Helping users when they help themselves

As I was reading Robert S. Taylor’s article, Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries*, I drew a lot of parallels between the librarian-patron interactions that he discussed and the human-computer interaction that is important to consider when creating web content and navigation.

rows of card catalog drawers
Back in Taylor’s day, the card catalog was a great way for patrons and librarians to find resources.
Source: University of Michigan Library Card Catalog by dfulmer / CC BY

Taylor discusses the negotiation process between a librarian and a patron, where a librarian and patron need to ask each other multiple questions to determine the true information need that usually begins as an intangible concept in a patron’s mind. This is generally a great way for patrons to become familiar with library resources and research. However, Taylor also examines the library system which many users choose over asking librarians for help. Back in Taylor’s day (1968), this system referred to the stacks of books and card catalog. In 2015, this library system has expanded to online resources. With our dependence on the omnipresent internet, it has become easier and easier to search for needs without asking others for help.

4 students sit at a library table using laptops
Libraries have changed so much in the past few decades. Source: Laptop desks in the computer science building by maebmij / CC BY

Because many patrons go directly to the library’s electronic resources, librarians miss out on the opportunity to help patrons find information through a negotiation process where librarians uncover the patron’s explicit research objectives. Therefore, libraries have a new challenge of educating users through electronic help guides. Because person-to-person interaction is lost in this setting, websites have the responsibility of guiding users to beneficial resources. Subject-specific guides, easily findable lists of resources, and help links are a great way to show users how to find library resources. Additionally, Ask a Librarian chat tools provide an outlet for users to ask questions without going to a reference desk.

Because patrons are increasingly using electronic resources to conduct their research, it’s important for libraries to understand patron needs and how they search for library resources. In this way, users can have a pleasant experience in finding their research needs even when they do not visit the physical library or ask librarians for help.

*Taylor, Robert Saxton. (1968). “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” College & Research Libraries, 29 (3): 178–94.

Small changes to make a big difference

In her Weave UX article, “Improving the Library Homepage through User Research – without a Total Redesign”, Amy Deschenes writes about the usefulness of making continual, small changes to a library’s website based on patron feedback and the results of user testing. Although user testing, feedback, site statistics, and/or heat maps are necessary to consider while completely redesigning a site, website managers can conduct further testing and analysis after a redesign. This can show how new features are being used by patrons and if they are helping a patron find desired information. By determining how a redesign is being used, site managers can make small changes where users can efficiently find information without becoming disoriented by large changes or even noticing that the site has changed.

Since the Summer 2014 Drupal migration, DRS has been making changes to the new Libraries’ site. A heat map revealed where users clicked on the homepage. Feedback from emails and reference desk questions indicated links and labels that were useful or needed to be changed. Google Analytics showed how long users stayed on each page and their navigation. Through this information, we were able to shorten the hompage and prioritize its links so that it is faster to find the footer’s useful information, such as recommended databases and hours.

In December, the ‘Start Your Research’ section in the top left had four subordinate categories to list links by subject. A heat map revealed that the links under the ‘Featured Collections’ and ‘Faculty & Graduate Students’ categories were underused.

The December 2014 homepage shows a large amount of content under the 'Start your Research' section.
The homepage on December 8th, 2014

Therefore, we got rid of the four categories and reduced the number of ‘Start Your Research’ links to those that are more widely used. We also changed the ‘Resources’ category in the navigation bar to ‘Research Resources’ to indicate that subject guides and databases are found within that category.

The January 2015 homepage shows that the content under 'Start your Research' has been condensed so that users scroll less to find the footer.
The homepage on January 22nd, 2015

By focusing on a few site features, we are able to improve the site’s usability without creating new obstacles for users. As users navigate the updated site, we can use statistics, feedback, and testing to continually improve the site in small ways that are barely noticeable, but helpful.

Transformations: Migrating to a New Model of Web Stewardship – For Further Reading

IOLUG conference logoCourtney Greene McDonald, Rachael Cohen, and I were pleased to give a panel presentation at today’s Indiana Online Users Group (IOLUG) fall conference. Our session description:

Transformations: Migrating to a New Model of Web Stewardship

Do you ever feel that although you are charged with running your website, it might actually be running you? We understand. Come and hear the epic tale of how the IU Bloomington Libraries migrated over 8000 pages from a decade-old locally-developed content management system to a shiny new Drupal-powered site by partnering with outside consultants — and, along the way, learned a few things about strategy and governance that are broadly applicable to web redesign or migration projects, small or large.

