Homepage Content Strategy

Georgy Cohen recently wrote an article on Meet Content about developing a strategy for content on a homepage. It is often argued that a homepage isn’t as important today because of how a user accesses content. While this may be true for some websites, it is definitely a myth regarding academic library homepages.  A well-built academic library homepage creates a positive brand statement and efficiently guides the user towards the needed content through consistent “information scent”.  I think the following academic library homepages are noteworthy and are examples of well-organized content.

Harvard Libraries: This recently redesigned homepage put the search tool front and center, but also provides descriptions of library jargon and academic sources. Initially I didn’t know what HOLLIS was but beneath the search box a quick description described the resource. I was also drawn to the red icons in the right resources sidebar. This breaks up the text and draws attention to popular services.

Ithaca College Library: This homepage is one of my favorites because it is simple and efficient. This site only uses one drop down menu, while the rest of the toolbar resembles a mobile layout design, with key content, like books and articles, in large text. I was able to find the link to JSTOR in seconds.

Marygrove College Library: This homepage is one of the few academic libraries that efficiently uses drop down menus. There are also only three columns of text which cuts down on unnecessary front page content which can often be distracting from the main toolbar.

Northeastern University Libraries: This homepage also has a toolbar with numerous drop-down menus, but each item in the drop-down is paired with a one sentence description. This is most useful for the new library user or those unfamiliar with library jargon.

Thinking Outloud About User Trust

As a student keen on learning how the user-centered design process works, I’m intrigued by how we, as librarians and information professionals, think about websites as mechanisms that guide our users to the resources they want and need.  I think about this a great deal – as a user of library websites and as an aspiring user experience librarian/developer.

This is a lot to think about, due in part because the library has so many different users.  Not only do we have the faculty, graduate, undergraduate and walk-in users to consider, but also the library staff and their consequential roles as library users.  Here at DUX, we are in the process of rolling out a new catalog, IUCAT Beta, while at the same time working toward a complete library website redesign.  As part of this process, I think a lot about how these library tools will “successfully connect with every student, staff and faculty member to help them feel productive, enthusiastic and valued on every level of their encounter”?[1]

My mind reels.  In the good way.

I recently came across what I think is, a really poignant way to think about our multiple users’ needs: trust.  Provoked by a recent article on UX Mag by Ilana Westerman, I began looking at our library users as customers looking for a variety of products on a library website.  Her article illuminates the basic principle of user trust, through a case study that examined the ways in which a particular design for a healthcare plan website earned consumers’ trust.  The context of the website in the case study – a lot of detailed content used by numerous individuals with a variety of purposes – reminded me of our library users.

Adapting what Westerman outlines as trust for consumers, for library website users, trust might mean:

  1. The library website will do what it claims to do. A user has expectations that the website will live up to its claims, which are assumed to be accurate and unbiased.  For example, most people trust that when they hit the “Hours and Locations” menu item, they will navigate to a page that will show them the correct hours and location of the library.
  2. Information will be correct, complete, and unbiased. When users trust the information and choices presented, they are less likely to feel a need to go elsewhere.
  3. The library website has quality. Users want to feel confident in their choices and we all want to feel confident that our digital experiences are worthwhile and valuable.
  4. “I will be successful.” For library users, there must be a sense that if they follow a process through all required steps, their goals and intention will be met.

I think these four points are obvious in theory, but are difficult to put into practice, particularly when working to a vast array of user’s and needs.  Based on Westerman’s conclusions, and my own perspectives based on my experiences in the DUX department, I think a way to approach trust-building with library websites is through a thoughtful respect for the cognitive load put on the users of library websites.  We want to build websites and other library tools that build user confidence, not ones that burden users with irrelevant material and information, which renders them unsuccessful.

I’m still trying to find a productive space to work out my thoughts on user trust, so I encourage your thoughts and comments as I continue to think about how to construct dependable, quality library websites.  Meanwhile, my mind still reels.  In the good way.

[1] http://libraryux.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/ideal-team/

Misconceptions About Our Users

Here in DUX, we try to remember that everything we do should be for the benefit of library users and should be designed with those people in mind. (After all, the “User” is literally at the center of “Digital User Experience”!) What is sometimes harder to remember is that we don’t always know our users as well as we think we do.

