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Library Websites Should be Smaller

The Benefits of Less
Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a daring pilot and talented author, also weighed in on user experience:

“In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

In some ways, libraries have been taking the opposite approach. We’ve gotten in the habit of tacking on new services and taking on new responsibilities, and many library websites can be seen as piecemeal collections of patron engagement tactics.

The problem of more
More content necessitates more design decisions and therefore more opportunity to make mistakes. Every piece of content on a website makes the site more complicated. For example, think about a single-page website with no links. The site’s architecture is really basic. Adding just one more page requires design decisions: Where should the link to the new page be? Could it be an image? Should it open in a new window? (By the way: no.)

Groups of content end up in different sections and require increasingly sophisticated architecture, labeling, navigation, and visual design. It isn’t impossible to get all of these things right, but more often than not patrons feel like they’re trying to find a needle in a haystack.

More content thins out our efforts. It sounds simple, but the more things a library tries to do, the less attention it can devote to any one thing. Without the attention they deserve, web content and services can’t be as effective as they should be.

The benefits of less
There are two ways to increase the amount of attention the bits of a website receive: either by increasing staffing and funding, or reducing the number of bits. An extreme example: imagine if your web team was only responsible for the page consisting of your library’s contact information, location, and one book recommendation per week. They’d be able to spend plenty of time on this page, testing, experimenting, and revising regularly. It would be a great page.

For years, I’ve heard talk about libraries cutting the cord on irrelevant services. Yet I haven’t heard as much discussion about which sacred web cows we can put out to pasture. This might in part be owing to the perception that a 200-page website isn’t more expensive to manage than a 50-page one. While probably true in terms of hosting fees, it isn’t otherwise true. Good content takes staff time to produce and arrange, and the navigational overhead can be a time expenditure for users.

I’m not suggesting that libraries shouldn’t try new things or add content to their sites. They should. Still, the library world needs to start a dialog about an additional way to prevent stagnation: subtraction.

How to reduce
Paring down website content certainly presents its own challenges, but determining your site’s critical tasks—the most frequent and important things people want to do there—isn’t difficult.

Ask library users. Walk around your library, or anywhere in your community, and ask, “What do you do on the library’s website?” Challenge yourself to engage up to 30 people and record their responses. Group all similar comments and rank them according to frequency. You can also put a short pop-up survey on your site asking the same question.

Another way to brainstorm the most important parts of your website is to imagine you’re building a mobile version. Given the limited screen real estate available, what parts of your site are essential?

Your site’s analytics might also help, but they can be tricky to interpret. Page hits don’t tell us much about motivation for visiting pages. They might get skipped either because the content isn’t interesting or because something is hampering findability.

While a lack of visits doesn’t necessarily mean a page isn’t valuable, it does mean that it probably won’t be missed. Use these stats judiciously. Once you’ve determined the most important things to have on your site, consider the rest nice to have but not necessary.

Shrinking pains
It’s a good idea to arrive at these conclusions collaboratively because it might not be easy for someone to hear that something they work on can’t be supported anymore. You also can’t promise staff that they’re going to have all sorts of free time once things are scaled back.

The goal here is to make your website and services the absolute best they can be. That means you’ll be spending what would be free time prototyping and testing revisions of your most important content.

This first appeared in The User Experience, a column I’m writing for LJ.