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100 Ways to Improve Usability in Your Library

Posted on Monday July 14, 2008 by Staff Writers

With the popularity of Library 2.0, libraries are getting more complicated these days, and it’s becoming harder to make sure that everyone is happy. You have to stay on top of online collections, new library programs, websites, and more. Read on to find out how you can make these and other components of your library better, and make life easier for yourself and the people that visit your library.

General

Consider these tips when looking at overall ways to improve usability in your library.

  1. Conduct a usability study: Gather some of your patrons, ask them to find something in the library, and analyze their behavior.
  2. Make use of what users already know: Model your design after things that your user is likely to be familiar with already.
  3. Use descriptive wording: Instead of using project names for something, call it what it really is. For example, instead of calling a search engine “Find It!,” simply call it a search engine, or “Find It! Search Engine.”
  4. Avoid overwhelming users: Give enough information to provide guidance, but not so much that they’ll be confused.
  5. Be friendly: No one wants to visit a library where the staff is rude and unhelpful.
  6. Consider your users: When creating usable design, think about your users and how they’ll be utilizing what you create.
  7. Use common terms: Make sure the words you’re using are easily understood by users.
  8. Aim to save time: Make it a goal to help your visitors navigate information quickly.
  9. Make your library desirable: Design and market your library in a way that makes people want to use it.

Website

Make your website easy to use and navigate with these tips.

  1. Be consistent: Use the same fonts and design elements on all of your library’s pages so that users always know they’re still on your site.
  2. Put a help link on every page: Don’t leave users stranded. Give them a way to get help no matter where they are.
  3. Use templates: Create a template for your site, and base the design of all pages on that template.
  4. Make your catalog search incredibly easy to find: Most visitors to your library’s website will be looking for items, so be sure to make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for right away.
  5. Check for errors: Make sure that your site does not have any broken links or grammatical errors that will undermine the quality and authority of the library.
  6. Create effective navigation: Use navigation that is simple and easy to understand.
  7. Put your most important information up top: Avoid making your patrons scroll to find information. Put all of your most used functions and information high in the display field.
  8. Check for accessibility: Ensure that your website is usable for everyone by assessing your site’s accessibility.
  9. Be action-oriented: Let users choose what they want to do, like “reserve an item.”
  10. Meet specific goals and tasks: Consider what your site’s visitors are coming to do, and make it easy for them to do it.
  11. Design for quick loading: Don’t make users wait around for information. Create a quick loading website.
  12. Create a footer “mullet”: Put all of your fun stuff like Flickr images, news, and events in your footer.
  13. Leave bread crumbs: Show your users where they should go by putting lots of links in your website’s text.
  14. Use lots of white space for important elements: Place a good deal of white space around important site elements like your search box in order to draw attention to them.
  15. Create a task-centered home page: Instead of overwhelming visitors with information, give them areas where they can do tasks like search for a book or get directions to the library.
  16. Make your search as Google-like as possible: Most visitors will intuitively understand how to do searches on Google, so model your search after theirs so that they’ll be able to use it easily.
  17. Offer larger font sizes: Allow users to choose what size text they’d like to use for your site.

Catalog & Search

Follow these tips, and you’ll make finding information incredibly easy.

  1. List your availability: When users search for an item, let them know how many you have available, or when they’re expected to be back in the library.
  2. Offer a reservation system: If you don’t have an item currently in the library, allow users to sign up to get it when it comes available.
  3. Offer filtering: Allow your visitors to place filters on their search, like non-fiction and poetry, to find exactly what they’re looking for without working through a lot fo what they don’t want.
  4. Provide a search history: Help your patrons remember what they were looking for by offering a search history function.
  5. Share with other libraries: If you don’t have a book or item within your library, offer a function that allows users to connect with a library that does.
  6. Use search suggestions: Pre-populate your search field with ideas for what users should be searching for.
  7. Check your logs: Take a look at what your patrons are searching for on your site, and whether or not they’re able to find it.
  8. Offer a site search: Go beyond a catalog search and allow visitors to do a search of your library’s entire site.

Availability

Make your library a more open and available place for patrons with these tips.

  1. Make your most often used items prominent: If you have certain selections that are used frequently, make sure they’re highlighted and incredibly easy to find.
  2. Weed out your selection: Create a protocol for weeding out unused or unnecessary items so that the ones you actually need will be more prominent.
  3. Use statistics: Find out what parts of your collection are most popular, and expand upon them.
  4. Offer ebooks: Make ebooks available in your collection, and users can take advantage of a new way to enjoy books.
  5. Put as much as you can online: Library patrons like the instant information and ability to make use of resources on the Internet from home and work, so be sure to facilitate this.
  6. Make your help desk obvious: Put a well-staffed help desk in an obvious place so that users will be able to approach it easily.
  7. Make sure users know they can get a book: Many people do not realize that they can reserve or order books from the library.

Staff

Ask your staff to make these improvements for the sake of usability.

  1. Build camaraderie: Create a staff that enjoys working together, and they’ll be better prepared to serve the needs of patrons.
  2. Encourage blogging: Allow your staff to evangelize for your library and get connected with patrons by encouraging them to blog.
  3. Be available: Make sure that you always have enough staff on hand to meet the needs of your library’s users.
  4. Support professional development: Encourage your staff to seek out additional education in new media, technology, and other courses that will help them in the library.
  5. Use a wiki: Utilize a wiki for content management so that you can have an effective internal sharing system.
  6. Cross train: Have staff in different departments train with each other, so that everyone has more knowledge to help library patrons when needed.

Library Environment

Make your library an easier place to learn and work.