For example, we think of undergrads as being tech-savvy, computer-literate, comfortable with maneuvering online. Right? To some extent this is true, but what we mean by “computer-literate” may not match up with the reality of the typical undergrad’s experience. I was working at the reference desk once while there were some general network issues on campus – specifically, due to some Microsoft updates, IE wasn’t working right as I recall. The workaround for this was, of course, to use Firefox instead of IE. But when undergrads came to the reference desk to report that “the internet isn’t working,” telling them to “use a different browser” was met with a completely blank stare more often than not. They knew how to maneuver around the Internet just fine, but the concept of “a browser” didn’t quite make sense to them. (And, 99 times out of 100, why should it? They sit down at the computer, the Internet is there, they get what they need…)

So it makes sense, when thinking about the people using your website or other electronic resources, to ask not only how “computer-savvy” they are but also to find out what terms they use and how they verbalize their understanding of how things work. Also, it’s helpful to find out how they use the tools they use. They may be perfectly comfortable clicking on links and moving from page to page on a website, but can we assume, for example, that most users will use control+F to locate specific words on a page? According to this enlightening article from Fast Company, we absolutely cannot – in fact, 90 percent of web users do not know how to use this helpful shortcut. (Thanks to IU’s IT Training folks for tweeting a link to this article!)

The moral of this story is: before you throw a huge long list of titles up on your web page, think about how people will actually use this list, and don’t assume they will just control+F their way through it. If you want them to stick around long enough to find what they need, offer some other way to search and navigate the list – perhaps a menu of anchor links at the top, or a Google custom search box, or something else that will work for the actual pepole who will be trying to use your site. In fact, before you put ANY content on your site, think about the people who will be using it and how they will be using it. It’s as simple – and as complicated – as that!

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 3

During my time as an undergrad, majoring in secondary education, one classroom in the education department of my small liberal arts college was outfitted with a shiny new SMARTBoard.  Its functions were highlighted briefly in an introductory education-technology course, and never mentioned again.  Little surprise, then, that I never once witnessed that piece of technology being used in lectures by instructors or in assignments by students.  At that time, the SMARTBoard was the new thing everyone wanted.  How can we be training teachers and not have a SMARTBoard for them to use? was, I imagine, the talking point that helped influence its purchase.  But without adequate training for faculty and students, it just gathered dust, while more classic technologies, like the overhead projector, remained popular.  Sadly, I still don’t really know how to operate a SMARTBoard, except in the most rudimentary ways, and never used one in my lessons while teaching.  While we know that technology is an integral part of the academic experience, it is important to be aware of trends not only in students’ technology needs but also in their skills.

The third theme explored by the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology is students’ belief that the use of technology in education impacts their future success.  They “generally agree that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes (75%), prepares them for future educational plans (74%), and prepares them for the workforce” (19).  But just because a student might, in his or her nonacademic life, covet, seek out, and consume the newest, coolest technologies, this does not mean he or she finds early adoption and proliferation of educational technologies all that useful.  Which leads us to Point 1: Students value skill development in regard to current technologies more than they value simply being exposed to the so-called newest and best technologies (19).

This is not to say old stuff is better.  Today’s students truly rely on technology.  ECAR respondents list flash drives (65%), laptops (85%), and printers (84%) as essential to their academic success (19-24).  As summarized in the second post in this series (https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/redux/ 2012/11/07/ undergrads-and-information-tech-part-2/), mobile devices are not going away, and it is a wise institution that works to fit them into the curriculum in engaging and pragmatic ways.  Yet students’ needs really aren’t so difficult to provide for when it comes to technology.  Interestingly, students said they want their instructors to employ “cutting-edge” technologies in the classroom, but when asked to define these technologies, those they listed “were neither new nor cutting edge by industry standards . . . such as smartboards, recorded lectures, and digital course materials” (24).