This session will describe how a small department discovered the secret to making a better web experience for our users lay in thinking holistically and strategically about our web content — in other words, in stewardship. No longer just chasing pages around, we were freed to invest our efforts into crafting a user-centric, sustainable web presence.

Attendees will walk away with new ideas and concrete strategies for prioritizing the end-user’s experience through emphasizing consistency and reducing clutter; introducing library staff to a new way of thinking strategically about web content (content strategy); and providing a more seamless discovery experience.

Many thanks to those who attended!  As promised, we’d like to share a few additional readings for those who may be interested in diving a little deeper. And we are happy to answer any additional questions that may arise after the fact – comment on this post, or use the “Contact Us” link above.


Casey, Meghan. “Content Strategy Can Save Us All from Slobdom.” Brain Traffic. 4 Aug. 2011.

Cohen, Georgy. “Structured Content: An Overview.” Meet Content. 27 Mar. 2012.

Halvorson, Kristina, and Melissa Rach. Content Strategy for the Web. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2012.

Kissane, Erin. The Elements of Content Strategy. New York: A Book Apart, 2011.

Kurt, Lisa. “Responsive web design and libraries.” ACRL TechConnect Blog. Oct 4. 2012.

McDonald, Courtney Greene. Putting the User First: 30 Strategies for Transforming Library Services. ACRL, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2014.

Rasmussen, Claire. “Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists.” Brain Traffic. 7 June 2012.

Schmidt, Aaron and Amanda Etches. Useful, Usable, Desirable: Applying User Experience at Your Library. Chicago: ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2014.

Schmidt, Aaron. “Library Websites Should Be Smaller.” Walking Paper. 14 Mar. 2011.

United States Department of Health and Human Services. “User Experience Basics.” Feb 19. 2014.

Weave: Journal of Library User Experience. [a new peer-reviewed open access journal focusing on topics related to user experience in libraries … check it out!]

“Writing for the Web” posts on this blog:

WeaveUX, issue 1: it’s here!

We’ve (weave? sorry…) been eagerly awaiting the first issue of WeaveUX: The Journal of Library User Experience around these parts, so we were pretty pumped to see it drop this morning.

What’s it all about? Well, to quote from their About page:

As the importance of digital services begins to rival that of collections, library user experience is taking a more central role than ever. While new jobs are being created for User Experience librarians and some departments are being renamed “User Experience” teams, there is still no comprehensive, rigorous publication for library UX professionals to share with and learn from their colleagues. Weave is intended to fill that gap. Weave helps practitioners and theorists come together to make libraries better.

Good deal. In this first issue, there are peer reviewed articles, there are essays and how-tos, an interview (um, with me …) and there’s even a ‘tweetposium’ generated using Storify. Check it out!

I’m honored to serve on the editorial board for this new venture and I’m grateful to be part of the first issue, but even more, I’m excited to see what insights and ideas will be shared via this fantastic new publication, now and in future.

Cheers to editors Matthew Reidsma, Kyle Felker and Pete Coco on launching the first issue.

Putting the User First

Cover image of Putting the User FirstWe here in Discovery & Research Services are VERY happy to congratulate our fearless leader, Courtney McDonald, on the publication of her new book! Putting the User First: 30 Strategies for Transforming Library Services, published by ACRL, can (and should! do it!) be purchased via the ALA Store online.

I haven’t had time to read the book yet, but I’ve spent a few minutes skimming through it, so I have some first impressions. It’s a small square book, entirely unintimidating; each of its short chapters explores one thing that you can do to make your library better for its users (patrons, customers, whatEVER). I imagine this as a book you’d have sitting on your desk for a while, and maybe you’d pick it up and read one chapter every morning before diving into the workday. Sort of a “daily meditation” thing, although the whole point of the book is to actually DO something, not just meditate about it. Those who know Courtney will find a familiar voice throughout – conversational, whimsical, but in the end very practical.

Here’s a peek inside the book. This is the content strategy chapter. Yes, I totally cut off the side of the right-hand page. I have no shame – you’ll just have to buy it if you want to see what’s there… 🙂

Partial view of the "Curate" chapter

Congratulations to Courtney!

Your Website is a Verb: Some follow-up resources

My thanks to the wonderful folks at Confab Central for the opportunity to present my lightning talk “Your Website is a Verb: Persuading Librarians to Let Go.” For anyone who might be interested in looking into the topic a little further, here are a few readings I’ve found particularly enlightening.

Confabber Hilary Marsh has some slides on Content Strategy for Library Websites which help outline the specific problems we face in this environment.

