I am in charge of our website redesign at my job, and I’ve been putting my graduate coursework in Web Usability to work over the past few weeks. This week, I’ve been doing usability testing of students (all Freshman and Sophomores) and here are a few interesting things I’ve learned:

  1. The average Freshman doesn’t know what most of these words mean: Periodicals, Reference, Circulation, Interlibrary Loan, Acquisitions, Database, Index and Reserves. And yet, these are all major categories on our website’s navigation bar. As Velma would say, Jinkies!
  2. When asked to find the phone number where they can get help with doing their research, none of the students knew that the Reference Desk was where they could get research assistance. Several thought it was Learning Support and others thought it was the Circulation Desk. No wonder I seem to get asked about printers, hole punches, and staplers much more often than I’m asked actual reference questions! ;)
  3. Students seem to blame themselves for not being able to find things. Even though most of the students had trouble finding the things they were supposed to look for in the usability test, the majority still said they thought the website was fine. Many of the students told me that if they couldn’t find something, they probably wouldn’t ask for help. (And how can I blame them when I was the sort of student who never asked for help? We need to design our websites for those students because it may be their only source of information!)

I’m still testing more students, but what I’ve learned has more than confirmed my own suspicions that the website as it is now is designed for our convenience and not for the students. It’s very convenient for us to group content around organizational divisions in the library, but when a student is looking for articles on a specific subject, is s/he going to be willing to look under both “Periodicals” and “Databases”? What if that stuff was under “find articles” instead (along with other links related to finding articles)? I want to re-organize the content to reflect what students are actually looking for when they visit the website. I want to have plenty of paths to get to the same info so that students don’t miss things. I want to inundate students with FAQs and tutorials so that no student, no matter how computer illiterate, will give up in disgust.

The best thing is that I’m preaching to the choir. My colleagues, especially the Library Director, are totally open to changing the website and designing it more with the students in mind. The person who originally created it is long gone so I’m in a great position to make positive changes for the students without stepping on any toes. Heady stuff!

I took a lot of courses on Web Design and Administration in library school, but if you’d told me back then that I’d end up in charge of a library’s website, I’d have thought you were nuts. But I’m thrilled to be doing it. Having been one of those stubborn students who never ask questions, I know how important a usable website is, and I’m thrilled to have the chance to make a difference.

I guess I’d better get a copy of The Accidental Webmaster!