I’ve heard it a lot: “We want to make OUR website better, but we’re stuck using our city’s system!” It breaks my heart every time, not only because of the underperforming library website but also because it means that a stakeholder in the local government isn’t recognizing that librarians are information professionals who might know a thing or two about websites. If you or someone you know is in this position, read on. Below is a letter, from me—a library website specialist—that you can send to your city manager or other stakeholder. With any luck, adding another voice to your cause will help you prevail.
When budgets are tight, it is easy to feel frustrated and disempowered. After all, having access to a deep pool of funds makes it easy to get things done. But when times are tough, it doesn’t mean librarians should toss their hands in the air and give up on making user experience (UX) improvements. Here are a few things you can do to improve your library’s UX that won’t require finding much of a budget.
It was a hot, dusty day in Moab, UT. I drove into town from my beautiful campsite overlooking the La Sal Mountains, where I’d been cycling and exploring the beautiful country. I was taking a few days off from work, and even though I was relaxing, I had a phone call I didn’t want to reschedule. So back to town I went, straight to—naturally—the public library. I had fond memories of the library from a previous visit a few years back: a beautiful building with reliable Wi-Fi. Aside from not being allowed to bring coffee inside, it would be a great place to check email and take a call on the bench outside.
What would happen if your library’s website disappeared? You’d probably get a lot of phone calls. f I had to guess, most would be about: Finding library items, renewing library items, and library hours and locations. This thought experiment gives us some perspective about the things library websites should be focusing on—the critical tasks users are trying to accomplish. It also offers perspective on the aspects of our websites that are comparatively unimportant—everything else.
Finding examples of bad user experience (UX) is like shooting fish in a barrel. And while there can be value in pointing out flawed designs—“Hey, look at this example, and don’t do this!”—posting examples of good UX might be more valuable. Regardless, I was so struck with what I saw at the post office recently that I feel compelled to write about it.
Earning the trust of your library members is crucial to delivering a great user experience. Without trust, it is impossible to connect to library members in a meaningful way. Libraries benefit in all sorts of ways when they’re trusted institutions. Trust breeds loyalty, and loyal library users are more likely to take advantage of the library. What’s more, loyal patrons will also be more apt to sing the praises of the library to neighbors and colleagues. For libraries, thinking about trust highlights the importance of recognizing members as individuals. Thinking of users not as a homogenous group but rather as persons will allow your library staff to develop more empathy and build stronger relationships. There are many ways to earn—and lose—people’s trust in a library.
With school back in session and students returning to the library—sometimes of their own free will, sometimes grudgingly—the library can seem quite full again after the late summer lull. This is a great time to think about the different demands that are placed on library spaces and how to manage these demands to ensure that everyone can use the library to do what they want to do.
Historically, libraries have been centered on bringing the world to our members through our collections. This problem of access was important to help solve, meeting a vital societal need. Likewise, our focus on information technologies and the web is natural, too. Throughout the years, these tools have presented some outstanding challenges, though generally they have aided tremendously in our mission to expand access to accumulated cultural knowledge and output. But our fixation on collections and technology is no longer serving us—nor our members.
Right now, the biggest trend in website design is responsive web design (RWD). In a responsive design, a website elegantly displays on any size device. The popularity of RWD is, in part, a response to the proliferation of mobile devices. In hopes of increasing usability, organizations want to ensure that people can use their sites no matter how they’re accessing the web. But RWD isn’t itself a solution to library website woes. As I see it, there are two problems: RWD can only accomplish so much, and it doesn’t address the root issue of providing library services in a mobile context.