Amanda Costello’s Confab 2013 presentation “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Working with Faculty & the Web” was important in shaping my thoughts about working with librarians, who are a lot like teaching faculty; I’ve used several of her tips with success.

Aaron Schmidt maintains (correctly, I believe) that Library Websites Should Be Smaller. And in “Give Them What They Want,” he also looks at what might happen if the library website disappeared (noooooooo!) and what that tells us about our users’ needs. The latter article is more relevant to public library sites than to academic/research libraries, but it’s a useful perspective nonetheless.

Rebecca Blakiston at the University of Arizona has a very good article on Developing a Content Strategy for an Academic Library Website. If you’re not affiliated with a library that subscribes to the journal this is published in, see if you can get it via Interlibrary Loan or something. (IU folks, you should be able to access the article.)

I mentioned briefly (heck, everything was brief, that’s the whole point of a lightning talk) that one of the special problems libraries face is our plethora of subscription-based vendor-provided resources, with their dizzying multitude of different interfaces and options. This strays beyond content strategy a bit, but this article from the Chronicle of Higher Ed talks about discovery tools – one of the big guns we drag out in an attempt to tackle this problem. It also features IU’s own assessment librarian (go Andrew!). As Researchers Turn to Google, Libraries Navigate the Messy World of Discovery Tools.

Finally, I keep coming back to good old Ranganathan and his Five Laws of Library Science – especially “Save the time of the reader.” Claire Rasmussen wrote a fantastic post on the Brain Traffic blog a couple of years ago that literally had me bouncing up and down in my seat with how nicely it ties together the basic principles of librarianship and those of content strategy. Plus, best title ever: Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists.

disorderly, overstuffed bookstore shelves
how not to do it! photo credit – flickr/ jessica

You can find the slides from my lightning talk at

Update: Slides are also available on Slideshare –

Mindfulness for a New Website



Earlier this month, Harvard Business Review published “Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity,” an interview with Ellen Langer, who has researched for decades on the effects of mindful thinking across a wide range of fields. Langer defines mindfulness through a psychological lens, as a “process of actively noticing new things.” She argues that this makes us actively engaged in the present, so that we’re “more sensitive to context and perspective.” In other words, we become more open-minded and focused with what’s in front of us in each individual moment, experience, and interaction.

While reading the article, I thought about our hands-on Drupal training sessions, which we began holding a couple of weeks ago. Though still in development, we’ve been unveiling the new IU Libraries website to content managers, walking through the whats and how-tos. One of our hopes is that these introductions will ease the transition from the old-and-familiar to the new-and-very-different. With these training sessions, it seems to me that we are priming users for mindfulness. They’re presented the Drupal environment in ways that give them a sense of the guts of it and how it comes together. And, since the site is, again, still in development, we’re asking for a sense of open-mindedness, indeed an aspect of mindfulness, since new bugs, wrenches, and general Huh?s pop up daily.

Mindfulness begets openness to all things new. Many of the features in the Drupal environment are intuitive, but others are less so, which means there are many new things for users to figure out and become accustomed to. Luckily, most people have seemed open and actively look for new things, as they poke and click around to discover how to do things on their own. From this, I’m reminded of mindfulness in the sense that, as Langer points out, there’s no one way to do something. We can instruct with basic directions for library branch mangers on how to add department pages, or for subject librarians on how to create feature posts, but really, there’s some flexibility in how it makes sense for users once they’re elbows deep in creating and adding content to the site.

Along these lines, by being mindful, the rules, routines, and goals will guide us rather than govern us, so that we’re not restricted to having new things reflecting the legacy site, so that we’re not solving “today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” So, in applying mindfulness to learning/working with/teaching the new IUB Libraries’ website in Drupal, I think it all comes down to mindfulness teaching flexibility, which in our case, leads to a better user experience both on the front- and back-ends of our website.

Simplifying Technology: A View from DRS


On February 25, Tim Wu, in the New Yorker, published an article titled, “The Problem with Easy Technology.”  As I read the article, I struggled with its implications for the work we do here at Discovery and Research Services, especially with the ongoing migration of the IU libraries website.  Ease of use is our constant goal: to make the website so intuitive that users can easily locate information, navigate between useful pages, and quickly find what they are looking for.  Wu, however, brings up some very important questions about technology and the consequences of over-simplification.

Wu describes this danger in terms of what he calls “biological atrophy.”  That is, as humans strive to make technology easier and easier to use, we will lose critical skills that we have developed over thousands of years.  The development of these “convenience technologies” was supposed to make life easier and give us more time to focus on things like “thought, reflection, and leisure.”  There are many examples of these technologies that can only be seen as good – such as medical technology, photography, or even ski lifts (Wu’s example, not mine).

