You Can Improve Your Public Library Website User Experience Now — With Any Budget

COVID-19 was a wake-up call for public libraries. It became impossible to ignore the fact that your virtual services lagged far behind your branches’ services and in-person programming. That glaring discrepancy revealed that your public library website can't be an afterthought  — it's an inextricable part of your patrons’ experience. And their need for online services is here to stay. 

By now, you’ve probably identified a host of website issues that need your attention. It may even be apparent that you need a total website rebuild. You’ve got to take action — but you also have limited resources. Chances are, your budget isn’t enough to do all you want, or even all you need. 

But a big pocketbook isn’t necessary to make substantial changes to your library’s existing website. In fact, even with little to no budget, you can make changes that notably improve your patrons’ user experience. Simple shifts can pay off in spades.

Make Big Improvements to Your Public Library Website With a Small Budget

“Let’s wait until we’re ready:” that may be the most expressed sentiment as you consider changes to your website. Shouldn’t you wait until you’ve got deeper pockets before outlining a plan and beginning to act on it?

In reality, if you wait until you feel completely ready, you’re wasting valuable time and resources. You can start making improvements right now that have an immediate impact on your patrons’ site engagement. 

Prioritize your process-related content

COVID required constant improvisation and adaption, and your website had to keep up. As a result, the site may have gotten cluttered by ad hoc changes, updates, and add-ons that now look messy and perform ineffectually. 

Key tasks should be easy for patrons to understand and execute. Any confusion or frustration navigating basic processes can alienate new site visitors — and discourage even the most faithful users. 

Without a doubt, the most important process on your site is signing up for a library card. When the process is unclear or overly complicated, it can become your site’s biggest barrier to entry. You can simplify the library card application process by:

  1. Clarifying the application steps. Patrons benefit from getting a neat overview before they begin the process. Compose skimmable, numbered steps. Group subtasks together in “chunks” so the content is more easily digestible. If you have to provide a considerable amount of information, provide a downloadable PDF. And always test with users to get real-time feedback.
  2. Writing to the appropriate grade level. In general, an eighth grade reading level is right for most audiences. If you have patrons who are children or adults seeking literacy support, a sixth grade reading level is probably more appropriate. The widely-used Flesch-Kincaid readability formula determines grade level based on sentence length and word count. 
  3. Utilizing a librarian's “voice.” Patrons should feel welcomed, not intimidated, as they begin applying for a card. Use friendly, informal language to replicate the warmth of a real librarian.


Adjust Your Site Architecture

Use the dynamic functionality of your library’s website to most naturally engage your patrons. 

Your public library website pays for research resources and subscriptions like EBSCOhost and Ancestry. Finding ways to offer those services on different pages of your site keeps the architecture of your site intuitive and organized. 

Invest in Search Upgrades

Brick and mortar libraries provide opportunities for unexpected discoveries. That’s not easy to replicate on your website, but you can much more easily with a federated search. Federated search displays different types of related results together — books, movies, events, blog articles, and research resources. Patrons don’t need to conduct multiple searches in disparate platforms or browse separate, tabbed results. 

Your public library website’s future success depends on the single-click federated search. It's simply the best investment you can make for your website.

Use Your Time Wisely While You’re Saving for a Website Rebuild

While you’re waiting for the green light to start your website rebuild, you can use the time to prepare. The more information you collect before the rebuild begins, the smoother and more efficient the process will eventually be. 

Learn More About Your Users

Your public library website users are the most valuable resource for future rebuilds. Identify who on your team is best suited to collect data about your patrons. If your library doesn’t have a designated patron experience role, then the right person may be in the communications or IT departments. Surveys are a direct way to elicit feedback from patrons about how they are using your library’s website, what obstacles they encounter, and how they would rate the success of their visits. Surveys also allow you to gauge interest in programs and features that don't exist yet on your site. 

You can use newsletter subscribership to encourage survey participation. Generally, patrons will enthusiastically complete a survey as part of a raffle, so use what you have on hand — like a signed copy of a book.

Conduct a Content Audit

As you build a detailed wish list for your future website’s functionality and design, use readily-available tools to take inventory of what you currently have. DYNO Mapper and Screaming Frog are affordable ways to crawl your site and ascertain what the reality is. 

You may remember what you intended your site to look like and where you thought all the content was going to live. But when you crawl your site, you're likely going to find items that have never been menued.

This comprehensive content audit produces a content manifest. Based on the results, you can determine who will take responsibility for revising, condensing, or collapsing different sections of your current site. 

Talk to Your Stakeholders

Your future website should be designed to serve more people, more naturally. The people who are going to run the site on a day-to-day basis will be keeping content fresh, updated, and alive.  Make sure their needs are explicit and understood. After all, the more buy-in you have from that team — and the more they feel that the site content responds to their wishes and dreams — the better the user experience is going to wind up being as well. 

Map Your Digital Ecosystem

It’s essential that you know how many different platforms your site is using and to what end. How do they intersect? Which are working for you and your users, and which may need to be reexamined or replaced?

As you plan a new website, be as transparent as possible about how things currently work. An honest and detailed map will help you decide what to keep, what to discard, and what to modify. 

If the details are discovered after you’ve inked your new site work order, a change order and additional, unanticipated costs can occur. 

Even small investments in your library website can pay off big. Use the information and resources you have on hand now to give your site a better chance to attract new users — and delight current users.