Point 2: “Students report that basic technologies have the greatest impact on their success . . . with technologies such as the institution’s library website and the course or learning management system being among the resources [they] use most” (19).  These are technologies students expect to use when they enter college, and they expect their instructors to make good use of them as well.  Increasingly, they also expect to use resources such as e-books and citation-management tools (e.g.,  OneNote and Zotero).  The use of e-books rose from 24% of respondents in 2010 to 70% in 2012, and the use of citation tools rose from 17% to 80 percent.  The biggest jump in technology use was seen in the use of e-portfolios, with 52% of respondents reporting using them—seven times the number (7%) using them in 2010 (21).  Looking at the rise in popularity of these types of resources, it is important to remember this point from the first post in this series (https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/ redux/2012/10/10/undergrads-and-information-tech-part-1/): the growing emphasis in educational technology should be not on individual devices (e.g., tablet vs. laptop) but on device-neutral applications.  If, for instance, every student finds e-books essential to academic success, such resources should be accessible to all, no matter the platforms or devices being used.

I appreciate that my undergraduate experience included at least a flirtation with what, at the time, were new instructional technologies.  But, the technologies that affected my day-to-day life as a student are many of those noted in the ECAR study.  I was instructed in the use of online databases and indexes and grew reliant on them.  A flash drive, printer, and laptop were certainly essential tools (they are still).  Had I received more instruction in the use of that SMARTBoard, I might have assimilated it, too, into my circle of necessary technology.  The study reveals students might desire newer, better tools in the classroom, but, when it comes down to it, they need support for those technologies they already use and that they believe will have the greatest impact on their success, both in school and after graduation.

Citation: Dahlstrom, E. (2012, September).  ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology.  Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 2

Remember the olden days when families had a communal computer—a grayish behemoth perched in some corner of the living room—and a person really had to fight to get a chance to play a game of solitaire, practice some typing with Mavis Beacon, or dial up to do some web surfing with the help of AltaVista?  Okay, maybe that was just my adolescence.  I admit I am in no way a techie.  I’m not an early adopter.  But, since those early days, I’ve burned through several desktops and laptops, of various brands and with various attendant apps.  Just a few months ago, I convinced myself I couldn’t live without a Google Nexus 7.  Truly, though, this tablet often makes my grad-school experience just a little less trying.  As a perpetual college student since about 2003—with a couple years spent teaching high school—I understand intimately the intersection of technology and instruction.  When it comes to technology, students will always have something newer, something different, and they will be using it for academic purposes.

The second theme (you can read about the first theme here, in my previous blog post: https://blogs.libraries.iub.edu/redux/2012/10/10/undergrads-and-information-tech-part-1/) of the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology addresses this point: The technologies already used by students are diverse and prolific, especially in regard to mobile devices.  “Nearly all students own a laptop, and more students in 2012 than in previous years own handheld mobile device such as tablets, smartphones, and e-readers.  There is diversity in brands and operating systems among these devices, and consequently there is a growing need for device neutrality of apps designed for these mobile technologies” (12).  If there ever was a time that all students owned and used the same technologies, it has passed.  While I’m downloading my course readings to my Nexus, my classmates are downloading to Kindle Fires and iPads and everything else.  Educators must embrace and prepare for such technological diversity among users.

Here’s how the device ownership and use breaks down:

Point 1: Laptops are the most popular device, with 9 out of 10 students owning one.  Of these laptop owners, 76% use PCs and 21% use Macs.  Interestingly, younger students and those enrolled at 4-year colleges prefer Macs, and community-college students are less likely than their four-year counterparts to own any laptop (13).

Point 2: Tablet and e-reader ownership is on the rise.  Fifteen percent of respondents own a tablet and 12% own an e-reader.  Tablet users prefer iPads (57%) to Android devices (25%), and e-reader owners prefer Kindles (59%) to Nooks (24%).  But whether the student owns a tablet or an e-reader, make no mistake: she/he is most likely going to use the device for some academic purpose; 67% of tablet owners and 47% of e-reader owners responded they use their devices in this way (14).

