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Evolution of a Website

Because I’m working on my “fourth year”* tenure and retention** file, I’ve been reflecting, lately, on the progress I’ve made while here. And, in particular—unsurprisingly—I wanted to see what kinds of changes the website has undergone.

I didn’t do a great job of grabbing screen captures, early on, so this is not a perfect reflection of every step in the site’s progress. I know there’s an intermediate step between the first two, where “More »” went away, and a Site Search popped up beside Site Index, briefly, among other things. My note-taking, back then, was good enough to confirm that much, but not good enough to clarify what other changes first showed up in what I’ll call “the missing screenshot.”

Also, obviously, these front-page changes don’t really show off all of the changes to underlying pages that made them possible. I suppose I could do a separate post about those. When I do the writeup in my file, those will get their share of attention.

Without further adieu…

This is roughly the page we had when I started. Notice the “Distance Learners’ Edition” (one of my first assignments was moving that into our CMS—it was a good learning experience), “QuickSearch” in the “Articles” box, and “More »” at the bottom of the boxes.

By fall semester of 2010, we had given up on the separate page for distance students—the content was redundant with the rest of the site and wasn’t being used enough for us to keep it up to date. Honestly, we weren’t even using it for phone and IM reference transactions with distance learners. Since we had started working with social media, we added Facebook and Twitter icons to that spot. We also experimented with a “Spotlight” area, where we could feature a single resource or service.

“Worldcat [new] | [old]” was a compromise with my colleagues, who liked the FirstSearch interface better than WorldCat Local (just the QuickStart version), but who agreed that we should also link the version OCLC would be updating, supporting, and eventually keeping, when they inevitably pull FirstSearch (at some as yet undetermined time?). WorldCat Local, by the way, ate a lot of my time in early 2010.

“Ebooks” was (is) an ongoing pilot of Serials Solutions’ ebook search interface. I don’t love it; it’s mostly just a title search. But we made the choice to get it before we got Summon, and since not every ebook makes it into our catalog, it was definitely the right call at the time. We could probably revisit the decision at some point in the future, though.

QuickSearch 2.0 is Summon. It had massive linking errors, when we first got it (and still does, if you’re searching things in LexisNexis, grumble grumble), so, while we put it on the front page, we did so in a way that was probably too subtle. Yes, it was bright orange, but we got feedback from students that they didn’t even notice it, or didn’t know what it was for, so they moved right past it, to use the rest of the site.

We felt like “More »” made the site look cluttered. We experimented with taking them off, and Google Analytics showed that people still got into the sub-pages just fine. The headers were obviously clickable, to at least a large percentage of our users.

(I think there is another missing screenshot here. I remember trying to add YouTube to the Facebook and Twitter spot, anyway.)

I did some user testing, just with our library students (who varied from completely new to the whole site to having attended several library instruction sessions and using it like an expert), to figure out how best to deal with Find Books and Find Articles being a little too restrictive, in a post-Summon world. Most of our testing was on the sub-page, but we did get some feedback that informed front page changes, as well. The solution we came up with was what you see below, a combined box with pretty much the same links that the Books and Articles boxes had previously had, in columns that lined up with the old boxes. We demoted Citation Matcher, which was the right call; it’s on the sub-page, for anyone advanced/masochistic enough to want to bother with it. (Normal people can plug citations into QuickSearch/Summon, and that works great.)

We were also more heavily into social media, by this time, and it was clear that we needed to devote some more real estate to the conversations we were trying to have with our campus communities. We moved away from library events (meaning events physically located in the library, not events the library was necessarily hosting) being in a WordPress blog that required our Dean to add and then remove(!) items after they happened. Those blog entries then showed up as an animation in the top of the right column. We moved, instead, to library events being in a Google calendar, which was also rendered nicely on our News & Events sub-page.

This choice—events in a Google calendar, presented as a list, one hop down—is still controversial, among some librarians. There are folks who preferred to watch the animation scroll, when a patron came up wanting to know where an event was, and who find the need to click on the calendar icon, or else on “News & Events,” too cumbersome. The compromise is that, when an event is important, the Dean brings it to the Social Media Team’s attention, and we make sure it comes up in our Facebook feed, which, alongside blog posts and YouTube videos, populates that box—though it does not scroll, thank goodness.

There are also librarians who really dislike that social media is given “too much space” on the page. I am hoping that, as more of our librarians start to blog and see their own updates in that space, they will come to appreciate it more. They’ve had blogs since 2009, maybe before, but until we got this box on the front page, any blog other than the Dean’s events blog was completely undiscoverable. People mostly stopped writing to them when they realized nobody could read them—some never got off the ground. Now that blog posts are shared in that feed, our Instruction & Reference Services department is starting a blog, as is our E-Resources Librarian, and, very soon, our Assessment Team. They’ll join Archives & Special Collections, who never really stopped blogging. My hope is that the News & Events box will reflect the voices of everyone in the library.

Also, although there’s a Twitter icon there, that feed does not show up in that space; it’s been mostly redundant with Facebook, in the past, save for a few retweets and @’s. I think I’m going to set our blogs to auto-post to Twitter, and since we are in the process of implementing LibAnswers, we’ll be able to send and receive reference questions there, as well.