  1. Manage noise: Create quiet learning areas so that patrons aren’t disturbed by talking, cell phones, and other distractions.
  2. Use signs to make areas clear: Use large signs to tell people when they’re in the childrens’ section, or a no cell phone zone.
  3. Handle conflict between patrons: Be sure that your patrons aren’t driving each other out of the library.
  4. Be positive: Make sure that your signs do not give off a negative or limiting feeling. Tell patrons what they can do, instead of what they can’t.
  5. Offer lots of power outlets: Encourage users with laptops to come into the library by offering them an easy way to stay powered.
  6. Make your signs readable: Use a large enough size and clear font to get the point across.
  7. Create stations: Devote an area to reading magazines, another to doing research, yet another to individual studying, and so on.
  8. Offer individual and group spaces: Create areas where individuals and groups can devote their time to study and discussion separate from the main library area.
  9. Create a clean presentation: Don’t leave books cluttered on carts and on tabletops–put them where they belong.
  10. Use signs to announce tools: If you have a self checkout machine, make it easy for people to find it with a sign.
  11. Consider acoustics: If you’re undergoing new construction or a renovation of your library, ask your architect or contractor to design with sound in mind.
  12. Create a bookstore-like layout: Make your library look like an inviting bookstore to encourage reading and visitors.
  13. Make use of windows: Make the library a more comfortable place by using large windows for natural light.

Interaction

Improve communication in your library with these tips.

  1. Ask staff to wear name tags: If patrons need help, make it easy to find someone by an identifying name tag.
  2. Offer tours: Familiarize users with your library by giving regular tours.
  3. Have an active email address: Be available through email, and you’ll be able to help more patrons.
  4. Ask users what they want and need: Get to the root of what your patrons are looking for by simply asking them.
  5. Blog: Keep patrons updated on what’s going on with the library by maintaining a regular blog.
  6. Create exciting events: Get your library’s visitors to come in for more than just books by hosting fun and interesting events.
  7. Make use of social networks: Be available and open up interaction on social networks like Facebook.
  8. Use IM: Make your library available for assistance via instant message, so you can be helpful in a quick and easy manner.
  9. Encourage user-generated content: Make it easy for your patrons to be involved in the creation of content.
  10. Hold training classes: Not every visitor to the library will intuitively understand how to use it, even if you’ve designed an incredibly usable library. Hold training sessions to make it easier for people to navigate your stacks.
  11. Offer RSS feeds: Make it easy for users to stay updated on new additions to the collection, library news, and more by implementing RSS feeds anywhere they fit.
  12. Reach out to visitors: Ask your staff to always be on an active lookout for patrons who seem like they need assistance.
  13. Improve service to remote visitors: Make your library’s availability from outside of the library easier and more effective for patrons to take advantage of.
  14. Improve staff’s demeanor: Explain and encourage appropriate body language, voice tone, dress, observation, and listening in your staff.
  15. Train regularly: Keep your staff’s skills fresh with regular training sessions.

Computers

Follow these tips, and you’ll make your library’s computers even more useful.

  1. Install Firefox: With Firefox you can set up a custom experience, including the ability to put links to your library’s catalog on book names.
  2. Designate catalog and Internet computers: Make it easy for users to know which computers are for browsing the catalog, and which can be used for the Internet.
  3. Offer more laptops: Users want to make use of laptops, so be sure to have enough to give them what they want.
  4. Allow patrons to use the tools they want: Make instant messaging, YouTube, gaming, and other resources available on your library’s computers.
  5. Offer Wi-Fi: If you aren’t already, make free Wi-Fi available in your library.

Equipment

Make your library’s tools more useful with these tips.

  1. Be available for troubleshooting: Have a prominent help desk, and offer a sticker with directions on your equipment.
  2. Check out mp3 players: Make listening to podcasts and ebooks easy with mp3 player checkouts.
  3. Offer a simple checkout system: Don’t put a lot of restrictions on how and when patrons can use equipment unless it’s entirely necessary.
  4. Offer CD and DVD players: If you’re going to offer CDs and DVDs in your collection, make sure your library has players available for patrons to use.
  5. Stay on top of maintenance and repairs: Always make sure that the equipment available to patrons is in good working order.
  6. Lend tools: If you’re going to offer how-to books for checkout, make your library a one stop shop and offer tools to do the job as well.

Kid Friendly

Make children feel welcome and encouraged in your library by implementing these ideas.

  1. Provide child-centric visual design: Offer animation and sound effects to get their attention.
  2. Use multimedia for navigation: Show children images to suggest where they should go next.
  3. Create reading nooks: Kids want a comfortable place to sit and read, so devote a few corners to comfortable bean bags and other implements that encourage curling up with a good book.
  4. Give instructions: Studies have found that when given written instructions, children are willing to read them and will make use of them.

Fun Tools

Use these tools in your library, and you’ll be able to better connect to and serve your patrons.

  1. Flickr: Let users see photos of the library in action and get excited about visiting.
  2. del.icio.us: Make it easy for patrons to save their bookmarks to the web with del.icio.us.
  3. Librarything: Create a social catalog for your library on Librarything.
  4. Facebook: Get connected, share news, and spread information with patrons on Faebook.
  5. Diigo: Make it easy for patrons to save information with highlighting and sticky notes right in the browser.
  6. Twitter: Use Twitter to publish mini updates about what’s going on at the library.
  7. Ma.gnolia.com: This online bookmarking site allows you to create bookmarks for an entire group.
  8. LibGuides: With this app, you can create content, share knowledge, and promote resources.
  9. Wikipedia: Encourage users to take advantage of and participate in this user-generated encyclopedia.
  10. YouTube: Post videos of your library on YouTube to get patrons excited about visiting.