Planning a Website Re-Vamp, Part I

Before I started working in the Sonoma State University Library, I knew re-designing the Library website was going to be a priority. Everyone made it clear to me during the interview process that they weren’t happy with the site and that it had historically been one of the bigger challenges in the Library. Fixing the website was one of the Library’s strategic directions for the coming year and was the first task they had in mind for me when I started in September 2013.

So how did I take on that task? What did we do and what are we planning to do? I’m going to share my answers to those questions here in a series of blog posts. I’m happy with the approach that we took and I hope that my experience might be useful to some of you, especially if you’re in the position of managing a website without a ton of web experience in your skill set. I’m going to share the steps I took, the documents and reports I put together, the tools I used, and my techniques for overcoming some of the bigger challenges, which, as I’m sure you know, are rarely technical and are more about building shared understanding and meeting people’s needs. I don’t pretend that I did this perfectly, and I hope you can learn from my mistakes as well as my successes. I hope I can learn from my mistakes, too; in fact, part of writing this is so that I can take a step back and see where I might have done things differently.

Creating a useful website for a Library is a different beast from creating a business website. We have unique goals and priorities that don’t center around “conversions,” “subscribers,” “sales,” and all the other business terms that are usually used in writing about the web. I want to write something that will help other people who aren’t in traditional for-profit institutions to translate some of the business-speak so that it works for them and their Library and education-centered needs.

We are by no means finished with our “website redesign,” and in truth we probably never will be. Creating a useful website is a process that involves a lot of trial and error, tweaking and changing things as we go to better meet the needs of our patrons. We called the first phase of the project a Website Re-Vamp rather than a Redesign because we didn’t touch on the design portion of the site in this phase. I wanted people to understand that it was a small, first-pass project, a spruce instead of a remodel.

People had two main issues with the site that were laid out in the strategic directions, after hiring a Web Services Librarian (a.k.a., me): they wanted to reduce the number of clicks and reduce the number of silos on the site. Reducing the number of clicks it takes to get to useful information is a common goal. People have come to think that the more “clicks” a user needs to make, the worse a site is. One of the things I wanted to help people understand is that it isn’t necessarily the number of clicks that are the problem, it’s whether those clicks are taking them closer to their goal or making them feel frustrated. It’s quality not quantity, man.

The silos issue is harder to deal with. If you’ve worked in a library, you know all about the silos problem. So much of our content comes from different places and is stored in different digital homes. We have databases and catalogs and digital collections, we have metadata that don’t play well together, and we’ve made only baby steps toward bringing our content together in one easily searchable place. It’s hard to manage and difficult for our users to understand. This problem isn’t one we could solve with a website redesign, but we can make an effort to help people better understand our content and how to find it.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to walk through phase I of our project, which started in October 2013 and wrapped up in August 2014, just in time for the Fall semester to start. Some of the things we did include user testing, surveying, and card sorting, implementing version control, redesigning our information architecture, and redesigning the homepage.

Next week I’ll share the Project Scope document I created for our faculty and staff, and talk about how we decided on the scope of the project and how we communicated about what we were planning.

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