Conveniently, we realized our hours were getting more complex in the near future. (It was further-future than we thought, actually.) So moving Hours to a sub-page, instead of trying to fit it in the sidebar, was not a big political fight. That—and giving up Spotlight—gave us most of the space we needed for News & Events. (I’m very proud of the clock icon. I Photoshopped it a LOT, to get it to match the other icons.)

Here’s one that’s just a small change, made at the beginning of this summer. We got CampusGuides, which let us split our guides into groups—something we’d been talking about since 2010. “How do I…?” is going away, since the “How-to Guides” will gather all of that content; it’s still accessible on the sub-page, until that process is complete. We also moved “Video Tutorials” down a page, since those should all be integrated into guides, anyway. (The librarians still need to be able to access all of the video tutorials in one place, but there’s no good reason to think our patrons say to themselves, “I need help. I’ll go back up to the front page and somehow choose correctly between ‘How-to’ and ‘Video Tutorials,’ for my specific need!” … Which is to say, we’re trying very hard to offer contextual help, which our patrons have been asking for since 2006.)

Not visible here is the overhaul of the templates on the sub-pages. We updated Research Help and Library Services, sort of between this change and the next. All of the other sub-pages are slowly getting updates, as well.

And here is our current page, going into fall. We successfully removed a BUNCH of words! (And then a few words got added. But whatever; it’s a process.) We combined some sub-pages that desperately needed it, which let us remove some ugly links. We demoted two pages that nobody used, to make space for a new service. (If you go look at our live page, a link is missing; that service isn’t live, yet.) And we combined Collections and Partners into one box, while removing one of our social media updates, to allow a little bit of white space. I think the space makes the page a bit less imposing.

Ask a Librarian is more important than About Us, so we tried putting that all the way to the left. I don’t know if that will increase its use or not, but I’ll watch it, to see.

We did add the » to the headings. We don’t have any data to make us worry that people aren’t clicking those headings, but it’s been bothering some people on the Web Team for a while, and I don’t think the change cost us much, design- or usability-wise.

We did not talk people out of FirstSearch, unfortunately, but we built a jump page, so at least the link on the front page isn’t as ugly and confusing. I’m not sure if this is really a win for usability, with the unnecessary page being put in users’ paths, but I agreed to it, figuring we’d see what kind of feedback we get on that.

Overall, I feel pretty good about the direction we’re going. I prefer these iterative changes a couple of times a year (I’m only allowed to change the front page during winter intersession and summer, except in emergencies) to a big redesign effort, followed by an expectation that the page stay static; I imagine our instruction librarians and advanced users also prefer this approach, even though it does lead to video tutorials and screen shots getting out of date more quickly. This approach also opens the door for me to do usability testing and updates in a more Rocket Surgery-like way.

The change probably looks really slow, though, from the outside. Keep in mind: the page had been mostly static for over 2-3 years, before I arrived. I was fresh out of library school (because—forgive me my bitterness—a previous career counts for nothing with librarians), not yet Alaskan (from their perspective, I was unlikely to stay), and more than 10 years junior to most of the website’s internal stakeholders. I communicated like an engineer, not like a librarian. And there were some weird internal politics that predated my arrival by several years, but that got very much in the way of my progress.

But we’ve gotten past a lot of that: I think my relationship with most of my coworkers is pretty good, now; I’ve changed my communication style a lot; I clearly intend to stay here for some time; enough people are close enough to retirement that the idea of young librarians joining us sounds OK to the library at large; and, probably most importantly, people have gotten used to change, again (not just in the website; there have been changes left and right, especially this summer). The result is that the pace of website changes has increased, and the angst over them has decreased. Our most recent round of changes were pretty painless, though in retrospect, I think I probably should have pushed a little harder on one or two things. On the other hand, I’ve begun to take the long view, more often, and I sometimes agree to things I think are bad ideas, but which I am sure will go away within a couple of years.

This post was supposed to just be “show and tell” of MPOW’s website, but it ended up being a little bit of the story of my library career, so far, too. I guess I’m ready to work on my self review, for the file. :)

*Academics obviously can’t count. I’m only two months out from my third anniversary of working here—I started in early October of 2009—not my fourth. You put in your “fourth year” file after three years. It’s weird.

** I don’t get tenure out of doing this. I mean, it’s a necessary step in that direction, but what I get out of this is practice and a letter saying (most likely) “Yes, you are on track toward getting tenure; also, do more community service and less professional service, and write a couple of things up differently, next time.” I can’t really go up for tenure until next year—and they would hold me to higher standards than they would the following year, believe it or not. The currently-popular reading of the rules is that, to get tenure after fewer than five years requires being “exemplary” in every measure, all of which are written with the idea that you have five years of work behind you. You only have to be “successful” in every measure if you wait until the normal time (after five years of work) to go up—the “sixth year,” in academic-counting. And you can actually wait until your “seventh year” to go up, though that’s your last shot. I haven’t decided for sure about my “fifth year”—it depends what feedback I get this year—but I will definitely go up by my “sixth.” If something goes wrong that year, I can pull my file at any point and go back up the following year.

Published inalaskacommunicationlibrarianshipnew librariantechnologyusabilityweb 2.0

One Comment

  1. […] I thought a change was significant—but pretty much the whole front page progression I shared a couple of posts ago made it in, sans, I think, one screen shot. It was in a much more formal tone of voice, though. And […]

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