Include Your Patrons in Web Design

By Roberts, Gary | Computers in Libraries, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Include Your Patrons in Web Design


Roberts, Gary, Computers in Libraries


Web publishing has become the communication medium of the masses. Doesn't it seem like everybody including your grandmother has a blog or Web site? In response, the marketplace has developed an ever-expanding array of tools, applications, and techniques that enable even the least tech-savvy person to develop a simple, working Web page. Still, publishing a large, well-designed, organized, and intuitive site remains difficult and elusive.

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Successful Web publishing requires not only technical skills but also a refined sense of taste, a good understanding of design, and strong writing abilities. When you design a library Web page, you must possess all of these talents and be able to market to a broad spectrum of patrons. As a result, library sites vary widely in their style and effectiveness. There are a number of exemplary library pages, many acceptable ones, and, of course, some real stinkers. So how can you design a good Web page? The answer is simple: Start with a commitment to service.

To design a usable library Web site, you must begin by understanding that the library's online home is meant to serve patrons first and librarians and professional staff second. We can confidently assume that most of us know our users and their needs. However, a Web page that is designed exclusively by librarians may turn out to be surprisingly inappropriate for patrons. Therefore, the best approach to creating a patron-centric site is to directly ask your users for feedback. Better yet, include them in the design process.

Putting a Team Together

Realizing that our Web page at Herrick Library (which was originally designed in 2001) was neither meeting our current needs nor scaling to meet future needs, we set about to create a new one last November.

Our university librarian, Lana Meissner, suggested that we include students on the redesign committee. Wise advice, I thought. So when we redid our site, I made an effort to assemble a design team that included not only library personnel but also members from our most visible library constituency: undergraduate students.

As I began the fall 2004 semester, I started gathering the names of students who would be willing to share their ideas and talents. At the same time, I asked Jason Campbell, one of my most trusted student workers, to draw up an initial design schema. Jason is an excellent worker and his understanding of how students think and how librarians organize also provided an excellent framework for our new site.

Jason made short work of the proposed schema and had an initial design in just a few days. With this completed, we charged our student Web application developer, Jeff Spiro, to create a page prototype. Within several weeks, Jeff not only rendered our design, but he actually added some very dynamic and innovative service-oriented features. Jeff is particularly talented and has an expansive understanding of how technology can be leveraged to create new Web-based services.

Once Jeff had the initial page rendered in HTML, it was time to assemble our Web design group. We instinctively knew that Jason and Jeff would be outstanding members. We also knew, however, that we needed a student with a strong sense of design and color. Jason suggested Abby Tripp, one of Alfred University's student newspaper editors. With Abby, Jay, and Jeff on our committee, we had a very strong trio of student advisors. We rounded out the rest of the group with three librarians, including me.

Occasionally, when we had a particularly difficult design issue or when we wanted to ensure that we were getting a pluralistic perspective, we would bring in an "outside expert." For example, when we were reconciling a color scheme, we brought in an art and design student to help us make some important decisions. We also asked our large population of student desk workers and faculty members specific questions and had them fill out surveys to ensure that we were making design choices that would be accepted by a majority of our patrons.

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