Web services should be inherently easy to navigate, regardless of user. However, academia and its culture are deeply entrenched in norms and assumptions that can make accessing services difficult and disproportionately disadvantage newcomers. Academia is a high context environment, relying on nuanced communication, implicit information, and pre-existing cultural knowledge. It can be difficult to enter or navigate, and often requires someone to self-identify as an outsider. A low-context environment has more explicit information. People navigating the environment need not have pre-existing knowledge or skills to be able to access information. To be useful for a wide breadth of potential users, a library website should be a low-context environment where both content and design provide explicit information that allows the user to navigate the site itself and connect with services.
I approach user design with an eye toward making content as useful to as broad of a population as possible. My work is informed by the 7 Principles of Universal Design with a focus on agile and iterative design improvement informed by a wide breadth of users.
To engage with the largest population of users, I strive to create a constant flow of feedback opportunities. There is a wealth of data available to designers. Existing web analytics or traffic data provides a bird’s eye view of engagement, while engaging in usability testing, focus groups, card sorting activities, or other structured user research methods provides check-ins and direction throughout a project. Testing or measuring provides opportunities to make targeted improvements. However, there is also activity occurring both in the library and on the web that can unlock rich information to drive continuous improvement. Opening the door to user suggestions through prominent feedback forms, creating avenues for front-line staff to report frequent user problems, analyzing live chat data, or conducting digital and physical ethnography creates a persistent feedback loop open to any user and leverages the knowledge and experience of staff across the system.
The feedback loop is completed by sharing back with users and staff. This may take the form of external communication channels (working with the student paper to run a story about a forthcoming enhancement to the website) or internal communication channels (providing clear avenues and workflows for getting information on the website, or creating data dashboards for content creators to assess their own work). Being explicit about the processes behind development and improvement invites people to participate in these processes.
Creating an open feedback loop may still unintentionally exclude some user groups who have traditionally been overlooked. Seeking out the feedback of these user groups in a more systematic way is possible by building relationships with stakeholders who have deeper knowledge of or access to these groups. For example, creating a strong relationship with the accessibility office and running focus groups through their office may provide additional insight that could not be observed through other channels.
Ultimately, designing for all users is an iterative process that not only requires constant enhancement of the site itself, but also requires consistent reflection and improvement of our own framework for design.