We’re approaching 600 libraries in the 1,000 library website review, and what’s shaping up to be one of the most significant findings arises from something that we HAVEN’T seen.  A sizable majority (more than 80%)  of the sites reviewed thus far do not have a solution for patrons accessing the web with mobile devices.

As recently as two or three years ago, most people browsed the web using desktop computers connected to monitors roughly the size of a small television.  That was then – this is now.  A Pew Research Center study found that as of April 2012, 55% of cell phone owners access the internet on their mobile phones – nearly double the percentage found in a similar study three years earlier – and the trend line was not slowing .  When coupled with the proliferation of internet-connected tablets (iPads, Google Nexus, Kindle Fire, etc), the fact is that desktop internet access is now less common than mobile access….an amazing change in an amazingly short period of time.

What does this mean to a public library?  It means that if your library’s site is not designed to  accommodate smaller viewing screens, it is becoming less accessible to a growing percentage of your patrons.  Sure, your site may be viewable in a mobile device, but the text is probably too small to read and navigation buttons too tiny to use without constant zooming and scrolling left, right, up, and down.  How many of you allow your full-sized site to be so wide that users have to scroll from side to side just to read something?  No one, right?  Well if you don’t have a mobile solution, about half of your site visitors are forced to do that constantly.  Sooner or later (probably sooner), the result is going to be a reduction in site traffic.

So what are your options?  Broadly speaking, there are three, and at least two of them are not as complicated as you might think.  You can:

a) create a separate site or separate set of web pages designed specifically for small mobile screens,

b) make your current site ‘responsive’, which means that it will automatically change the way the information and navigation is presented depending upon the size of the user’s viewing screen, or

c) create mobile ‘apps’ specifically designed to be installed on individual smartphones and tablets.

Option A is far better than doing nothing.  Option B is ideal.  Option C is good, too, but may be beyond the reach of most small and mid-sized libraries.

In the next one or two posts, I’ll explore each of these options a bit further.  In the meantime, feel free to comment if you know of other solutions.

Check Out an Expert

Thanks to all those who have been patiently waiting for an update on our 1,000 library review project. The demands of summer reading program updates and a rush of libraries seeking assistance with upgrading their sites have taken center stage for the past few months, but we’re back on track now, and should be able to complete the review and post the results by the end of September.

Regular posts from the review process will begin again next week. This post represents a temporary departure from that, and contains a quick review of a program offered by a library in New Hampshire that has triggered many questions to our staff about what the program is, and how it is managed.

The program is called “Check Out an Expert”, and here’s the background:

The idea was to have the library facilitate connections between people who needed assistance or training in a particular area, and members of the community who (on a volunteer basis) were qualified and interested in providing that assistance or training. In the same way that patrons could visit the library to check out a book, they could also ‘check out’ some time with the expert.

Step one was to identify areas where members of the community might have a need for information or training. It was basically a brainstorming session with library staff, and here are a few of the subject areas that were identified: resumes and job hunting, Facebook, knitting, organizing, birding / feeder tips, bass fishing, flower arranging, basic accounting / use of Quickbooks, etc.

Step two was the identification of ‘experts’ in each of these areas. The library didn’t advertise, but instead relied on personal connections to find people who were qualified and interested in volunteering their time. By handling it this way, the library was better able to manage the process, and avoid having to turn away or reject experts who might not be up to the task.

Finally, the process was defined. All meetings between experts and those seeking assistance were to be held at the library – there would be no off-site or in-home visits. Library staff are the intermediaries, accepting ‘Interest Applications’ from members of the public who are seeking the advice or training, and then contacting the designated expert to arrange a convenient time. Most sessions are individually arranged, with the exception of the computer expert who appears for a specific time each week, and with whom patrons can ‘check out’ 30-minute periods – first come, first serve. And last but not least, the program materials provide a clear disclaimer stating that the library and the experts are not responsible for any damages or risks undertaken as a result of advice provided by the experts.

Granted, this program is better managed in smaller communities where library staff are perhaps more closely connected with patrons and can more easily identify qualified community members who may be willing to serve. It also takes time to set up, and time to manage. It is, however, a great way to expand the reach of the library and connect people with the information they need.

