Library Website Design, Part III: Give Them Paths to Follow, Not Points to Click

When it comes to making sure that all of our services are available on our library’s website, the best strategy is to make access intuitive and obvious.

The mistake that’s all too easy to make (and all too frequently made) is to assume that this means putting points of access right there on the home page.

At certain point, though, this requires either:

  • Putting so many points of access on the home page that everything gets lost in the chaos and the site loses any sense of focus at all; or,
  • Prioritizing certain services over others and keeping many points of access off the home page – which triggers our fear that we might fail to address every conceivable patron need in an obvious way, and unintentionally defines unwanted implications regarding the perceived relative value of these services.

To reiterate what PC Sweeney said: “Too many choices creates confusion.”

But there is a way to provide obvious and intuitive access to your full range of library resources and services without over-complicating your site:

Stop thinking in terms of service and start thinking in terms of patron need.

The tendency in library website design is to offer services – here’s how to access this database, here’s how to search the catalog, here’s how to get…. This governing paradigm requires a discrete point of access for every individual service.

But if we switch to a paradigm that starts with establishing patron need, then we think not in terms of individual resources and services but in terms of purpose-generated, curated offerings – à la the traditional reference interview. When we start to think in terms of different types of patron need, we start to see our site in terms of access pathways rather than discrete points of access. This allows us to set up obvious, broad, and intuitive navigation options which pare down through a series of steps to those resources that will best serve each patron’s need.

There’s entrenched resistance to this idea in the world of web design. This resistance comes from a traditional belief that visitors to a website will drop off after two clicks. There was a study done several years ago that clearly documented this phenomenon: if a site visitor can’t get what they need in two clicks or less, they’ll give up and go away. For many years, this study exerted a powerful influence on the principles and best practices of web design.

There’s only one problem – this study is wrong. Or, more accurately – this study is limited in its understanding of what it documented. Subsequent studies have shown almost exactly the opposite phenomenon: people seem willing to click as many times as they need to get to whatever it is they’re looking for.

The difference is the way the navigation and links are set up. In the first study, none of the links people were presented with were particularly intuitive or obvious. People gave up after two clicks not because it was taking too long, but because they had no confidence that they were even clicking the right things. The phenomenon was more an artifact of then-current web architecture and aesthetics than of innate user behavior.

The subsequent studies were conducted on sites with far more intuitive navigation, obvious link paths for people to follow, and active feedback throughout the site to guide the visitor. They had no issues clicking through several times because they had high confidence that these clicks would get them what they wanted – they knew they were following the right path. (Confidence of high quality – see The Trader Joe’s Principle.)

In conclusion – To design more effective library websites, that provide more beneficial experiences for our patrons, we must:

  1. Focus design around patron needs rather than on individual services offered.
  2. Begin the user experience with fewer choices that offer easy to follow pathways, rather than confusing and obscuring options through too much, too soon.
  3. Create an online mechanism to establish individual patron need as a guide to those resources and services that best serve them, rather than presenting too many options and forcing the burden of choice on the patron.

So, essentially – keep it simple, keep it personal. It’s what we’ve always done in person, we just need to find better ways to do it this way online.


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