This morning I gave a short talk at Internet Librarian International, summing up a lot of what I’ve written and spoken on for the past year about what’s wrong with library websites and what to do about it. Here’s a transcript of it, and below you’ll find the audio, video and slides. I’ve also created a reading list of things that went into my thinking while I wrote this.

If you have questions or comments, use twitter or email me.

Library websites stink. They are difficult to use and create tension between us and our patrons.

This is a talk about library websites, but it’s really a talk about people. It’s a talk about our library patrons, a talk about us, what’s wrong with the way we’re doing things, how and who it hurts, and what we can do about it.

In 1939, Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett started a small company in a garage in Palo Alto, California. Dave and Bill were electrical engineers who wanted better tools to do their jobs. Hewlett Packard began by making test equipment, that is, tools designed by experts for experts. Their first motto was “Design for the person at the next bench”1. The question that guided Hewlett and Packard was “How do we do this?”

The early story of online library catalogs is a little bit like this. In the 1960s, we started computerizing our catalog records, which were easier to search than physical card catalogs. By the late 1970s and ’80s, these catalogs were networked so that librarians could do searches for their patrons. These were tools built by experts, for experts. The question that guided us through all of this was “How do WE do this?”

In the 1950s, Hewlett Packard’s business grew far beyond making tools for experts. And their business adapted. They starting thinking about who would use their products, and adapted to them. They started asking “How do our users do this?”

As for libraries, in the ’90s, we opened up our catalogs to the public. You no longer had to go through a librarian to search the online catalog.

The problem, though, was that we didn’t ask any new questions. The question that guided the development of these tools was still “How do librarians do this?” The tools were still built for experts, but we let anyone with a modem use them.

But recently some libraries have started asking a new question: “How do our users do this?” By starting with this question, we put human behavior at the center of our thinking. But how do we find out what our users do?

Whitney Hess, a user experience designer, said it best, I think: “UX isn’t about expert intuition, it’s about expert listening.”2 We need to talk to our users and ask them what they need. There are a lot of ways we can do this, but the point is to get the people who use your site directly involved in making it better. What is a website, after all, other than a way for people to connect with other people?

The designer Frank Chimero says it like this: “The web is people all the way down.”3

“Tanya checks her email on her phone and gets a message from her sister. Brad is the systems admin guy who turns on the oscillating fans in the server room…Shannon writes something for her employer’s website. Tim curses because he cant find what Shannon wrote.”

We spend much of our time trying to make websites that seem like automated tools that we forget that the sites just help to connect us to our patrons. The web is people all the way down.

Even when we focus on our users, we tend to get focused on how people use our resources, so that we don’t often think about why people use the library. Hugh Rundle, a librarian from Australia, writes that “Your members don’t come to your library to find books….they come to find solace or excitement, companionship or solitude.”4 People do things for a reason. We give meanings to even simple tasks.

But because we forget that our websites are for people, they often make our patrons feel like beginners. We make them feel stupid at a critical moment when they are vulnerable. They are at the library because they admit to themselves that they don’t know something. By making it hard for them to find the information they need, we over-emphasize their deficiency.

Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, and what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”

Even if your website is usable, if it makes your users feel bad, it will have failed.

Aaron Walter, a designer for MailChimp, uses Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain this in terms of user interface design. Is Maslow’s hierarchy, our physical human needs make up the base of the pyramid, while the things that make our emotional needs are at the top. Walter recreated this pyramid to show the basic things that websites need to provide at the bottom while showing that making our sites enjoyable and fulfilling should be our highest goal.

After all, Walter says, “designing an interface to be usable is like a chef creating edible food.”6 We can do better.

We don’t seem to have problems knowing how to treat people when they come into the library. We know how to interact with people in person. But how can we build care for people into our websites? For starters, we need a different question: how do we want people to feel?

Apart from that, there isn’t a simple programming or design trick. The problem goes deeper.

Alan Cooper writes, “There is little difference technically between a complicated, confusing program and a simple, fun, and powerful product. The difference is one of culture, training, and attitude of the people who make them.”6

There is no way to fix your library website in 5 easy steps, because a bad library website is just a symptom of a deeper organizational problem. Dealing with bad websites is not a technical problem, it’s a political problem.

The strategies we need most are not for dealing with the people who use our websites, it’s for finding consensus with the people we work with who are still asking the old questions. The web is people, all the way down.

Be nice.

Being nice on its own might not be enough to green light your project, but not being nice is enough to derail it. In July, I built a unified search interface that used APIs from several of our services to give our users a more well-rounded search. I did my user research, presented what I thought were compelling statistics to make my case, but I was cocky and not always very nice to my coworkers who had concerns. Our students are not using this search now in part because I was a jerk.

Get Everyone to participate.

I’m not saying that everyone should have veto power on your web projects, but everyone should have a chance to make their voices heard. We do a monthly usability test at Grand Valley, and everyone is invited to the observation room, from the dean all the way to our part-time student workers. After the tests are over, everyone has a chance to discuss what we saw and what we should fix. It makes everyone feel valuable that they have a chance to contribute to something as visible as the website.

Understand the culture.

Every library I’ve worked at has had its organizational quirks. When I started at Grand Valley, I felt like some of my fellow librarians were interfering with my job. Eventually, I learned that under a previous director, all the librarians would get together on Thursday afternoons and have a meeting where all the decisions were made about the library’s operations. Once I understood this, I was able adjust the way I made decisions about the web to include extra time and one-on-one discussion with these folks.

Back yourself up with data.

You all know about Google Analytics, and hopefully you’re doing user research. But there are two tools I’ve found to be useful when making a case for changes. The first is heatmaps. It’s great to tell people how many visitors you had go from one page to another, but pictures are more valuable in demonstrating this. Here’s a heat map I showed when I made a case that we could reduce the number of links on our home page.

Heatmap of strong search usage for the GVSU Library homepage

Another useful tool is testing your content for readability. You can get a reading ease and grade level score of the content on your site. Most newspapers try for a grade level of 8 or 9, but your site might want to target children or teenagers, in which case you might want to go lower. You don’t want to go much higher than 9, since the goal is not to make people work to understand what you offer. The text from my University’s admissions homepage, for instance, has a grade level of 13.5, which means you probably need to have 1-2 years of college before you can fully understand it. That’s a problem.

Iterate, don’t redesign.

Redesigns are a challenge, because they involve a lot of time and invite committee creation. But you can get the same results as a redesign by making regular but smaller changes to your website. If you’re patient, you’ll have a redesign in no time. Here are the changes I’ve made to our library website in the past year and a half, even though I’ve never “redesigned” it.

Finally, ask the right questions: “How do users do this?” and “How do we want people to feel?” We’re no longer making tools for experts. When I asked how our users should feel after using our LibGuides in a meeting a few weeks ago, the answer I got was “relieved.” This helps me be empathetic in designing the site. I’m not just designing for a behavior, you’re designing for a whole person. This is the core to making the most of our websites. If you have a lot of user research, a pile of data, and the good will of your colleagues to make any change you need to the website but you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are serving, your site will stink.

So build your site for people, and they will thank you.

Watch the Talk

More Formats

  1. Norman, Donald. (2004). Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books. p.83
  2. This quote is from the post Don Draper is the Antithesis of User Experience.
  3. From the essay “The Space Between You and Me”, *The Manual* Issue 1.
  4. From the post Libraries as software – dematerialising, platforms and returning to first principles
  5. Both of these ideas from Walter are from the excellent book, *Designing for Emotion*.
  6. From the book, *The Inmates are Running the Asylum*.