February 16, 2018

Give Them What They Want | The User Experience

Aaron SchmidtWhat would happen if your library’s website disappeared? You’d probably get a lot of phone calls. If I had to guess, most would be about:

  • Finding library items
  • Renewing library items
  • Library hours and locations

To a lesser extent, there might be questions about:

  • Loan periods
  • How to get a library card
  • Library events
  • Library services
  • Ebooks

However, I’d guess you would not receive many calls about:

  • Book reviews
  • Library value calculator
  • Homework help
  • History of the library
  • Library mission statement
  • Library policy
  • Library board minutes
  • Podcasts

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.

Plainly, a lot of the content on your library’s website could be a complete waste of time and effort. Are your users looking at it? Check your analytics. Are those who do deriving any value from it? One way to find out is to remove it temporarily and see if anyone speaks up. Given the hard work it takes to create and maintain content, you might find that your return on some investments is low.

If you build it, they won’t come

Why do some libraries insist on developing website content that is not being used? There’s no doubt it would be great if library users came to our sites to read book reviews, listen to podcasts, and calculate the value that the library delivers to them. We want to be a valuable resource. We want people to trust our opinions and rely on us for guidance. But just because this would be wonderful doesn’t mean it is going to happen.

We’re ever hopeful that if we advertise our websites in the right way, or create the right sort of graphic, or make the visual design more attractive, people will begin to use our content. This is pure fantasy. We need a healthy dose of reality.

By living in this dream world, we’re doing ourselves and our members a disservice. It is time for us to adjust our expectations about what it means to create and maintain a library website. If we liberate ourselves from producing scads of content that no one wants, we’ll have some surplus resources. We can use this extra horsepower to achieve other library priorities that meet user needs, such as improving our catalog interfaces.

Setting a good example

I’m not yet aware of any libraries sending out great niche newsletters; please get in touch if you’re doing so. But here are two libraries that have reduced the scope of their sites and focused on what’s important.

  • Lane Public Library, Hamilton, OH
    This site’s content is quite restrained and presented in an effective, attractive manner.
  • Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS
    There’s still a decent amount of content on this site, but the staff have done a lot of whittling down from the previous iteration. The result is an easy-to-grasp understanding of what users can find on the site and targeted information that’s worthwhile to those interested.

New (old) spaces for content

Instead of creating content for your website and hoping people will visit, consider delivering it to their inboxes. Email newsletters are experiencing a ­renaissance and for good reason. Nearly everyone uses email. And sending an email is a sure way to get something in front of someone’s eyeballs. Marketing experts have observed that people are much more likely to take action as the result of an email than a tweet.

I’m not advocating spamming your users’ in-boxes with generic library information. Instead, consider creating one or two newsletters based on the interests of your community. These newsletters will not appeal to everyone, and that’s the point. Find a niche—such as cooking, gardening, or hiking—and invest your efforts in developing a relationship with the folks who are passionate about that activity. It is a lot easier and more effective to deliver value to a select group of people about a specific topic than it is to create a website that appeals to everyone. Start small, and if you’re successful and have extra time, create a newsletter for another group.

Library print newsletters face the same problem as library websites. While they’re useful for providing a comprehensive look at what’s going on at a library, they’re too general for anyone to get excited about. Consider rolling your newly developed niche content into a complementary print newsletter, too.

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Aaron Schmidt About Aaron Schmidt

Aaron Schmidt (librarian@gmail.com) is a principal at the library user experience consultancy Influx (influx.us). He is a 2005 LJ Mover & Shaker. He writes at walkingpaper.org

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  1. Aaron,

    Thanks for your insight. You make many good points about focusing on the user’s essential needs and re-purposing effort away from unnecessary content. I also appreciate your comments about reviewing the niche email newsletter as a useful point of contact. I am not in full agreement about library staff content creation as being as unimportant as you suggest. I think if the content is pointed, has potential value over time, and can be found in a site search or by a search engine, that library staff content has a valuable place on the library site. One point you make about focusing on the catalog interface struck me. Given the ease with which library staff can produce and publish content for the Web, there is a big difference in the barriers-to-access between website content creation and catalog interface design/manipulation. Very few staff have the expertise or access to have an effect on the user experience of the library catalog. This is not to argue that the catalog interface is not a perennial problem, but just to point out that, in terms of website content and design and catalog content and design, we are talking about apples and oranges for most people. Finally, I would argue that–as long as less-than-essential site content is not skewing site search results away from more important information–space is cheap and those niche email newsletters can take the form of a blog post or other “findable” content so as to benefit users riding the “long tail”

  2. When we review analytics to evaluate relative value, what indicators suggest that we ought to ditch something? What indicators suggest that, while not receiving a lot of traffic, some content has enough value to retain or continue producing?

  3. Good points, Aaron. Most libraries try to have their websites be all things to all people. And while that may be part of the purpose of a public, nonprofit’s site, I think many of them have info that librarians THINK people should want, but the people just don’t.

    As a marketing maven, however, I need to put in a good word for those Library Value Calculators. Does anyone go to a site looking for them? I doubt it. But when you’re out in the world, talking to stakeholders about your value, it’s a good tool to recommend. “In 2 minutes, you can see how much cash the library saves you & your family.” It’s personalized, so it can make a real impact on those who use it.

    And while nobody would look for the calculator, if you want folks to have the opportunity to use it, it’s gotta live somewhere. So I think it’s a worthwhile part of a site — not to clutter other things, but just so it has a URL you can point people to. If you want to super-simplify, of course, just have one in one spot — a consortium or state library site — and send everyone there.