
But obviously the ultimate test was whether our users were going to like it, so we embarked on some quick-and-dirty usability testing. We sent an announcement to the student body asking for volunteers and offered a £10 voucher to Amazon. We recruited six students from the various programmes in the school and did 30-minute tests consisting of about 10 questions that asked students to complete a task or make comments about various parts of the site.
The testing was really instructive. We generated a huge amount of comments and suggestions from the students, most of which boiled down to, ‘simplify the interface dramtically’ and to make links to what they need most easy to find and open. Though we thought we had been doing that all along, the students pointed out ways that this could be improved. They confirmed our suspicions that they more-or-less never read the announcements on the blog and surprised us with looking for links to services that we thought they generally didn’t use.
The result, by July 2011 was a site that looked like this:
Though it is based on a blog infrastructure, the blog part is minimised and now consisted largely of what-we-hope are very informative posts, with catchy writing and compelling graphics. The rest of the site is devoted to making the process of getting to our most frequently-used resources as easy as possible.
For people who actually want to read about which databases we feel are best for finding particular kinds of data, we have the wiki pages, but for those who want just a list, we’ve got that, too.
In terms of being able to interact with us, we now have this chat widget, which we staff religiously during our open hours. The service has been up since last summer, and it is very popular.
But nothing in library land ever stands still, does it? No sooner was the site launched, when our public affairs office — rightly so — stated that the site needed more of the school’s look and feel. We had designed the new site without using the school’s colour scheme, but this had not been a conscious decision. We were making a site that felt right for our users’ needs.
But it made obvious sense for the site to be instantly recognisable as being from the Judge, so the public affairs office, who designs and maintains the schools main site, changed our site’s style sheets to match the colour scheme and branding of the school’s.
The results are quite nice:
Overall, the site looks professional and clean, and perhaps even closer to our original (circa January 2011) idea of a black and sexy site. At the same time, we also moved the site from the third-party host to the school’s servers, so now the site is just one of the many sites that our IT department maintains.
Foremost in our minds during this process was how independent the site ultimately would be. We have long felt that our web presence needs to be in our control. We need to experiment with new content, services and interfaces, and though the site has all of the correct JBS branding, we still maintain administrative control over the site’s content, layout and services offered. We are lucky that we have been able to strike this balance.
For the past 3 months, the site has had an average of 400 unique visitors per day, so surely there are many people finding our pages who are not affiliated with JBS. We think that’s fantastic. We strive to make the website interesting to anyone doing business research or currently a business student — and thus we try to minimise announcements and posts about items specific to our collection.
Plans for future development include finding better plugins to enhance the site and finessing our SEO (search-engine optimisation). The content of the site is ever-evolving as we experiment with different ways of not being a boring old library site. There is much room to improve — but we’re proud of how far we’ve come.
Filed under: library marketing
, library websites
, web design