3 truths about your library's website
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3 truths about your library’s website

truthI create websites for public libraries.  I’ve been doing that for more than 15 years.  In that time, I’ve learned a few things, especially in my current job, where I work on sites for multiple libraries.  I’ve learned some hard truths about these sites, and sometimes I’ve shared those with the clients I’ve worked with.  Here are three of those truths.


    1. It’s subjective.
      There is absolutely no consistency in what one library likes compared to another. When I talk to a client library about our current design portfolio, I ask them which sites they like and which they don’t, and why.  It helps me to get a feel for the style they’re after and which elements they find attractive.  I can’t count the number of times one library has told me they love Library XYZ’s site, only to have another library tell me, even the very next day, that they don’t like Library XYZ’s site and can’t imagine why Library XYZ would have done it that way.This is true in libraries, even internally.  There have been times when the library’s staff liaison likes a design draft a lot, only to have that design shot down by the library’s director.  Or, there’s a committee and the members can’t agree on what they like.  It’s the nature of the beast:  design is subjective (although functionality and usability is not).   Chances are, no design is ever going to make everyone entirely happy.  And, that’s in addition to the fact that some patrons will hate the new site design,  no matter how carefully planned, simply because it’s not the old one.
    2. Nobody uses most of it.
      As librarians, sometimes we can get mighty attached to those pathfinders,booklists and lists of links. After all, we put a lot of work into those, right? So lots of people must be using them, of course…not. Take a look at the metrics. Chances are, you’re going to be unpleasantly surprised. You know what people come to the library’s website for, in general?

      • Access to their account
      • Search the catalog
      • Phone number and address
      • Program information

      Anything else is pure frosting. There are always exceptions; sometimes, genealogy resources on a library’s site, for instance, can be heavily used.  Maybe your library is one of the lucky ones that has a niche audience for a specialized content section.  But, there aren’t many. Don’t believe me?  Go look at your website analytics.  See how many page views there are for that list of homework help links, especially from outside of the library.  Figure out how much it cost, in staff time, to put that list together.  (You may need a stiff drink at this point.) Does that mean it’s not worth doing these?  Maybe.  But that’s what the math is for.  Everything that happens in a library has a cost.

    3. You’ll hate it later.
      I’m old enough to remember when orange shag carpeting was all the rage, and avocado green appliances were in kitchens everywhere.  Now, nobody would probably choose these to decorate their home.  Design trends change and, on the web, they change fast.  Remember textured, tiled backgrounds?  Animated, cartoony GIFs?  Flash animations?  3D buttons?  Glass reflections?  None of these trends were all that long ago, but are all outdated now.  I regularly tell clients that, in anywhere from 2-5 years, they’ll likely come to hate whatever they love now.  Even if the site design wasn’t all that “trendy” to begin with, there’s nothing like the “Little Black Dress” of the web, that always looks good and is a classic, regardless of era.  At least, not yet.  I’ve learned not to get emotionally attached to much of anything that I do, because even *I* will despise it at some point down the road.  Just like that orange shag carpeting.

What are your thoughts on these?  Agree? Disagree?  Everyone’s experiences are different…post yours.

There are 3 comments

  1. I agree 100%. When I come across a web site that still has 90’s clip art, animated gifs, or a style that is out of date, my first thought is “What decade did the web developer die?” as that must be what happened to have this website look so bad compared to today’s standards. Then I think, “Maybe they are trying to still be compatible with IE 5?”. Nah, nobody in their right mind would use IE, let alone a version below 10.

    Unlike bell bottom pants returning as a fad, or Victorian style clothing becoming hot goth fashion, bad web design will only return as a blatant example of how not to do things. I speak as one who has often been guilty of bad web design.

  2. Agree! And on #1 – your opinion is fascinating.. and irrelevant. Whatever YOU think makes great web content means nothing if your users don’t share that opinion. Ask your patrons what they need. Do some usability testing and A/B testing. Learn from your community, not from industry design trends.

  3. You’re right, Laura, especially on #1. I think web design by committee is a horrible idea–unless the committee was formed to study users’ needs and report on the results.
    Design (of any kind, really) should barely be subjective at all. I think its foundation should be what its potential users need and want, implemented with proven best practices. The last thing you need is people who aren’t experts in either of those areas choosing your content, fonts, colors, and structure.

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