Thanks for staying tuned, and we’ll be back next week with a resumption of the 1,000 library review process.

Soooooo Many Choices!!!

Have you ever been to a restaurant that had a twenty page menu?   Almost everything you could think of was on that menu – from seafood to hot dogs, salads to ice creams, soup to nuts.  Big glossy pictures, seven varieties of everything.  What should be a simple choice becomes a major project as you work through page after page.  But you’ve already made a significant investment – you’ve parked the car, waited for a table, maybe ordered coffee or a drink.  Plus you’re hungry.  So you’re invested, and motivated, and even though the menu might be confusing, it would be far too difficult to go somewhere else.

Now think of a visitor to your library’s website.  They have no similar investment, and there are virtually no barriers to a quick departure.  It took one click to get here, and it will take one click to leave.  Sure, they might want to see if you have a particular book, or find out if you’re open, so there is some level of motivation.  But with virtually no additional effort, they could just pick up the phone and call you instead.  With one or two clicks, they could zip on over to Amazon and be reading the book on their Kindle or  PC in less than five minutes.  Statistics show that most people will spend about 20 seconds or less on your home page before deciding whether to stick around or move on.

As we pass the halfway mark in the 1,000 library site review, we’re focusing on how library websites are responding to this reality, and it seems like the most common approach is to stick with the 20-page menu.  Put as much information on the home page as possible.  Links here, menus there, fold-outs, drop-downs, scrolling messages, textual links, clickable images, big headlines, small print.  In an effort to make sure nothing is overlooked, and / or to make everything accessible with as few clicks as possible, we end up overwhelming the presentation.

Here’s an interesting exercise.  Take a look at your library’s home page, including all of your content and each of your navigational menu buttons, and see how much of what you present there falls into one of the following five categories:

1.  Manage my account.
2.  Find a book, ebook, music, or video.
3.  Check out upcoming events or activities.
4.  Do some research or homework.
5.  Learn more about the library, or contact library staff.

Feel free to tweak the list and come up with your own five categories, or add a sixth category for “Other”, but based on what we’re seeing, my guess is that between 80 to 90% of a typical library’s web content would be covered by this list.

So…what if your entire home page content consisted of just those five links?

I realize I’m taking it to an extreme, and that legitimately, you will include at least some other content, along with some aesthetic design components (graphics, color schemes, images).  But I’m beginning to think that a home page that sticks fairly closely to a clear and simple presentation of five or six foundational information categories will ultimately lead to a higher level of engagement and service.  This page would be backed up by pages that slowly unfold more layers of information and complexity as the user clicks through.  Yes, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says we need to help people get to their destination with as few clicks as possible, but I don’t think that’s as important as it once may have been. Clicking or touching the screen takes just a second, and if I can see a clear, understandable path, I’m more than willing to invest that time, especially when compared to the five minutes it would take to comprehend a page that tries to show me everything at once.

This is just my opinion.  There are pros and cons to any approach, and exceptions to everything, but I’d sure be interested in your thoughts on this….

Research, Reference, Paid, Subscription, Professional….

One of the challenges that all libraries face is how best to draw attention to, promote, and explain their research databases.

The most common method is to simply include a link within the website’s navigational menu that leads off to a list of the databases. One major problem with this approach is that it limits us to a one or two-word description. The most common are “Databases”, or “Reference Databases”, or “Research Databases”, and I would venture to guess that these words don’t do the job. They don’t explain or attract.

We’ve seen some better examples. The Thayer Memorial Library in Massachusetts puts the words “Better Than Google” into their site menu instead of “Databases”. The East Baton Rouge Public Library in Louisiana presents some of their databases within a website section entitled “Digital Library”, which provides a more self-explanatory context. The Kalamazoo Public Library in Michigan mixes links to paid databases in with a host of other reference resources which again, provides a better and more self-explanatory context.

The initial notice about these databases is, however, just the beginning. Regardless of how you’ve chosen to draw initial attention to the databases, what happens next is just as important. What we’re finding is that many library sites simply deliver the user to a login screen, with little or no explanation of what the databases are for, why they are valuable, how they can help, etc.