Point 3: Smartphones are de rigeur when it comes to mobile devices.  Smartphone ownership grew from 55% in 2011 to 62% in 2012.  Along with the rise in ownership comes a rise in the number of these students who use their phones for things other than, say, texting or taking Instagram pics of their lunch.  “Nearly twice as many [respondents] in 2012 (67%) than in 2011 (37%) reported using their smartphone for academic purposes” (14).  This is a trend educators would be wise to keep in mind when considering how best to deliver content.

So, what do students do with all these mobile devices? 

Point 4: In this relatively early stage in the integration of education and mobile computing, emphasis is still very much on consumption rather than production.  That is, a student will readily and easily use her/his tablet to download course materials, read articles, search for content, check grades, and correspond with instructors and fellow students.  Fortunately, respondents seem satisfied with their learning institutions’ ability to deliver for consumptive purposes.  Seventy-three percent are happy with reportage of academic progress (i.e., grades); 70% with delivery of course content (17).

There remains, however, a vast and untouched frontier when it comes to mobile devices and production.  Writing papers and producing other academic work is still cumbersome, if not impossible, on some devices or with some platforms.  The study offers this important caveat: “Unless and until tablets become easier to use for producing required coursework, they will remain somewhat marginal in the academic world” (16).  While use of mobile devices for academic purposes will probably continue to grow, a question of further study might ask to what end?

Citation: Dahlstrom, E. (2012, September).  ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology.  Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

Remotely Researching: Worth a Shot?

A few weeks ago, I attended the LITA National Forum in Columbus, Ohio.  For my first library conference experience, I was gleefully overwhelmed with the wealth of ideas and projects shared by the conference participants and presenters.  (Confession: I am a nerd.  There, I said it.)  Looking over my excitedly scribbled notes, I sought out one of the many titles that had been suggested to read.  On a personal note: I always promise myself to read what others suggest to me, so I felt good about finally following through.

Remote Research: Real Users, Real Time, Real Research proved to live up to the hype.  Not only is it well-written, sharing a vast knowledge in a succinct and organized way, it leaves room for you to explore your ideas about prospective user research projects.  But before I start gushing like a love-struck teenager, let me describe what the authors, Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathaimutte, mean when they talk about remote research.

Simply put, remote research is a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods that make use of Internet tools to do user research on participants who are in another location.  This kind of research allows you to test almost anywhere at some reduced cost (Nate and Tony cover the pros and cons of remote research costs in a dedicated chapter).  Remote research can also provide geographic diversity in results as it observes users where they are, not as they come to you.

What I believe to be the most valuable aspect of remote research is that it is time-aware.  As Nate and Tony point out, “Remote research opens the door to conducting research that also happens at the moment in people’s real lives when they’re performing a task of interest.”  Through live-recruiting, you can get results from users who are invested in what they are doing on your website or interface because they are there for their own reasons.

Sounds amazing, right?  Yet, even as I’m gobbling Nate and Tony’s ideas down, the ever-skeptical part of me begins to rain on my proverbial parade.  What about watching the users’ expressions and observing them during their task?  How does the level of abstraction from the user created by remote research generate empathy for the user?

I wasn’t the only one who had these kinds of doubts – and that’s the beauty of this book.  Much like other books published by Rosenfeld Media,  Remote Research is written in such a way that prompts you, the reader, with in-text case studies, notes, tips, and guest author features that share experiences on what works and what doesn’t.

Nate and Tony also share scripts for how to recruit users and sample elicitation approaches, which gives a context for the remote research methods they describe in detail throughout the book.  They also provide tables that explain the various pros and cons of research tools and software, as they relate to how much time and money you have to spend on your research, as well as system requirements and reliability.

Nate and Tony’s work has given me a lot to think about in terms of how we at DUX might be able to conduct user research for our library website re-design and our new Blacklight catalog.  For whatever phase of a UX research project you’re, or stage in your UX career, I highly recommend delving into this book.  Not only does it get the wheels turning, it provides excellent resources for thinking outside of the user research box.

