Magazine article Computers in Libraries

How to Make Your Library's Web Site Your Patrons' Favorite

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

How to Make Your Library's Web Site Your Patrons' Favorite

Article excerpt

online treasures

This month, let's start out with a quick test question: When you hear the word "windows," what is the first image that pops into your mind? Do you see panes of glass in frames, or do you see a computer screen? It often seems that technology, in addition to changing both our personal and professional lives so drastically, also changes our vocabulary by appropriating ordinary words and making them part of technical jargon. "Usability" is one such term. The theme of this issue is usability as it relates to Web sites, but maybe we would have a better idea of how to improve our Web sites' usability if we thought about its application in other areas of our lives.

Usability in Everyday Life

Over the last several years, my husband and I have made many trips to Cambridge, Mass., to visit our youngest son, who is a student at MIT. We're not terribly fussy about accommodations, so we've stayed in a number of different hotels ranging from budget facilities to the very posh. This summer, however, one hotel, the Hotel@MIT, stood out as my very favorite, and I began thinking about the reasons for my decided preference. Cost was not the deciding factor, since it was neither the least nor the most expensive. Location was not the most important factor either, since it was good in some respects-it was connected to a grocery store, so it was easy to grab something for a quick snack-but it was a bit of a walk to the nearest subway stop.

The hotel's appearance was one reason for my preference, since it emphasized the hotel's association with MIT. It was strikingly different, using modern furniture with spare, clean lines, but cheerful with brightly colored bedspreads and upholstery. The modern furnishings were balanced by the pictures on the wall, which were prints of actual historical photographs of MIT and New Yorker-style, technology-related cartoons.

It was not just pleasing to the eye, however-everything about the furnishings showed an attention to comfortable usability. The desk featured a convenient hookup to the hotel's high-speed network, the bed's headboard was padded to provide a comfortable backrest when reading in bed, and the lamp at the side of the bed was on an adjustable arm to provide optimal lighting. This attention to usability was not confined solely to the guest rooms. The lobby had both an iMac and a PC available for guests to check their e-mail or find information on local attractions. Guests also had a choice of parking arrangements, with options for valet parking or do-it-yourself, come-- and-go-as-you-please privileges at the connected parking garage.

To sum up why this hotel is my favorite, I would say it has a distinct identity, is attractive and up-to-date, understands and meets users' needs, and offers choices. That sounds like the description of a good Web site, doesn't it? Of course, just as it might seem easy to list the qualities of a good hotel or a good Web site, it is not so easy to get all the details exactly right in actual practice. Let's leave hotel design to the architects and designers, while we look on the Web for help designing Web sites that users will consider their very favorites.

Learning the Basics of Usability on the Web

It's often a good idea to start learning about a topic by visiting general information sites about it. One good starting point is the Usability on the Web site from This site offers links to introductory articles on usability. There are several articles by Jakob Nielsen, the guru of usability whose Web site I've talked about in previous columns. If you haven't visited his site,, or read any issues of his biweekly column, The Alertbox, then your education on Web usability is incomplete. Other articles on the usability site discuss the unusability of PDF files for on-screen reading, tracking eye movements of Web readers, and how people revisit Web pages.

A more comprehensive set of links to good resources is the Usable Web site. …

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