Category Archives: Website Re-Vamp

Library Websites: Assessing the Problems

When I first came to the SSU University Library, the number one thing I heard from people across the Library was that the website needed to be redesigned. It was hard to navigate, no one could find anything, it took too many clicks to get to what you wanted. I knew without a doubt that this was the first thing I needed to do. Of course, I didn’t want to jump in blind. I needed to know more specifically what the problems were, so I undertook a pretty extensive assessment of the existing website and of how people felt about it.

I decided to start with our Library Faculty and Staff for two reasons. First, I wanted to get a sense not only for how people perceived the existing website, but also for how they perceived the Library in general, what they thought our primary objective is, and what they thought we should be accomplishing with our website. Second, honestly, Library faculty and staff use the website more often than anyone else. We have a distinct set of needs from the website, and a unique perspective.

I created a really basic Google form to gather feedback from within the Library. I asked the following questions, with plenty of space for answers:

In your opinion, what is the main purpose of the Library website?
What is most important in the Library in general? Our collections? Our services? Our study spaces? Something else?
What do you most frequently use the Library website for?
What is your favorite part of the Library website?
What would make the Library website better?
What else should I know about the Library website?

I made the survey completely anonymous, because I wanted people to feel free to share their honest opinions. I got feedback from 13 out of 32 people in the library (40 percent). In the same period that this survey ran, I ended up having informal conversations with a lot of people addressing these same questions, although I have no way of knowing if they are the same people who filled out the survey or not.

The feedback I got from our people was insightful and thoughtful. People took the time to really think about what I was asking, and it was useful for me, as someone very new to the Library, to hear how people think about what we do. I think it was also a good opportunity for me to demonstrate that what staff and faculty think is important to me.

The one thing I would change if I created the survey again would be the second question, about the important things in the Library in general. I would probably remove the suggestions at the end of the question. I think this guided thinking more than I wanted to; I’d initially been concerned that people wouldn’t understand what I meant when I said “in general,” but I think that was a needless worry, and it would have been interesting to see how people interpreted that question.

Of course, our users are also important to me. I thought a lot about the best ways to survey our students, and I decided to start with what I called the Five-Second Survey. In retrospect, my technological limitations didn’t allow this to work quite as well as I think it could have, but I still found the insight I gained from it valuable.

The Five-Second Survey consisted of two questions that popped up on the library website when a user exited the site. The questions were “Why did you visit the Library website?” and “Were you successful?” We ran the survey for three weeks and received 162 responses. Based on an analysis of the responses, we determined that up to 151 of those who responded were using the site to access library resources.

I tried to set the survey to pop up randomly, so it wouldn’t happen every time a user left the site, but I don’t think that worked very well. I also should have tried to set a cookie so that if a user saw the pop up one day, they perhaps wouldn’t see it again until a few days later. Another flaw in this method is that often our users were leaving our website to search a database, so they were really only at the beginning of their research/library experience. I got a lot of answers like, “I haven’t been successful yet because I just got started.” My favorite response came from someone who wrote that s/he hadn’t been successful yet but knew s/he would be because, as s/he wrote, “I and this library website are awesome.”

However, I found many of the responses provided good insight into how our students think about their use of the library website, the research process, and the content they were unable to find or were dissatisfied with.

We used several other methods for assessing our library website and our students; these were the two I started with to get a quick picture of where we stood. In my next post, I’ll talk about the Design Your Library series of events I put on with our Instruction and Assessment Librarian to try to engage students and get their feedback on a variety of aspects of the Library and our services.

Creating a Web Project Plan

Working on web projects in a library can be a lot different from traditional corporate, agency-led web projects. In libraries we’re usually working with a fraction of the technical staff: often only one or two people to play the roles of project manager, designer, user experience expert, programmer, information architect, content strategist, and more. As in any organization, our colleagues are invested in the website and have ideas about what they’d like to see there. But web staff in the library don’t get to take on the role of outside experts, the way a team from an agency does, so it might be harder to convince others to follow our lead, to recognize our expertise.

One thing I’ve found that’s infinitely valuable in this situation is to share a project plan with colleagues before starting work on any web project. A project plan will give others a sense of timeline and most importantly, a sense of scope. Defining from the outset what you are and are not including in a particular web project can make a lot of difference in how people give feedback and respond to the work you’re doing.

What does a project plan look like? There are a lot of things a project plan can include. Some components may be more or less important in your specific library. In general you want to include information related to

  • A statement that defines the project. What are the reasons for undertaking it and what are the objectives you’d like to attain?
  • Some information about stakeholders, and who as the authority to make what decisions.
  • Detailed notes on scope: What is included in the project, and what is not included.
  • Milestones: Breaking a project up into milestones can make it easier for people to understand the process, and feel confident about what you and you’re team (if you’re lucky) are doing.
  • Timelines: These can help layout your expectations, but you should probably make it clear that they are tentative and subject to change, at least at this stage
  • Team roles, if you have a team, or impact on library staff

You can see the project plan I created for our website revamp project at this link: Website Project Plan Example

There are a lot of things that changed about our timeline and our particular milestones as we worked on the project, but this broad overview document gave everyone a sense at the beginning of the process of what I was planning on doing and when. Having this document gave me something to come back to when I started to feel that things were shifting. It reminded me of what we were doing and why, and helped me stay on track. And it made my colleagues feel involved in the project, and like they understood what we were doing.

The next step that undertook was to do some user assessment, of both our students and faculty and our library staff and librarians. In my next post I’ll talk about my user assessment plan and the different methods we used to get feedback.

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.