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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.