Students Find Library Websites Difficult To Use

According to a 2015 EBSCO survey on undergraduates’ research workflow, 40 percent of students rate their library websites moderate to very challenging and 15 percent never use them.

A challenging library website is a research roadblock to an already time-constrained student. Here are 7 Best Practices to ensure your website is utilized by all your students and meets their expectations.

1. Have a Vision

A vision defines your library website’s goals. It also guides and inspires decisions about your library website.

  • Keep the statement to one to two sentences.
  • Align it with the library’s and institution’s mission statements.

2. Easy Access to Search

Search is the primary action a user takes on the library website.

  • Make the search box prominent on the home page.
  • Have one search box on a page.
  • Provide a description or an example within the search box or search box area to set users’ expectations.
  • For a multi-tabbed search box, label tabs in plain language and default to your discovery service.

3. Keep Navigation Simple

Too many navigation options may prevent your users from accessing what they need.

I don’t want to have to navigate this site the way they want me to. I just want to find the thing I’m looking for.” - Jakob Nielsen

  • Display five to six main navigation items at the most. Do not overwhelm your users.
  • Top-level navigation should represent high-level categories of your content.
  • Common top navigation items include: Search, Services, Research, About Us, Help, My Account.
  • Validate your navigation by conducting a paper card sort, or use these online tools: OptimalSort & Treejack (free and paid versions available).

4. Home Page is a Gateway

First impressions are critical. Your home page is typically the most visited page, and where your users begin their research.

  • Do not clutter your home page with too many options.
  • Give users just enough detail to make the decision to explore. “3 click rule” is not always the best practice.
Items to display on home page:
  1. Primary user actions (i.e., Search)
  2. Book a Study Room
  3. Location(s) & Hours
  4. Library News & Events
  5. Contact Us/ Ask-A-Librarian

5. Eliminate Library-ese

Library jargon (aka Library-ese) is one of the most reported issues identified in user testing. Unfamiliar terms are barriers to users fully utilizing library resources/services.

Terms Not Understood by Students
  • Boolean
  • Catalog
  • HTML Full Text
  • EPUB
  • e-Book Full Text
  • Database
  • Trade Publication
  • Weed your content!
  • Write in plain language.
  • Be aware of library-ese when branding your link resolver and/or discovery service.
  • Provide explanatory text when needed.
  • Do not rely on a glossary!
  • Ask a non-librarian to validate your content.
  • Conduct a survey or usability testing.

6. Empower All Your Users. Make the Library Website Accessible

Inaccessible websites are barriers to all users. Students with disabilities are faced with frustration and helplessness.

The power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect. - Tim Berners-Lee, Father of the World Wide Web

  • HTML Page Titles must be descriptive (i.e., Your Institution Library: Browse Journals).
  • Link text must indicate intent or content.
  • Images must have alt-text or off-screen text.
  • Audio/Video content must include captioning or transcripts.
  • Website must be navigable by keyboard only.
  • If you display a carousel, do not set it to auto-play. Offer an option to stop.
  • Validate that your website is usable for folks who are colorblind. Recommended Tool: Colour Contrast Analyser (free)
  • Become familiar with screen readers (e.g., JAWS, NVDA) and other assistive technologies used by your students.
  • Test your library website for accessibility. Recommended Tool: WAVE (free)

7. Conduct Usability Testing

Testing users informs decisions about the library website. You have evidence to make and defend your decisions.

  • To quote Jakob Nielsen, “Test early. Test often.”
  • Start with paper prototypes (it can be just a rough sketch) continue through final designs.
  • Testing five to seven users identifies 85 percent of usability issues.
  • Schedule usability testing sessions monthly at same day/time.
  • Want to test students anytime/anywhere? Unmoderated remote user testing is a quick way to get results. Recommended tool:

Recommended Tools and Resources:

Recommended Tools:
  • OptimalSort & Treejack: Tool for testing navigation and terminology with your users. Both products offer a free version for testing with a limited number of users.
  • Web Accessibility Validation Evaluator (WAVE): Free tool that identifies accessibility errors. Tool checks that your website is compliant with the following guidelines: 508 and Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • Colour Contrast Analyser: Free tool that verifies whether your library website is accessible for colorblind users. It also verifies that your design is in compliance with WCAG guidelines tied to the use of color.
  • Content Readability: Tool evaluates the reading level of your content. Free to copy/paste content or URL.
  • Tool to conduct moderated and unmoderated remote usability testing. You can recruit your own users or use their list of users based on your requirements.
Websites & Resources Referenced – Accessibility:
Websites & Resources Referenced – Students’ Research Workflow:
Websites & Resources Referenced – User Research:

The poster only covers 7 Best Practices. We want to hear from you! Let us know a Library Website Best Practice that you follow.