*Blows dust off blog*
Since finishing up with the 23 Research Things project, I’ve mostly been taking work as a Web Editor and Developer for a different part of the University. What does this have to do with librarianship, you may ask?
Well, it’s all information, and it’s all about connecting people with the knowledge and resources they need. Online resources are a crucial part of just about any information profession, and the skills of one are easily applicable to others. Obviously, most (all?) libraries have websites where they present information about their services, and libraries may manage all sorts of other online resources too. So what have I learned in my six months or so of working in the wonderful world of web management?
Content is king
Websites are usually the first port of call for people looking up information about a particular organisation or service. But websites are often either under- or over-designed. Under design would include not having links, or navigation menus (or much information at all) etc, while an over designed site has loads of images, videos, embedded social media feeds, scrolling news carousels…and information overload.
What users want when they come to a site is clear, accessible, accurate content. In conducting some market research, the one thing that stood out was that people want to know information about the University, the courses, and how to apply. Everything else is nice to have, but this needs to be nailed down first.
The medium is the message
Content online cannot simply be a recapitulation or clone of printed content elsewhere. This is because users’ expectations and behaviour online are different than they are in print. A printed university prospectus, for instance, is not the same thing as an online course directory, and they will not be used in the same way.
Online content gives you the freedom to move things around, include links to other sites, embed audio-visual content and generally make things more flowing and interactive than you can in print. The flipside of that is that people online will generally skim through a site, perhaps clicking to other tabs, reading them, flicking back and forth, rather than sitting and reading the whole thing. This means that your most important content needs to be front and centre, easy to find and obvious to see at a glance.
It goes without saying, but content developed for a particular medium needs to be developed for that medium. Website content, social media posts, videos, podcasts, printed guides, all serve a different purpose, reach different audiences and do different jobs. So your content has to be different too, at least in presentation, even if it’s covering the same topics.
The map is the terrain
Navigation of websites is, in my experience, the single most complained about feature of web design/development from our users. Breadcrumb trails, sidebar links, drop down menus, sub-pages, headers, footers, all of these supposedly helpful ways of navigating can become thoroughly confusing. If a user can’t get to what they need within three clicks, they will go elsewhere.
It’s worth doing a bit of research to see how people are using your site, either via Google analytics or another similar bit of software that you can grab the HTML for and stick it into your site’s source code. This will enable you to see how people are navigating the terrain, so you can simplify and update your map accordingly. If people are clicking on images that are not linked up, for instance, you can make those images into links.
Personally I favour a top-bar menu with drop-downs in each category, but that’s my aesthetic. But whatever method of navigation you use, this is how people will be able to find (or not find) the content you want to direct them to. So direct them. Keep it simple and you can’t go too far wrong.
Websites are not static. Once one is set up and populated with content, images, and all the bells and whistles, it is not “Done”. Content needs updating, things go out of date (shout out to all websites still advertising 2016 entry), and images soon look dated, especially if they show supposedly “current” students in hideous 90s fashion.
A website is not a document, it is a living ecosystem of knowledge, and it needs tending, pruning and updating. A clunky old-looking site may actually be worse than no site at all, as it sends the wrong message to your user.
The ghost in the machine
Tech fails. No matter what it is, or how well it is managed, it will crash at some point, or show funky error messages with helpful descriptions like “Error X456: Something went wrong”. So, if you aren’t doing this already (and I know a lot of librarians are), consider learning a bit of IT. HTML, CSS and how to find your way around whatever content management system your organisation uses (eg Drupal) should be enough for day-to-day maintenance and troubleshooting. You can learn cool coding stuff later, and gain some l33t h4x0r sk1llz (sorry). Oh, and get to know your IT folk. They’ll be more likely to fix things quickly if you know their names and are nice to them. Srsly.