Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Design on my mind

Last fall, a group of students in a market research class did a research project for our reference department. It was the sort of thing that we'd wanted to do for awhile, but lacked the wherewithal: surveying literature and students to gauge perceptions and get ideas and recommendations regarding our service. One advantage to being at a university is that you have all this brainpower at your disposal--not just the (considerable) faculty brainpower, but the students too, to whom you can provide opportunities for class projects and learning.

Anyway, among the recommendations--several of which we are implementing--was a redesign of the library website. I was a little tempted to skip this one at first, since we just did a redesign a couple of years ago: it was my first major project after starting here.

But I have to admit that while our library website is pretty good from an organizational and IA perspective, the design is, well, less visually interesting than it could be. And as I started looking at other library websites to get some ideas, I saw that for all we talk about the importance of making our Web presence engaging, easy to use, maybe even (dare I say it?) a little bit fun, most library websites--not to put too fine a point on it--suck.

I've never been a Web designer and have only a smattering of development experience, but I've been on the Web since 1995 and to be honest, most websites suck. Why is this so hard to get right?

Well, for one thing, there are a lot of different elements that go into making a good website. As librarians, we're really good at organizing information--that is, after all, a cornerstone of our profession--but most of us are not designers and we have an ongoing problem with presentation, which also manifests in our instructional settings and the physical layout of our buildings. A library doesn't have to look like a nightclub, and our websites need to resemble neither Google nor Facebook. But in addition to being well organized and functional, they should also be well designed.

This isn't only or even principally about aesthetics. I've seen some beautiful websites whose designs are entirely unsuitable for libraries--but I've also seen some exemplifying principles that library websites would do well to emulate. CSS Zen Garden provides plenty of examples of both, and is especially useful because it shows how many different ways you can display the same content. Some of those displays would work very well with the kind of content libraries provide.

So for the next while I'm going to be thinking about design. In a way, it's easier this time around because I know that the underlying organization of my library's website is solid, which wasn't necessarily the case before. It's also worth thinking about design as distinct from (though obviously necessarily related to) content, information architecture, technological feasibility, and implementation.

If you're contemplating a similar project, the best suggestion I can make at this point is to look beyond other library websites. Most of them suck, and most of them suck in the same ways, for a reason.

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