Wayyyy easier than walking!
Wayyyy easier than walking!

But it is also interesting to think about these challenges in terms of web design and content strategy.  Today, in the “Age of Google,” we consistently see that students, and even sometimes advanced researchers, struggle with any kind of database or webpage that requires them to do more than simply enter a search term.  Because of this expectation of finding information without much of an effort, students struggle more and more with the academic research process when it requires more than a basic search bar.  This also raises challenges for our web content strategy here in DRS.  We of course do not want to make the website difficult to use – quite the opposite, actually.  But I often wonder if student expectations for the site are impossible to keep up with.  It isn’t so much that we lack the talent or ingenuity of major internet companies; it is more about the fact that the nature of our resources and services do not always fit into this strict “Google-y” template.

As we continue with this migration, and with future projects, it will be interesting to see how user expectations continue to evolve.  Think of how much they have changed just in the past ten years!  But I guess that is one reason that we have our jobs: to ensure that our services keep up with user expectations.  I just wonder if, at some point, those expectations become too difficult to possibly keep up with.  As we continue to migrate and re-design the IU libraries website, it will be interesting to keep these challenges in mind.

If you are interested, you can read Wu’s article here.

The Aesthetic Usability Effect

Surely, you’ve utilized a web search engine, saw a relevant result and clicked the link to what seemed like a good, relevant website based on its title, only to gasp in horror and immediately hit the back button to escape a hideous sight (pun totally intended). I’m not referring to explicit content, but instead seemingly ugly websites that have egregious amounts of content, 13 different font styles, and color palettes from 1996, where it just

Professor Cat Likes Your Golden Ratio
Professor Cat Likes Your Golden Ratio

didn’t seem like you could find what you’re looking for. You know, something like Electrifying Times for all your needs on the latest news about electric cars.

Conversely, take a look at Green Car Reports. Sure, it’s not perfect by any means (for instance, I’m not one who likes to scroll below the fold…), but at least I didn’t fear for epileptic shock when I first landed on the homepage. This is because the site follows some basic design principles, such as consistency (what a concept!) in terms of alignment and fonts, contrast to direct the eyes and assist with navigation, and organization. Functionally, it has some issues, but because it’s (mostly) easier on the eyes, users are more likely to continue perusing this site than Electrifying Times.

When a website is ugly, we often assume that its inherent usability is lacking. In other words, strictly functionally speaking, a website might be completely user-friendly with user-centric architecture, but if its interface overwhelms users with unorganized content or antiquated aesthetics, it can override the sense of navigability. Ultimately, poor visual design of a website negatively affects both usability and discovery.

This concept is called aesthetic usability effect. When websites appear attractive, users make unintentional concessions and ignore usability deficiencies. Aesthetically pleasing sites also appear to be higher quality, which improves users’ perceived discoverability of information and authority of that information. What makes a website aesthetic? This can vary, but it’s important to keep in mind that users generally quickly scan websites, keeping their eyes above the fold, are attracted to and directed by areas of contrast, and prefer symmetry and alignment that reflect “the golden ratio” of divine proportions.

This is all not to say that it’s okay for your website to be absolutely difficult to use but still the coolest looking site ever known to man. As the saying goes, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig” (thanks for this one, Anne H.!). Instead, know that looks do matter, and first impressions most certainly count when it comes to user experience and information discovery.

To learn more about good visual design, check out User Focus’ guidelines.

Confab 2013: Outside the Comfort Zone and Loving It

panorama of Confab room pre-keynote

I recently had the opportunity to attend Confab, a conference devoted to learning about content strategy. Since this wasn’t a library conference, or even a higher ed conference, I knew I’d be outside my comfort zone a bit – and indeed I was. Among the 611 attendees there were a few librarians/library folks and a small contingent of higher ed people but the fellow attendees I spoke with came from all over the map, representing everything from government and non-profit agencies to companies like Whirlpool and Wal-Mart, as well as quite a few independent consultants and contractors. Compared to the demographic at a library conference, the crowd was somewhat younger and slightly (but only slightly) geekier, with a gender balance not too different from the library world – decidedly more women than men.

Trays of cake pops at the Confab reception
I am not kidding about the cake.