Undergrads and Information Tech: Part 1

The other day, on my way up to DUX, I shared the elevator with a couple undergrads who were heading to the 5th-floor group-study lab.  It’s impossible not to eavesdrop on others’ elevator conversations, even when I pretend to be deeply absorbed in some highly important text message I’m composing or in staring at my own, blurry, reflection in the elevator’s interior metal doors.  The young women were complaining about a class they’re taking whose instructor relies too heavily—in their estimation—on online, rather than traditional face-to-face, instruction.  The quizzes, tests, assignments, and lectures are conducted mostly online, they lamented, feeling this detrimental to both their engagement and success with the material.  This is just anecdotal, of course, but it speaks to a real concern: the ways in which technology is integrated into the learning environment impact all aspects of students’ academic performance.

Enter the ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, an annual survey (conducted by EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, a nonprofit association of IT professionals interested in technology’s role in higher education) that seeks to “create a profile of undergraduate students’ ownership and use of technology for academics, to identify ways that technology helps them achieve their academic outcomes, and to assess their perceptions of how well institutions and instructors use technology to enhance the academic experience” (p. 4).  Because adopting new technologies and developing curriculum demands a major investment of time, energy, and money, the study’s secondary objective is to encourage institutions to use the collected data to make informed decisions when planning for technology.

The size of ECAR’s study sample is in no way slim; in 2012, it surveyed approximately 100,000 students from 195 academic institutions (including IUB), hoping both to identify trends in and discover topical and emerging issues related to students’ technology use.  The full report is worth reading; it delves into demographics data (e.g., users’ perceptions and behaviors broken down by sex, race, enrollment status, etc.) that space limitations won’t allow me to highlight here.  This post, though, will outline some of the more salient points, spread across what researchers identified as four recurrent themes.  I will cover the first theme here, and the other three in subsequent posts.

Theme 1: Students expect and value blended learning environments.

  • Point 1: It’s no surprise that today’s undergrads, seemingly born Internet-connected and with cell phone in hand, say educational environments that include both an online and a traditional classroom component best suit their learning styles and needs.  Seventy percent surveyed say it is in these mixed-modality settings that they can be most successful.  Three quarters of students surveyed have taken a course with some online component, and classes that combine both traditional and nontraditional modalities are especially attractive to nontraditional students; the study reveals that “more students age 25 or greater (older students) than younger students preferred classes with online components” (p. 7).
  • Point 2: The number of courses offered completely online is growing as well.  “In fact, twice as many students are taking online courses in 2012 (31%) than in 2008 (15%)” (p. 8).  With more online course offerings, students often have greater access to educational opportunities.  Many students surveyed take classes concurrently at more than one institution or take a combination of campus- and online-based classes.
  • Point 3: They expect their instructors to step up to the plate and use technology in a way that is engaging and academically supportive.  One particularly interesting statistic reveals students’ satisfaction regarding this concern: “More students than ever gave positive marks for their instructors’ use of technology.  Two years ago, less than half (47%) reported that most or almost all of their instructors effectively use technology to advance students’ academic success, whereas this year more than two-thirds (68%) said that is the case” (p. 9).
  • Point 4: Students’ expanding use of portable computing devices and social-networking leads to the assumption they should be able to connect with their learning institution and instructors via similar channels.  A majority of students (67%) use things like their school’s website, online tutoring sessions, and email to feel connected (p. 10).
  • Point 5: Students would like to see an increase in instructors using Open Educational Resources (OERs) and Game-Based Learning.  These numbers have rocketed in just a year.  Respondents desiring the inclusion of freely available content from OERs to support their learning grew from just 19% in 2011 to 57% in 2012.  Similarly, those wishing simulations and learning games would become a regular part of the classroom grew from 15% in 2011 to 55% in 2012 (p. 12).

Although students expect technology to be integrated into their learning environment, they also expect it to be used effectively.  The young students I encountered in the elevator, sighing exasperatedly as they commiserated over the unhelpful inclusion of technology in their class, are testament to this.  Further parts of the ECAR study, which I will discuss in upcoming posts, look at the varied technological devices, platforms, and tools students are using, as well as the ways in which they want to use them when it comes to education.

