I just took a class in User Centered Design for Digital Projects with Brenda Reeb. Public libraries’ web pages have come a long way from our early sites, and there are some institutions that are doing amazing things with targeted recommendations, page personalization, heavy media content and opportunities for patron contributions. However, we can still learn a lot from sites like Amazon, YouTube, Facebook and even (the dreaded) Wikipedia.
Some of her tips are by now obvious. It’s about what the user wants, not what staff wants (they can have an intranet for that), and it’s not about teaching them how to do it our way. So, make it easy to find stuff and don’t use library language – e.g. reader’s advisory sounds like a warning to the layman, rather than a helpful service.
Stressing the need for market research and statistical analysis of your pages, she recommended finding out why users are coming to your site before even thinking about a redesign. Also, don’t design by committee (it’ll take forever to get it done) and be sure to have real users and/or focus groups test out your designs at every step. For example, to test usability, give the user a set of tasks to accomplish (based on your original goals for the website) and observe how they do them. This tells you how intuitive your site is.
You can use committees for content (one of the three components to the web site design process, the other two being usability and design), since content groups are convened only when you need them for specific projects and the members can and will change. But, your usability and design staff should be stable (if you can’t afford someone in both of these positions, consider combining them or outsourcing some of the work).
For the usability component, you need someone who can test for usability and interpret those results effectively. For the design component, find a good graphic designer with extensive web design experience and be sure to review their portfolio. Both people should seek input – especially from front line staff who can reveal some of the most common questions asked by patrons (e.g. parking, bathrooms, accessing stuff from home) which should be prominently addressed on the web page – but the ultimate decision for what the website looks like should lie with the design and usability people who are implementing the redesign.
Brenda also suggested you have a page where staff and users can report problems they encounter at the website and make suggestions. Also, use software that fixes misspellings typed into the site search box (e.g. for Crone’s Disease, it asks “Did you mean Crohn’s Disease?”). And she mentioned that you can let the user personalize your page (so they can remove aspects of the site they don’t like or never use) with Drupal, which is open source.
Two online sources to help with design and usability are Research-Based Web Design and Usability Guidelines and W3C’s validator which lets you check your page for compliance with best practices and errors in your code.
Although there was an academic library focus to this class, much is transferable to public libraries, so if you are interested in best practices and processes in this subject, Brenda just published Design Talk: Understanding the roles of usability practitioners, web designers, and web developers in user centered web design.