Library Terms that Users Understand

It’s been a while since I’ve written about web design, but this came across my radar screen this morning and I found it to be very bookmark-worthy:

We tend to forget that terms like “catalog” or “database” can be confusing to users. John Kupersmith’s site is a much needed reminder that we have to think like a patron and limit the use of library terminology.


I’ve been looking at the structure of my library site a lot lately, feeling that it’s just not right. We have the usual categories: teens, kids, adults. We have a link to the catalog and a link to patron information, and our calendar and newsletter. We’ve put our services into labeled boxes. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but the boxes we’ve used feel wrong.

I’m not sure why we have a category called “adults.” Perhaps at an early meeting we discussed the way librarians are put into categories: adult services, teen services, children’s services, and divided our website accordingly. While this may be a good way to distribute job duties, it doesn’t work well for a website. It makes sense to break out separate sections for kids and teens, but labeling a section for adults sounds almost like we have an R-rated section.

I still chuckle every time I hear a co-worker tell a patron, “The kids videos are over there on the right, and the adult videos are on the left.” Adult videos? Do they realize how that sounds? Apparently not. : ) 

Rather than putting all of our users into one category, “adults” (leaving out the kids and teens for now), perhaps we’d be more helpful if we think about who these adults are and how they might be using the website.

It seems to me that there is a useful correlation between what a person will use the website for and their level of internet experience. Someone new to the internet may come a library’s website just to see if we have a book. A more experienced person will look around the site for information on programs or book recommendations. And those who live and work on the web will want to interact with the site, rather than passively obtaining information.

We need to accomodate all of these users if we want to have a successful website. We need to make it easy and intuitive for a newbie, without “dumbing it down” and driving away patrons who are looking for something more. Because the library may be one of the first sites a newbie visits (After all, people look to the library understand and learn new things. That’s our business.) we need to make that first experience a positive one. And we need to provide an engaging environment that will keep people coming back for more than the catalog.

Once we start thinking in terms of real user categories, the services required by these users begins to become clear.

My Logic Model

My logic model began with me at my desk with a few sheets of blank paper and a handout from the Logic Modeling workshop I’d attended. There were times when I wanted to just read over the handout and move on; some of the questions were not easy to answer. I had to push myself to really think this through and come up with real answers before moving on.

Here’s a recap of what I had in front of me:

Situation: What is the problem or issue? Why is this a problem and what causes it? For whom does the problem exist? Who was a stake in it’s resolution?

In my case, the problem was a poorly designed website that is not easy to use. This is a problem because information is not accessible if it cannot be found. We currently have an ok website, but much of the information is hidden under meaningless tags, and there is some library jargon that needs to be changed. This is a problem for experienced internet users, but moreso for those with little or no computer or internet experience. If information cannot be found, this is a source of frustration for both library staff and the public.

Priorities: What is the purpose/goal of our website?

We’d like to have structure based on function. (We currently have our structure based on age level of intended audience, for some reason. We also have structure based on random topics that for one reason or another rose to the top of the hierarchy, but the reasoning behind it cannot be defined.) We’d like strong content and visual appeal. While these sound very nebulous, as an overarching goal of the website, I think this works.

Goals I’ve defined are as follows:

1. To facilitate access to information resources
2. To provide awareness of library programs
3. To encourage interest in library materials

Inputs: What do we invest in the project?

In our case, our investments are staff time (the biggie), which includes research time and production time. Our other investments are money (minimal), software, and equipment (which we already have.)

Outputs: What are the activities, services, events and products that reach people?

Outputs lead to specific outcomes.
What we do: provide information, provide education, provide recreation
Who we reach: library users, non-users, all demographic groups

Outcomes: What are the expected outcomes?

Short-term impact: Website is easy to use, information is found
Mid-term impact: Number of users is increased
Long-term impact: Interactive environment, users return due to ease of locating information/fun, a virtual community is established

Assumptions: What are the “givens” here?

Web standards lead to ease of use: Don’t reinvent the website concept, take advantage of users’ current expertise.
Usability testing uncovers flaws: No matter how much you think you know about web design, you need to test it on your users to uncover any problems they encounter.

External Factors: What are the external issues that will affect your project?

Access to internet: economic barriers to use, server downtime
Ability: how to meet the needs of the disabled or elderly

Critique Your Site

If you already have your website up and running, and are working on a redesign, take the time to do an objective critique of your site.

Don’t just say, “This site is not working. I need to redesign it.” Without having a clear idea in your mind of what is wrong with the current site, the next release will end up being just as bad. Maybe for different reasons (which you still haven’t defined), but bad nonetheless. You need to take the time to do this step.

Keep in mind that “critique” is not a negative word. I once took writing workshop led by Nancy Kress (who writes a column for Writer’s Digest, along with numerous novels, short stories and books about writing) and she made it very clear that a critique contains three parts: What’s working, What needs work, and a Conclusion. Nothing is all bad or all good. So look at your website and determine what it’s strengths and weaknesses are.

Here’s a condensed version of the critique I wrote for my website.

What Works
We use our home page to highlight special programs or services. The basic site is the same, but the main screen on the home page changes frequently to point out upcoming events and to keep people coming back to see what’s new. Pages are uncluttered — white background, lots of white space — making reading and navigating easy. Hours, location (complete address) and phone number are all included in the heading, so it’s at the top of every page. Also, I’ve put a “freshness date” at the bottom of each page. Some of our links provide clear identification of the content: My Library Account, Catalog, Ask a Librarian, etc.

What Needs Work
Vague links: Friends (does this mean anything to anyone who doesn’t work in a library?), Kids, Teens, Adults (what do these labels mean to the public?), Resources (what is underneath this link? Could be anything.) Our subdirectory structure is confusing. I have no help pages, privacy statement or site map.

Age-specific link headings need to be changed. It may make sense to separate out a section for kids or for teens, but not for adults. Navigation needs to be clarified. Resources page needs a complete overhaul.

Without going into the nitty-gritty details of my site’s critique, this should serve as a base from which to start your own site critique. Be specific and put it in writing. Sometimes it helps to set it aside for a day or two and then look at it again.

Logic Modeling

As we work toward redesigning our library’s website, a recurring issue keeps pushing itself to the forefront of our discussions:

What is the purpose of our website?

In the past, this question has come up but we never arrived at a solid answer. I dove into building our website without a real sense of where I was going, or why. This has been a difficult question to answer, in terms of a library website. We are not trying to earn a profit, which is the category many of my other web projects have fallen into. We are not serving a core demographic — library service is for everyone, isn’t it? We are not using a corporate model, are we?

What are we trying to do?

This is a tough question to answer. I found a way to focus my thoughts around this after attending a seminar on Logic Modeling last summer. A logic model is essentially a roadmap for problem solving and is a method for pinpointing exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish. You have to answer the tough questions, like it or not, and the results help you to focus in on specific steps you need to take to reach the goals you have set.

A great place to get started on understanding the concept of logic modeling is this slide show on the University of Wisconsin’s website:

Enhancing Performance with Logic Models

Module 1 explains the concept in excruciating detail, while Module 2 gives a real-life example on using a logic model to create a community nutrition education plan.

Although I attended the seminar last summer on this topic, the UoW site helped me put all the pieces together and got me started on my redesign.