“We are not our users. Everything is a touchpoint. Every decision we make impacts how users experience the library. We can always improve.”
These are just a few of the truths we’ve embraced at Chapel Hill Public Library (CHPL) in North Carolina in recent years. We were first introduced to them through a major grant-funded user experience (UX) project in 2015 and have since continued to focus on them as an organizational priority. As a result, we have improved our floor plans, service delivery, phone service, and much more. We’ve also greatly improved our website, which is the focus of this article.
CHPL is a municipal library in the college town of Chapel Hill, which is a part of what’s known as the Research Triangle area (along with Raleigh and Durham). With a legal service population of approximately 60,000 and an annual circulation of about 1.3 million items, CHPL has one of the highest per-capita circulation numbers in the state. After a $16 million bond-funded project, we opened an expanded and renovated 64,000-square-foot facility in May 2013. Since then, we’ve welcomed an average of 1,700 people through our doors every day. In addition to these impressive outputs and statistics, we’ve also begun to focus on meaningful outcomes and experiences.
Chapel Hill Public Library and UX
In 2015, we received a yearlong Library Services and Technology Act grant to focus on UX. One of the main deliverables of the grant was a new website. Our old website was, well, old. It was hard for staffers to update and even harder for users to navigate. It was overstuffed with outdated content and images such as clip art and database logos. We had a 21st-century facility and a 20th-century website.
We hired Aaron Schmidt and his firm Influx (http://weareinflux.com) to assist us with the UX grant and the website. Readers may know Schmidt from his regular column, The User Experience, in Library Journal or from his book, Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience Design to Your Library. In addition to guiding us through a UX-based web design process, he also helped us realize that, along with a new website, we needed a new mindset, a new purpose, and a new approach to our work.
|A screenshot of CHPL’s former homepage from October 2015
|Screenshot of the above-the-fold portion of CHPL’s new website
Mission, Values, Service Pledge
Before we got to work on the website, we developed a new mission statement, set of organizational values, and service pledge. To accomplish that, we asked our users, stakeholders, and staffers questions to help us articulate the what, why, and how of our work as a public library. That initiative resulted in transformational and powerful statements that guide all we do, including the words on the back of our library cards, the people we hire, and the pages on our website.
Our mission is “Sparking Curiosity, Inspiring Learning, Creating Connections.”
Our values are Opportunity, Hospitality, and Stewardship.
Our service pledge begins, “You are our top priority. Whenever, wherever, and whyever you choose to visit us, every moment should shine.”
The Website as Stewardship
When we considered our old website and started to work on a new one, we kept our mission, values, and service pledge top-of-mind, especially our value of stewardship, which is defined like this: “We are caretakers of a trusted, community-owned institution, responsible for public resources and information. That’s why we promote transparency, simplicity, equity, and openness in all we do.”
If a library website is complicated, hard to navigate, and full of extraneous content, it prevents users from completing the tasks they want to complete and creates a barrier to the information and resources they need to access. Those resources are, of course, paid for by public dollars and purchased on behalf of the very users who want and need them. Having a high-functioning website is one way we can be good stewards of public information and resources.
A Deep Dive Into UX
In addition to developing this new mission-driven, values-based focus, we delved deep into the world of user experience. At the heart of UX is the idea that we are not our users, therefore we don’t naturally understand how they experience the library. While we might think our practices and policies are clear, to our users they may be outdated obstacles to access. For our websites, we might think that a featured-image slider on our homepage is a great way to advertise events we feel are important. For our users, that slider may well be a distraction that diminishes their ability to complete a task that’s important to them. (For a deep dive into our whole process, see the Tumblr of our notes throughout the project at http://chplux.tumblr.com.)
The holy triumvirate of UX design is Useful, Usable, Desirable. Whatever we are designing—a new service, space, or website—must ultimately pass this test. Is it useful? Does it fulfill a need in the life of the customer? Is it usable? Can the customer actually complete the task he or she went there to complete? Is it desirable? Do customers find it appealing to use and interact with? We set out to create a website that addressed each of these foundations of the three-legged UX stool.
So, how were people using our old website? What were they trying to accomplish there? Through analytics tools, we compiled data on what parts of our site users were actually visiting. We had hundreds and hundreds of pages within our site, and when we looked at how many were actually visited with any regularity, the results were eye-opening.
First, we learned that the vast majority of people came to our website in order to get to our catalog. We serve a relatively small community that checks out a relatively high number of items, so this should not have been all that shocking. But actually pulling the data and seeing the numbers really drove home the fact that our catalog is more important to our users than our website.
October 2015 Visits
We use BiblioCommons as the discovery layer for our catalog, which added another dimension to our work. BiblioCommons offers a search that’s more like Amazon’s and an interface that’s more like Netflix’s. If our users were getting a great experience there and a less-than-stellar one on our website, that was a significant dissonance that we needed to bridge.
Our patrons were, however, interested in a few more parts of our website. Figure 1 (right) shows the other website page views from the same month, October 2015.
This proved that the website was full of content that hardly anyone was using. When we reviewed this data, we realized that a majority of our users wanted to complete a few key tasks—find out our hours of operation, download an ebook, or reserve a meeting room.
