How can content design help guide people through a maze of options?

Presenting library card information in plain language

How can content design help guide people through a maze of options?


The Vancouver Public Library is the second largest public library system in Canada. With over 3.5 million online visits per year, VPL’s website is the primary channel for people to learn about the resources, programs, and services the library offers. When I joined the project in 2015, the website’s design had not changed substantially in over seven years, and the organization was trying to plan for a redesign and implement a new content management system.

There were many goals for the new redesign, but perhaps the most important was to make the site more user-friendly. Creating more scannable, simple, and understandable web content was the best way we could accomplish this.

My Role

I was responsible for managing and training the team working on almost all facets of web redesign: user research, content strategy, information architecture, UX design, and front-end development. My team was responsible for establishing content guidelines and governance, and training over forty content creators in different departments across the organization.


Before I joined the team, there hadn’t been much staff guidance in writing for the web. Subject matter experts created content about their specific departments, but they did it from a library-centered perspective, not from a user’s point of view.

The website content for getting a library card was a prime example of this. The library needed to tell people what kinds they were eligible for and what they needed to do to get them. Unfortunately, the web content for this was poorly designed. It didn’t prioritize use cases, it was full of library jargon and legalese, and it didn’t use headings or page structure to help people skip directly to the information they needed.

Screenshot of the old Vancouver Public Library website's "Library Cards" page, with 5 red hyperlinks to "Activate - Sign Up Now for your Vancouver Public Library Card", "How to Get a Library Card", "Library Cards for Non-InterLINK Residents", "Internet Access Cards", and "BC OneCard"

The old Library Cards landing page. It’s a mixture of links to marketing campaigns and different card types. The most common use case (the “Get a library card” page) is hidden in the middle of the list.

The old “Library Cards” landing page had many problems, but the most troubling was that it required people to understand specialized information and jargon. Without already knowing what an InterLINK area is (that is, a region served by a library that’s a member of the InterLINK library group), you can’t properly choose which link you should follow.

Even if you got to the How to Get a Library Card page, you’d need to read information scattered across different sections in order to figure out whether you qualify for a regular library card, and what you need to do to get one.

Screenshot of the old Vancouver Public Library website's Get a Library Card page, with densely packed information.

The old How to Get a Library Card page is dense and poorly organized, with mentions of different card types appearing in both the “Eligibility for a Library Card” and “Applying for a Library Card” sections.

We decided that we needed to start over and completely remake all of the Library Card content. We wanted to clearly represent the different card types people could be eligible for. We also wanted to fit all of the types onto one page that could be easily scanned. A beginner’s mindset was our best tool.


I began by bringing our team together to go through all of the library card-related information on the website and in internal documentation. We needed to understand how many types of library cards there were how people qualified for them. There were a number of confusing edge cases, particularly when it came to people who lived on parts of the University of British Columbia campus. (UBC geographically falls in the City of Vancouver, but is  not part of any local municipality. Therefore, UBC residents don’t qualify for a regular library card.) Once we had an exhaustive list, we went to our Subject Matter Experts in the Circulation department to confirm our understanding.

The team gathered in front of a whiteboard map of the card types to think about how a regular person would figure out what kind of card they should get. I realized the problem was reminiscent of a
“What type of beer should I drink?” flowchart  where a series of yes or no questions could ultimately lead you to the right answer. I asked one of the team members to create a similar flowchart for our library card problem.

Whiteboard with scrawled handwriting describing different library card types, eligibility conditions, application processes, and privileges.

Once we had this flowchart mapped out, we translated the decision points into simple statements that a user could easily identify with. We were careful to use language users would understand, like “I live outside of the Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley/Sunshine Coast area.” This replaced the library jargon (“outside of the InterLINK area”) that had been used in the past.

Screenshot of the Get a Library Card page from the 2017 library website redesign, showing a series of accordion headings with clear "I" statements.

New page, post-redesign. We made the statements accordion headings so that users could easily scan the list for the statement that best applied. Opening the accordion reveals more details.

We had to make several compromises in the new design. Stakeholders from the Marketing and Communications wanted to create a page that promoted all of the great things you got with a VPL card. To avoid the potential confusion of having two different pages that were about getting a library card, we added a short marketing paragraph at the top of the page. There was also a bit of scope creep with the addition of some edge cases. Our original list had seven or eight statements; the final list had eleven.

Analysis and outcomes

Despite the compromises, we were able to create a Get a Library Card page that fit all of the card types on one page so users didn’t have to jump from page to page to find the card type that fit them. We were also able to translate some bureaucratic language and jargon into simpler, plain language statements. As a result of our analysis, the library was also able to simplify and remove one of the card types.

Although we didn’t get a chance to test the page with users (which I would have done if we’d had more time), the front-line Circulation staff were thrilled. When we first showed them the new page, they told us that we covered the common questions people ask when they come to the help desk.

The latest version of the page (which happened after I left) is a great iteration.

Screenshot of the 2021 version of Vancouver Public Library's

The latest version puts the two methods for applying for a library card upfront, though clear calls to action.

The new version is especially helpful during COVID-19.  It encourages people to apply for a card without needing to know the details first. (Presumably, library staff help people figure out the next steps for getting the right card. The original “Get a Library Card” is still linked from the application page as an FAQs page.) I was also happy to see that the marketing paragraph was much smaller, so there’s less of a barrier to the information the user needs.