Citation: Dahlstrom, E. (2012, September).  ECAR study of undergraduate students and information technology.  Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERS1208/ERS1208.pdf

The Left Behind User

I recently came across an article on the UIE website (or rather, the article came to me from a colleague) by Jared Spool entitled, “The User We’ve Left Out: The Content Governor”. Even as a newbie in the UX realm, I already know a commentary from Jared is worth the read. The opening paragraph immediately rallied my curiosity:

One of the biggest sins an experience designer can commit is to leave an important user out from the design process. If we don’t even recognize the needs of the user, we can’t design great solutions for them. It’s even worse when that user is critical to making the design effective for everyone.

The user to which Jared is referring is the content governor. This is the person who makes sure a website’s information is up-to-date, needs replacing or a good housecleaning. I’m sure many of us have been charged with governing a website that was designed without the content governor’s role in mind.

I run a number of websites in my quest to gain professional experience with information architecture that encourages interaction, writing web content, and working with code. When I work with these sites, my frustration mounts as I deal either with the lack of templates within the page structure or with pages that have strict templates that don’t fit the needs of the content, i.e. a block of text cannot be anything but a block of text. I also become frustrated when I attempt to update a footer, only to find that it is not consistent across all the pages of the site domain. These experiences are challenging because the contexts in which I’m working weren’t created with someone like me, the content governor, in mind.

Jared highlights some important thinking points that have encouraged me to explore how we understand not only the what and why of user experience, but the who. I think this is an important consideration to make: When we design, we must consider the user experience all of the “whos” in our Whoville, whether they are traditional users, those who maintain the website, as well as those who will inherit it.

There are several ways to do this.  For example, Jared points out a need to consider how the design of a CMS interface makes it simple create and manage content. He also suggests a requisite for tools that help content governors, as well as designers and content creators to manage meaningful metadata.

I’d also like to suggest a tool that is often left out and forgotten: commenting in code. Leaving a comment, even as simple as an initialed last updated tag, makes for a streamlined, far less frustrating user experience for the content governor. Leaving comments in code also helps keep communication between multiple users of a site’s content, such as designers, programmers, and content governors, in one place that’s hard to overlook.

Read the article for yourself here, and please leave comments with your suggestions on how to create a better user experience for the content governor.



Web Content Strategy for Libraries

I didn’t go to ALA Annual this year, but if I had, I would probably have tried to go to the LITA preconference about web content strategy. As we look towards our upcoming website redesign/migration, we are actively thinking about our content and how best to present it for our users. Those of you who attended my Writing for the Web presentation at the Libraries’ In-House Institute, or who read my blog post summarizing that presentation, are familiar with Kristina Halvorson’s definition of content strategy:

Content strategy plans for the creation, publication, and governance of useful, usable content.

The ALA preconference sounds like it was a good introduction to content strategy as it applies to organizations and websites like ours, and to how it should be implemented from the very beginning of the design/redesign process. Presenters Christopher Evjy and Nina McHale have posted their slides, and they are worth at least a quick look:

Opening slide of Web Content Strategy slideshow
This image will take you to the slideshow

As always, I am interested in any feedback, questions, opinions, or chocolate! (Just checking to see if you were paying attention, there.)


Content Strategy: It’s what librarians already do.

"This Is Very Important" is painted on a bench.I have very little to add to this article but wanted to link it here because it is so, so good. As my colleagues know I have been on the content strategy soapbox of late, especially in light of our imminent website re-architecting/redesign. I’ve also been known to quote Ranganathan at unexpected moments, because his Five Laws of Library Science are still incredibly relevant to everything that we do to serve our users (and frankly, also because it’s nice that something I learned about in library school is still relevant – as opposed to, say, the pre-CSS HTML I spent hours hammering away upon!).

So when I came across this article on the (always excellent) Brain Traffic blog by content strategist (and former academic librarian) Claire Rasmussen, in which she looks at the Five Laws and applies them to the work of content strategy, I found myself bouncing in my chair with excitement. (Yes, I am a huge nerd. This is firmly established. Can we move on?) Librarians who create content for the web should read this and consider how the principles of content strategy can help us to achieve the basic goals and principles for which librarianship was developed in the first place. It’s what we already do, and content strategy will help us do it on our website too.

So read this, please, and if you have comments I’d love to hear them!

Do It Like a Librarian: Ranganathan for Content Strategists


 [image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/290711738/]