Include Your Patrons in Web Design
Roberts, Gary, Computers in Libraries
HOW CAN YOU DESIGN A GOOD WEB PAGE? THE ANSWER IS SIMPLE: START WITH A COMMITMENT TO SERVICE.
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 everexpanding array of tools, applications, and techniques that enable even the least techsawy person to develop a simple, working Web page. Still, publishing a large, well-designed, organized, and intuitive site remains difficult and elusive.
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 Webbased 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. Ultimately, we wanted to include all of our constituencies in the design process. While this is certainly a noble goal, there is a bit of risk to this kind of collaboration. Remember, too many cooks can spoil a stew.
The Web Design Process
My goal as the team leader was not only to facilitate a pluralistic design forum but also to ensure that the entire editing process didn't degenerate into chaos and civil war-not such an easy job when there are so many disparate voices. From my perspective, the first design meeting in early February was something of a disaster, with everyone bringing a random laundry list of both large and small issues to the table. This meeting was both confusing and chaotic-and ultimately not productive. From it, however, I learned not only that I needed everyone's perspective but also that I would have to engineer a process whereby the group could address the key issues first and attack the details later.
At the second meeting I laid out an agenda. We addressed the design of the sitewide navigation menus first, the main page second, and the interior content third. In this way, we created a working template first and addressed the content later. This agenda was both logical and easy to follow, and it enabled me to rein in the group when we got "off task." My motto was "first things first," and it worked fairly well. From the second meeting through Web site implementation, we maintained an inclusive perspective while ensuring both progress and order.
The actual editing was very much an iterative process. Every week, we would review the decisions we had made the previous week and also look at a new list of questions. In between meetings, Jeff would implement our suggestions in a working Web draft. This process enabled us to make small decisions piece by piece and review them as we went along. We learned that what looked like a good idea on paper often didn't work on a Web page. Jeff's ability to code quickly gave us a great deal of flexibility to explore a wide range of design suggestions in a very concrete manner.
Another factor that allowed us to make quick progress was our decision to limit our weekly meetings to an hour. In reality, we had no other choice-we could only find 1 or 2 free hours among our six different schedules. But setting a time limit gave us an extra incentive to stay focused. Although we were very willing to explore any and all threads of legitimate discussion, we couldn't allow ourselves to chitchat or to gossip. As a result, we were not only thorough but also very efficient. With a bit of last-minute rushing and a great deal of dedication by everyone on the committee, we were able to complete the project by the end of May. Patrons have been very excited and happy about the new Web page.
The Lessons We Learned
In addition to learning that we must include patrons in our Web page redesign, I also learned some of the finer details of managing the process:
1. Web page design should be a group project. Collaboration is key. Designing a decent Web site requires a wide range of skills and aptitudes not often found in a single person. The image of a lone Webmaster creating a large, well-designed, interactive page is a somewhat dated notion. Today, we talk about Web groups rather than single Webmasters. So, if you can scrounge up more than one person to help design a site (or at least provide feedback), by all means do so.
2. Approach your patrons like a marketer. Get to know the preferences, work styles, and behaviors of your patrons. At Herrick Library, we know that the students are our main constituents, and we learned some important information by querying and surveying them as well as by listening to Jay, Jeff, and Abby. We began to see patterns and preferences that spanned the spectrum of students. You may have a larger and more diverse clientele than we do, but regardless of the size of your patron base, the technique is the same: Ask your patrons about their preferences, and don't be afraid to use focus group techniques.
3. Create a "safe" environment for discussion. In order to mine a broad viewpoint, you should send the message that all opinions are valued. Of course, not every idea will be incorporated into the site, but let everyone know that they can contribute without the fear of ridicule. Encourage good listening by being a good listener, and help everyone analyze their initial opinion by asking gentle but probing questions. Creating an open and diverse forum is the best way to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink.
4. Formulate a project goal. Before you even start, you should have a goal. When we started our project, we knew that we wanted to create an inviting, innovative, and easy-to-use Web site for our students and faculty. Throughout the project, we referred back to this goal and analyzed whether our decisions were in line with our overall aim. This type of goal-setting and analysis kept us on course and ultimately helped guide us to creating a very useful Web page.
All This for a Web Site?
I know all this must seem like a lot of work. After all, isn't it fairly easy to slap together a Web site? With the number of tools available to help, getting one together is easier than ever. Even my dad, who actually has trouble with e-mail, has a Web site. But designing a Web page is no longer just about creating an online presence. It is about building a usable, dynamic, patron-centric virtual area that mirrors the kind of dedicated service that our patrons appreciate from us in the physical library.
Your library's space on the Web should be a natural extension of its mission to serve, and the best way to make sure that patrons find it useful is to make the effort to truly understand their needs and preferences. To give them what they need, we have to know what they need. To know what they need, all we have to do is ask.
Gary Roberts is an information systems and reference librarian at Herrick Library, Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y. His responsibilities include overseeing reference, ILL, Web services, and most other technologies in a small library. In 2004, he received the 21st Century New Librarian Award. His e-mail address is email@example.com.…
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Publication information: Article title: Include Your Patrons in Web Design. Contributors: Roberts, Gary - Author. Magazine title: Computers in Libraries. Volume: 25. Issue: 9 Publication date: October 2005. Page number: 30+. © 2008 Information Today, Inc. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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