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Magazines > ONLINE > March/April 2010
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Online Magazine

Vol. 34 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2010

Practical Website Improvement Face-Off
By Darlene Fichter (University of Saskatchewan)
and Jeff Wisniewski (University of Pittsburgh)

What are the top three things library webmasters can do to improve their websites? Panelists at Internet Librarian 2009 were charged with answering this question in session A203, “Library Website Improvement Face-Off” (, moderated by Darlene Fichter. The only rule was that the improvements had to be reasonably practical. Audience members acted as judges and voted for the best way to improve library websites.

Thinking bigger, panelists were also allowed to name one “fairy godmother” wish, free of any practical constraints whatsoever. Think “If I had unlimited time and an unlimited budget I’d …” The panelists didn’t know their colleagues’ suggestions in advance. The suggestions were great, so we wanted to share them with you. We’d also like to thank the esteemed panelists, Jeff Wisniewski, Aaron Schmidt, Amanda Etches-Johnson, and David Lee King, for their permission to publish their improvement tips here.

Words: Simpler, Less Formal, and Fewer of them

Both David and Amanda discussed wording and language. Good accessible content is the foundation of every good website. We know this, yet all too often we’re guilty of the sins of cut and paste and of speaking in library lingo.

Much of the material on our websites either has a real-world analog or is written specifically for the print world. That content is usually not web-ready. It’s too wordy, too formal, too structured, too obtuse, and too reliant on vernacular. Writing for the web takes some practice. But of all the improvements suggested by the panelists, it’s probably the most accessible and easiest to implement. The old rule of eliminating half the words and going from there is a good guideline. Commit to two things: Rewrite a page a day, and write all new content for the web.

Aaron went beyond rewriting for the web and directed library webmasters to cut at least one-fourth of the pages on their sites. Eliminate the nonessential and make the essential content shine. He offered some practical tips for writing for the web :

  • Avoid long paragraphs and sentences.

  • Break things up better into grab-and-go chunks.

  • Make it easy to scan pages for nuggets of useful information.

To help our content shine through, Aaron recommended reading Letting Go of the Words by Janice (Ginny) Redish (Boston: Morgan Kaufmann, 2007).

Amanda’s recommendation for improving your website touched on something a bit more pervasive: the personality of our sites—or lack thereof. Think about many of the nonlibrary sites you visit. There’s a good chance they tend toward the informal, the funny, the whimsical, and/or the personal. Much blog content carries a personal and informal tone. Even banks are getting in on the act. One financial institution website uses, “Oops, sorry! We thought you left!” as the system timeout message. Another uses, “Your session has been ended due to system inactivity.” Which one is friendlier, more personal, and actually a bit fun?

Too often, library sites do not have even a touch of whimsy and are formal and impersonal. One place where libraries have dipped their toes into the waters of informality are on 404 error pages, which is a great start. But why not adopt a more human tone on the rest of your site? Two changes that can go a long way in reducing or eliminating a sense of distance between you and your users are to replace all instances of “the library” with “we” and to replace all instances of “patrons,” “users,” “clients,” and “customers” with “you.” Amanda recommended checking out, a site for sharing travel plans with friends and associates you trust, as an example of a site that offers a great experience while being human and whimsical.

User Testing

A unanimous recommendation involved user testing for improving library websites. All four panelists in one respect or another emphasized its importance. As information professionals, we can’t help but bring a certain bias to our site layout, structure, design, and content, right? We also recognize that the only way to truly know what works and doesn’t work is to test with real users, right? In practice, how many of us do this, do it regularly, and implement changes based on the results of these tests? Perhaps fewer hands are in the air now.

Here’s David’s take on usability: Look at the top five or 10 areas of your website, based on search log reports, and focus on them. Test, refine, and improve those top 10 to make them as user-friendly as possible. These are what folks are coming to your site to do, so make sure those perform as flawlessly as possible. Jeff said go further: Take ownership of the usability of not only our websites’ proper but also of our catalogs and databases. With a nod to the fact that in some cases our ability to make changes on these fronts is limited, we should recognize that users consider our websites, catalogs, and databases to be the same. Users don’t make the distinctions information professionals do; it’s all “the library website” as far as users are concerned. A highly usable website that hands off to a confusing database or catalog is going to result in a user experience that is less than optimal. So test, make any changes you can, and share your test results with your vendors. It’s more work, yes, but the users’ experience comprises more than just the pages on our own servers. It’s to our advantage to take some ownership of the usability of these external resources.