When we looked at the table, we were struck by how much the views dropped off after those functions. For that month, almost 1,200 people sought information about our meeting rooms, while fewer than 600 sought information about general library services. Some might say, “That means you need to promote those general services pages more and push them to the top!” But with our new UX mindset, we instead said, “Let’s make it easier for people to do what they want to do!”
Designing a User-Focused Site
We wanted to design a website that was aligned with our service pledge and signal that we are focused on meeting users’ needs. They want to search our catalog. They want to find out when we are open and where we are located. They want to download ebooks and reserve meeting rooms. We wanted to remove barriers to these functions and reduce the pain points associated with them.
We also sought to design a thoroughly modern site. We know that people complete tasks on their phones, tablets, and laptops as well as during their lunch breaks at work or at 2 a.m. while in their pajamas at home. We set out to design a site that looked great, worked well across mobile devices, and offered users the ability to easily complete a variety of tasks—such as renewing their books, registering for an account, or grabbing a study room—whenever, wherever, and whyever.
There was another significant tenet that drove our design, one I feel odd mentioning in a publication called Marketing Library Services. We did not set out to create a “marketing” website in the sense of a site that primarily serves to promote and advertise library programs and services. We set out to create a site that would help our users accomplish the tasks they want to accomplish. We have other digital platforms (our E-news, Facebook, and Twitter) for promoting events and services, and they work well for informing our community about programs and events. We know this because we track click-throughs, open rates, retweets, shares, and sign-ups. In those spaces, we can talk about us, and people listen. On our website, we want to help people do what they want to do.
That being said, we also wanted to make sure our new website reflected our emerging visual brand. At the same time we were reviewing website data, we were working with a graphic designer to create a visual mark that reflected our mission, values, and service pledge. We were developing the earliest iterations of our branding guidelines and our style guide. Ensuring that our website was aligned with our brand was a very important design priority as well.
All of the above interests converged in the design of the new site. Aaron Schmidt worked with key library staffers to prototype, test, and iterate a homepage design that met all of the criteria and priorities. We worked together on navigation, calendar functionality, and secondary page design, always going back to the needs and interests of the users.
The New-and-Improved Site
When you visit www.chapelhillpubliclibrary.org, in addition to our logo and the typical navigation bar, above the fold you’ll see those things that are most important to our customers—search the catalog, search the website, hours of operation, library contact information, get a library card, and reserve a meeting room.
Below the fold, you will see space to highlight a few key events and programs, and you’ll see that they’re promoted with one large high-quality image, a few words, and a link to the calendar. Throughout the site, you’ll see our brand reflected in modern fonts, bright colors, simple lines, and clean images. You’ll read fewer words overall and find tens of pages instead of hundreds of pages.
|Screenshot of the mobile version
of the new CHPL website
The site is built on a WordPress platform and uses a variety of plug-ins for functions such as the calendar and search. It is also fully responsive; we designed it with a mobile-first viewpoint and tested it across devices throughout the design. In addition, the site supports a wide variety of third-party vendors, all with an aim of helping users help themselves with tasks such as booking a study room, applying for a library card, and registering for a class. Since we know our users really value our catalog, we’ve also worked to ensure that it is our primary discovery platform. Anything that can be in the catalog should be, including books, ebooks, Digital Media Lab equipment, and databases from NCLIVE, our statewide consortium.
Launching and Evaluating the Site
As testing and tweaking continued, we made plans for launch. We gave staffers and stakeholders a preview and had them “kick the tires.” Meanwhile, on the old site, we added a banner that let our visitors know a significant change was coming. When we actually flipped the switch to the new site in July 2016, we were mindful of talking about the project in a larger context: “It’s not just a website, it’s the result of a new approach to serving our users and a reflection of our new identity.” The site was well-received, and we immediately turned our attention to the next steps—feedback, evaluation, and assessment.
We received feedback early and often, almost all of it positive. Some, however, was in the vein of “I liked the old site, I was used to it” and “The exact thing that I used for years has moved to the other side of the page and I don’t like that.” We saw those comments as opportunities to engage with those people and explore their concerns and issues. However, when we wanted significant and more meaningful information on use, we turned back to the data and analytics. That way, we could move beyond what people liked or disliked and make data-driven decisions.
An example of this is the post-launch addition of an above-the-fold button for renewing materials. The web team reviewed data on what people were searching on the website as a way to understand what they were trying to accomplish and where the friction might be. After seeing that many were searching for things such as “how to renew books” and “book renewals,” we added a box to the main site that says “Renew Materials.” As a result, the number of searches for those terms has decreased significantly, telling us that users are able to accomplish the task they set out to do.
The web team continues to review data and analytics and make adjustments. When we launch a new service, the team comes together to talk about how we might incorporate that service into the website, always guided by our mission, values, and pledge and in pursuit of the Useful, Usable, Desirable trifecta.
Reflections on the New Site
We started off the grant cycle in search of a new, 21st-century website, and we ended it with that plus a new way of thinking about the work we do and the users we do it for. As I reflect on the new Chapel Hill Public Library website, I realize that what makes it 21st century isn’t necessarily the technology that went into it or that keeps it going. What makes it a 21st-century, thoroughly modern website is the user-focused philosophy behind it: “We are not our users. Everything is a touchpoint. Every decision we make impacts how users experience the library. We can always improve.”