I’d be interested in your thoughts or ideas. In the meantime, we are over 300 sites into our 1,000 library site review. As we continue, we’ll pay particular attention to the database question and will also look into the tools that database vendors like EBSCO and Gale provide to help draw attention to and explain their products.

A fast lane, a slow lane, and a really great road sign.

As we pass the 200 website review mark, we’ve seen some great examples of how the library’s site can be used to draw attention and connect customers to ebook and audiobook collections.

It starts with a great road sign, and in this case, that means the link to EBooks isn’t buried within a dropdown menu somewhere. Instead, there is a nice big graphic on the library’s home page that uses plain language and points to the way forward. roadsign4The best sites are using something other than a standard link provided by the vendor. From the perspective of a library customer, which of these two options is clearer?

1. EBooks powered by OverDrive
2. Check out an Ebook! Click here…

If I’m cruising down the highway at 65 mph – especially if I’m new here – option 2 works better for me. It’s clear, concise, and points me in the right direction.

OK – so we’ve taken the EBook exit. What’s next? The best sites are those that provide both a fast lane and a slow lane.

The slow lane is a web page or pages that cater to first-time ebook visitors and / or those that aren’t yet comfortable with the process. It provides basic background information about the library’s ebook / audiobook service along with links to instructions, guides, and help files.

The fast lane bypasses all those basic things, and let’s me cruise right into the ebook collection.

Let’s see – what else could benefit from a fast lane, a slow lane, and a really great road sign? Hmmm…how about the dreaded “Reference Databases”????

Where we’re headed…

A few words about where this 1,000 library site review is headed.

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more information-sharing amongst libraries with respect to maximizing the effectiveness of their website and online services.

On the subject of public library websites, most of the advice and counsel that I’ve seen from library associations – local, state and national – seems to focus on suggesting specific platforms, (Drupal, WordPress, others) – and frankly, much of that advice seems geared towards larger libraries with either a dedicated technology person or a staff member that has tech skills and a lot of extra time.

I’ve seen little, if any, practical advice on how to actually present your information on the page, or how to organize your site most effectively. Which is odd, because there are so many similar things that each library does on their site – such as provide a window into their research databases, or present upcoming events, or highlight new materials. It seems like the industry should be able to develop some simple, straightforward guidelines.

This review represents our contribution towards filling that void. When completed, we’ll be turning out a list of best practices, and some specific advice on how to organize, display, and provide access to the information on your website – regardless of which underlying content management system you use. For those libraries that do use our services, we’ll be incorporating the findings into your library website templates and authoring systems.

So – thanks for following along. If you know of other libraries that might benefit from the results of this 1,000 site review, I would appreciate your sharing the address with them.  In the end, hopefully everyone will benefit – libraries, staff, patrons.
We’ll have more updates next week as we cross the 200 site mark, and will be posting a few polls to get your opinions on specific design questions.

Not pretty…but functional

On the path towards 1,000 library website reviews, I came across one that was about as basic as basic could be. It looked like it was designed about 10 years ago, maybe 15. Quite frankly, it was ugly. But as I was beginning to summarize its ugliness in our review notes, something struck me. As ugly as it was, as basic as it was, many of the really core things were immediately accessible – right there, front and center. Links to the catalog, a short list of upcoming events (albeit out of date), links to downloadable ebooks, to an event calendar (again, out of date), and to a list of hours and locations. The site was ugly and stark, but easy.

And then this…it had a little Facebook “Like” widget on the home page that showed over 400 people had “liked” the page. I’ve seen sites for communities 10 times as large as this, sites with good, eye-catching designs and colors, that would kill for that number.

The message from this site was….simplicity and ease of use are more important than a professionally designed color scheme and site layout. We’ve seen plenty of sites that look great at first glance, some even very artistic…but when you start to actually USE them, they turn out to be confusing, or difficult to navigate.

Sure, it would be best to have it all, and a clean and pleasing design should actually facilitate ease of use. But if something’s got to give, let the colors and fancy design features go first. What’s left might not be pretty, but it works. And in the end, isn’t that the most important thing?


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