One more thing: There’s something of a trend toward creating promotional graphics for library products and services that not only look very much like an ad in that they’re splashy and graphical, but they are often placed in the right-hand column of the library homepage, the very place that ads often appear on commercial sites. The upside is that it demonstrates that libraries now have the expertise and/or resources to produce great quality, sophisticated graphics, which is definitely an asset. The downside? Well, perhaps users can distinguish these types of graphics from the ads that they studiously avoid clicking on at commercial sites. But “banner blindness,” the phenomenon of users learning to visually avoid areas of websites that often contain advertisements, is very real. Including these on your site can be the usability equivalent of playing with fire. Proceed with caution.

Aaron succinctly summed up the need for usability testing by stating that librarians need to care more about what people do than what they think. Focus groups are not helpful in discovering what people actually do. He suggested a couple of approaches to get at what users actually do on library websites. The first is task-based testing. Observe four users trying to perform tasks on your site. See where they experience problems with the site. The second approach is to perform A/B testing. Offer two versions of the site or area or page and see which version users like the most. Aaron left the audience with another book recommendation for usability: Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug (second edition, Berkeley, Calif.: New Riders Press, 2005).

Amanda was a strong proponent for user testing and more user testing. She recommended, which allows designers to upload new design snapshots and get feedback from other designers very quickly. Second, use short, one-question surveys such as The New York Public Library’s ( that can pose questions about a particular function, feature, or label.

User Experience, Wayfinding, Search Boxes

Speaking of user experience, David very cleverly titled one of his points “Your database is showing” to indicate that the user experience is being negatively affected by some back-end technical limitation. It could be the absence of an obvious sorting option in the library catalog because that functionality isn’t supported, or it could be a clumsy handoff between two systems that required a user to re-enter his or her credentials. In the same way that Jeff encouraged library webmasters to take some ownership of the usability of OPACs, databases, and other external tools and resources as a nod to a better overall user experience, so David suggested that we take the time to look at our systems, identify points of friction or any obvious shortcomings, and work to improve them—all with an eye toward creating an overall more positive user experience.

No one likes to be lost. One practical way to improve library websites is to make them easy to navigate. Aaron recommended designing our sites so that users are confident about where they are and where they are going. Provide breadcrumbs so they can browse to deep levels and have some context about “where” they are as well as an easy route to go back. Design for scent by using trigger words that match what the user is looking for. Avoid using “click here” and hyperlink description text such as “Apply for a library card.”

Both Amanda and Jeff took aim at library search boxes. Amanda urged attendees to liberate their search boxes from the homepage. Put appropriate search boxes on subject and course pages, such as Florida State University’s subject guide for English ( Let your users place library search boxes on departmental and organization sites. Jeff pointed out the need to have a unified search rather than separate search boxes for each database.

Waving the Magic Wand

Each panelist also had the chance to say what he or she would do to make library websites fabulous if given the chance to do anything he or she wished. What if you had magical powers and could make one wish? What would you do for library websites? Here are the panelists’ wishes:

  • Ka Pow! Libraries need to focus on the “long wow” and keep our users coming back again and again for more great stuff. (Amanda)

  • [Create a] unified experience across the library websites, catalog, and databases. (Aaron)

  • Poof! Half the words on library websites are gone and only the necessary ones that make sense are left. (Jeff)

  • All library administrators become geeked-out, iPod-toting, technology-using enthusiasts who get it—understand what we’re trying to do with the library’s digital presence. (David)

And the winners are

How would you vote if you were an audience member? What idea do you think is the most important, practical improvement? The audience at Internet Librarian voted Amanda’s “Be human, be whimsical” as the best practical improvement idea.

Of the four wishes listed above, what one would you like to grant libraries? The audience picked Aaron’s suggestion for a unified experience across all library products as the winner.

The important take-away from the panel and this column is the need for continuous work to make our websites better. While there are some things beyond our immediate control, there are many to do without waiting for a magic wand, a pot of gold, or new software. Just start. Your library users may not send you chocolates or flowers to thank you, but they’ll certainly appreciate using a better website—a first step in creating Amanda’s long wow for libraries.

Practical Improvement Ideas

  • Liberate those search boxes.

  • Be human, be whimsical.

  • Test.


  • Did you look at the top five to 10 things in your monthly statistics? Improve them!

  • Have you made wording improvements? In materials? In databases?

  • Is your database showing? Make it invisible.


  • Take ownership of the usability of your OPACs and databases.

  • Make one, true, single search.

  • Ditch promotional graphics that look like ads.


  • Perform user testing.

  • Create shining content.

  • Make wayfinding simple.

Darlene Fichter ( is data librarian, University of Saskatchewan. Jeff Wisniewski ( is web services librarian, University Library System, University of Pittsburgh.

Comments? E-mail the editor. (

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