I may have been outside my comfort zone, but I was quickly made to feel right at home. Now in its third year, Confab has developed a reputation for being well-run and for great food, particularly cake – Betty Crocker is one of the conference sponsors! – and it exceeded my expectations on both counts. (Let’s just say that if someone talks about the “Confab Four” they are probably referring to the weight they gained, not a mop-topped quartet of Liverpudlian content strategists. Nobody will ever go hungry at Confab, that’s for SURE.) This is a conference organized by user experience professionals, and they have clearly given careful thought to the user experience of the conference itself – from the beautifully-designed program booklet to the reliable Wi-Fi bandwidth, from clear (and even witty) signage to helpful and friendly volunteers, the organizers obviously wanted us to be able to use our mental and emotional energy for learning and connecting rather than for dealing with confusion or frustration.

Sign reading "Don't Freak Out - Additional Bathrooms Upstairs"
Helpful and witty signage.

The Confab program included lots of interesting-sounding sessions, and at times I found it difficult to choose – but all the sessions I attended turned out to be quite good and gave me something to think about. Not only that, but over the two full days, not one presenter stood there and just read me their slides, and they were quality slides too – in two days I spotted only one typo on one slide. That’s pretty amazing.

While it wasn’t necessarily a new-agey, touchy-feely conference, neither was Confab a technical conference. Like the field of content strategy itself, its focus was on that slightly-nebulous intersection of communication and technology. As such, there were some assumptions made about attendees’ technical knowledge – for example that we understood the basics of web publishing and using a content management system, and were somewhat familiar with social media (the Twitter stream for Confab was quite active and provided a useful backchannel throughout the conference) and current online culture. It was also assumed, correctly, that most attendees were word-nerds and that wordplay would be an effective way to get one’s point across. Probably the best (worst) (no, best) example of this wordplay was when closing keynoter Paul Ford used the example of an apple pie contest, with complex and extensive rules for what constitutes “apple pie” (can it include bacon?) and the specific roles of everyone and everything involved (apple farmers, bakers, judges, ice cream), as a metaphor for web content governance – and foisted upon us the term “pierarchy.” Yeah. It was that kind of a thing.

Kristina Halvorson delivering the opening keynote
Kristina Halvorson drops some content strategy learning on us. Yes, that’s a giant CONFAB of light on the stage.

Early the first morning, Confab mastermind Kristina Halvorson‘s opening keynote set the tone by running down the top ten things content strategists always hear from clients; the murmurs of recognition throughout the room demonstrated that even though we may work in very different organizations with very different projects and clients, we all face many of the same issues – for example, “we have too much content.” This is equally terrifying (I was hoping maybe somebody somewhere had the answers to everything? Sigh) and reassuring.

Jared Spool’s Day 2 keynote, “Experiencing Delightful Content,” was – if I had to choose – the highlight of the conference for me. (I say this with some reluctance, as there were multiple highlights and really the conference was more than the sum of its parts – it’s almost impossible to single out any one presentation without the context it gained from the other talks and the zeitgeist of the conference as a whole.) Spool talked about what it takes to make your web content go beyond “usable” to providing an experience of delight for your users. You can make your content “not suck,” he pointed out, but simply removing frustrations isn’t enough.

Making content delightful requires dancing at the convergence of a number of different aspects of user experience, as seen in this slide:

"Delightful Content Design" surrounded by its components
slide from Jared Spool’s keynote; photo by @editoriaLife

Many of the sessions I attended – including Corey Vilhauer’s “Empathy: Content Strategy’s Hidden Deliverable,” Amanda Costello’s “I Don’t Have Your Ph.D.: Creating Content with Experts and Specialists,” and Jonathan Kahn’s “Digital Governance Fails Because We’re Afraid of Cultural Change” – focused strongly on the “soft skills” of communication with users and content creators, project management, and change management. As Vilhauer noted, “content strategy is made of people!” Since a significant part of my job involves herding cats working with content creators throughout the Libraries, these sessions were tremendously helpful to me. Working with people is a huge part of the “strategy” in content strategy! In many ways these themes were what set the tone for the entire conference, as we were encouraged to listen, to become change agents, and to ask “why” at every turn. Katie Del Angel sums it up nicely in her blog post, “The Touchy-Feely Side of Content Strategy: #ConfabFeelings.”

Every session I attended, in fact, was helpful to me – but I was grateful for the Twitter backchannel, which allowed me to peek into some of the sessions I did not attend. Sometimes I got great nuggets though I probably missed out on some of the context within which they were presented, like this one re: the importance of structured content:

Watch this blog for future posts with more specifics about some of the sessions I attended, as I have time to write them up. (And feel free to fire up the official Confab Minneapolis 2013 playlist on Rdio as you read. It’s pretty cool.)

You can find slides from many of the Confab presentations on Slideshare.