Why library websites should not be designed by committee – Reblog of “The Ugly Truth About Library Websites”

I just read this post by M. Ryan Hess from 2013 and found it well worth a reblog:

The Ugly Truth About Library Websites

Hess points out that the poor usability of  library websites is often due to how they are created: by committees of  librarians, with little or no usability training, who are under great political pressure from administrators.  He identifies three key usability inhibitors:

  • Clutter:  the desire librarians instinctively have to put everything on the website.
  • The Web Committee: often the “primary cause of clutter” due to everyone on the committee needing to have their content priorities front and center.
  • Lack of usability training or awareness – he points out that usability is not yet a “core component of our profession.”

Hess does more than criticize, however: he offers some compelling solutions.   Instead of a Web Committee, he suggests having a “Web Curator Committee” that would be:

  • “Small: Limit membership to one representative from each part of the library that is the main service provider for any given content. Typically, this might be one curator from instruction, one from reference, one from access services, etc.
  • Focused: Each member should be a knowledgable expert from their department, that knows the audience their content addresses and the key services being offered. And that one person will have sole responsibility for the pages they are assigned.
  • Skilled: Each member will either come trained in usability or be trained to do their job well. “

He also has some good, practical design advice, such as:

  • Plan for growth: “Build your architecture so that it anticipates “runaway growth” in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your typical library user.”
  • Users prefer to search, rather than navigate your site:  “make sure your search tool is central, easily reachable, and works.”
  • Keep the left menu clutter-free:  “This should be considered the easiest, most usable spot on your site and every effort should be made to keep it free of content that can mislead or confuse users with too many dead-end options.”
  • Put your site search where users expect it: “The above the fold, below the nav bar area just to the right of your left rail is critical. This is where your search must be on your homepage and if you do this, all the clutter in the world will not stop most users from ignoring everything else and getting to your resources.”

And he concludes by providing an example of a usable library website: check out the ETH Bibliothek in Switzerland.


4 thoughts on “Why library websites should not be designed by committee – Reblog of “The Ugly Truth About Library Websites”

  1. On target. As I’ve also heard it said, “Librarians can’t resist complexity.” That doesn’t help with web usability!

  2. I just heard a presentation at Charleston by a physicist whose daily routine is as follows (from the Charleston Conference blog):

    “After perusing his e-mail and new preprints [from arxiv.org], Richerme goes to the lab and sometimes does a literature search, often using Google Scholar, the Web of Science, or AIP’s site. The university library is not consulted because it often is too comprehensive.”

    The summary actually softens the statement: he said he doesn’t consult the library’s homepage because it suffers from the desire to be so comprehensive that it accomplishes none of its many goals…He also mentioned an alphabetical list of hundreds of online resources that he doesn’t even bother to consult.

    He and his colleagues mostly use Google Scholar for discovery and if there is an occasional reference to a book they want to know about, they hope that it will appear in Google Books or in the preview of the Amazon version because they don’t want to deal with the library.

    He also asked his Physics colleagues if they knew where the Physics Library is–only 2 of 15 knew…

  3. I agree whole-heartedly with the criticism. However, I’m not convinced the “Web Curator Committee” is much of a solution as it fails to acknowledge a User Centred Design approach. I only have anecdotal evidence but I’m punting that few libraries have many subject matter experts who are also usability gurus. I can’t see how a library would put together a successful Web Curator Committee given these membership constraints. Surely there are better content strategies that libraries can develop and use for their websites.

    http://alistapart.com/article/the-specialized-web-working-with-subject-matter-experts is a great read which boils down to two pertinent audience questions:
    1. Who is this project/site/page for?
    2. Who is this project/site/page not for?

    The practical design advice is excellent. Though I wish the last quote had a responsive web design or even a mobile first perspective. The ETH Bibliothek website is a brilliant example of a responsive designed website.

    Thanks for the re-blog.

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