In 2013 I was part of a group that redesigned the website for the University of Tennessee Libraries. We launched the new site in August 2013 just prior to the start of the fall semester. You can view it at http://www.lib.utk.edu.
I had previously been involved to varying degrees in website redesign, but this time was different. Instead of taking the existing site and modifying it as we have done in the past, we decided it was better to set the entire old site aside and start over from the beginning. It was felt this would ensure our new site only included what we wanted to be there in the way we wanted it to be there.
Below are the various aspects to redesigning a library website that I consider essential to success. I was reminded of their importance as we worked through our redesign, so I wanted to share.
While I cannot say that any one of the aspects listed here is more important than any other, planning comes very close. It is the foundation that supports all the other aspects. No matter how well done they may be, insufficient or bad planning can cause a website redesign project to collapse.
Essentially you need to start with determining what the redesign is to accomplish. A library website serves many purposes. Some possible ones include marketing, communication, and being an information access tool. Which are most important for your library?
There are other factors to consider as well. Do you have and expect to continue having the resources (people, time, technology) to build and maintain your own site, or do you need to hire the work out to some external source? What is the primary audience for your website? Do you have multiple audiences and do any of them have priority over the others? Who is responsible for what content on the site and how will they assist with the work?
The important thing to remember about planning is that you must have a plan, it needs to cover every aspect of everything required to redesign your library web site, and you must follow it. We have all heard that “nature abhors a vacuum,” but in reality, I think it hates planners and their plans. It will be necessary at some point to modify your plan or ad lib something not covered by it, but this should be avoided as much as possible. The better planning that is done up front, the fewer problem situations one usually has to deal with in the course of the work.
There are different technologies used to create websites. It is very important, as part of the planning process, to determine what technologies are going to be used for your site. If you already have a website, and I expect this to be the case with most, then you could stay with what you have been using or decide to do something completely new.
Every technology has its own unique benefits and problems. The determining factors for what technologies to use for your website should be based on whether the technologies do what is needed to create the site as you have it planned, and whether you have the needed resources such as time, money, and people (especially people with the right technical skills) to implement and maintain it.
The content of your site is critical. This has always been, and will always be, true. The entire point of a website is to host content. Regarding content, a website is like a book: a website without content would be like a book with blank pages.
Determining the content of your new website, like every other aspect of creating the new site, goes back to planning. If the primary purpose of your site is marketing then that suggests certain content. If the primary purpose is informational (library hours, floor maps, and so on) then that suggests different content. Most library websites, and this is certainly true of ours, serve several different purposes for several different audiences simultaneously.
I feel that design is one of the weakest areas for most library websites. If you are fortunate enough to have a designer you can include on your website redesign team, then you should do so. Aesthetic appeal and overall consistency of form and function is important and often not given the attention it should. For our users who rarely if ever come in to our physical facilities, the website may be most of what they see and know of the library, so we should always strive to put on the best face we can.
The biggest measure of success of any website redesign comes from the users of the site. Does it work? Does it do what is expected? And more importantly, does it do what is needed in the way it is needed? It does not matter how great the design looks or how technically perfectly it functions, if it does not meet the needs of users then improvements are needed.
After your new website is built and launched, your work is not finished. In some ways it is only just beginning. Users and their needs evolve over time and your website must evolve with them. You should continually gather information using tools such as Google Analytics, feedback forms, and so on. You should conduct formal usability studies when and where possible. Talk to your users informally when opportunities present themselves, even if just to ask what they like and do not like and why, and then document what they said. And you should have a formal process in place for evaluating the gathered user information in all its forms so decisions can be made about what actions to take in response.
While it is sometimes necessary to do a full web site redesign (as it was in our case), ideally this should be avoided if possible. A full redesign from the ground up is a big, complex, and disruptive job. It is best to redesign a website in incremental stages. A slow evolution is always easier for everyone to adapt to than a large abrupt change, and it helps make sure needed changes are occurring on a regular basis instead of as huge, but only occasional, leaps forward.