Information Architecture for a Library Website Redesign

My library is about to embark upon a large website redesign during this summer semester. This isn’t going to be just a new layer of CSS, or a minor version upgrade to Drupal, or moving a few pages around within the same general site. No, it’s going to be a huge, sweeping change that affects the whole of our web presence. With such an enormous task at hand, I wanted to discuss some of the tools and approaches that we’re using to make sure the new site meets our needs.

Why Redesign?

I’ve heard about why the wholesale website redesign is a flawed approach, why we should be continually, iteratively working on our sites. Continual changes stop problems from building up, plus large swaths of changes can disrupt our users who were used to the old site. The gradual redesign makes a lot of sense to me, and also seems like a complete luxury that I’ve never had in my library positions.

The primary problem with a series of smaller changes is that that approach assumes a solid fundamental to begin with. Our current site, however, has a host of interconnected problems that makes tackling any individual issue a challenge. It’s like your holiday lights sitting in a box all year; they’re hopelessly tangled by the time you take them out again.

Our site has decades of discarded, forgotten content. That’s mostly harmless; it’s hard to find and sees virtually no traffic. But it’s still not great to have outdated information scattered around. In particular, I’m not thrilled that a lot of it is static HTML, images, and documents sitting outside our content management system. It’s hard to know how much content we even have because it cannot be managed in one place.

We also fell into a pattern of adding content to the site but never removing or re-organizing existing content. Someone would ask for a button here, or a page dictating a policy there, or a new FAQ entry. Pages that were added didn’t have particular owners responsible for their currency and maintenance; I, as Systems Librarian, was expected to run the technical aspects of the site but also be its primary content editor. That’s simply an impossible task, as I don’t know every detail of the library’s operations or have the time to keep on top of a menagerie of pages of dubious importance.

I tried to create a “website changes form” to manage things, but it didn’t work for staff nor myself. The few staff who did fill out the form ended up requesting things that were difficult to do, large theme changes that I wasn’t comfortable making without user testing or approval from our other librarians. The little content that was added was minor text being ferried through this form and myself, essentially slowing down the editorial process and furthering this idea that web content was solely my domain.

To top our content troubles off, we’re also on an unsupported, outdated version of Drupal. Upgrading or switching a CMS isn’t necessarily related to a website redesign. If you have a functional website on a broken piece of software, you probably don’t want to toss out the good with the bad. But in our case, similar to how our ILS migration gave us the opportunity to clean up our bibliographic records, a CMS migration gives us a chance to rebuild a crumbling website. It just doesn’t make sense to invest technical effort in migrating all our existing content when it’s so clearly in need of major structural change.

Card Sort

Making a card sort

Cards in the middle of being constructed.

Not wanting to go into a redesign process blind, we set out to collect data on our current site and how it could be improved. One of the first ways we gathered data was to ask all library staff to perform a card sort. A card sort is an activity wherein pieces of web content are put on cards which can then be placed into categories; the idea is to form a rough information architecture for your site which can dictate structure and main menus. You can do either open or closed card sorts, meaning the categories are up to the participants to invent or provided ahead of time.

For our card sort, I chose to do an open card sort since we were so uncertain on the categories. Secondly, I selected web content based on our existing site’s analytics. It was clear to me that our current site was bloated and disorganized; there were pages tucked into the nooks of cyberspace that no one had visited in years. There was all sorts of overlapping and unnecessary content. So I selected ≈20 popular pages but also gave each group two pieces of blank paper on which to add whatever content they felt was missing.

Finally, trying to get as much and as useful data as possible, I modified the card sort procedure in a couple ways. I asked people to role play as different types of stakeholders (graduate & undergraduate students, faculty, administrators) and to justify their decisions from that vantage point. I also had everyone, after sorting was done, put dots on content they felt was important enough for the home page. Since one of our current site’s primary challenges in maintenance, or the lack thereof, I wanted to add one last activity wherein participants would write a “responsible staff member” on each card (e.g. the instruction librarian maintains the instruction policy page). Sadly, we ran out of time and couldn’t do that bit.

The results of the card sort were informative. A few categories emerged as a commonality across everyone’s sorts: collections, “about us”, policies, and current events/news. We discovered a need for new content to cover workshops, exhibits, and events happening in the library which were currently only represented (and not very well) on blog posts. In terms of the home page, it was clear that LibGuides, collections, news, and most importantly our open hours needed to represented.

Treejack & Analytics

Once we had enough information to build out the site’s architecture, I organized our content into a few major categories. But there were still several questions on my mind: would users understand terms like “special collections”? Would they understand where to look for LibGuides? Would they know how to find the right contact for various questions? To answer some of these questions, I turned to Optimal Workshop’s “Treejack” tool. Treejack tests a site’s information architecture by having users navigate basic text links to perform basic tasks. We created a few tasks aimed at answering our questions and recruited students to perform them. While we’re only using the free tier of Optimal Workshop, and only using student stakeholders, the data was till informative.

For one, Optimal Workshop’s results data is rich and visualized well. It shows the exact routes each user took through our site’s content, the time it took to complete a task, and whether a task was completed directly, completed indirectly, or failed. Completed directly means the user took an ideal route through our content; no bouncing up and down the site’s hierarchy. Indirect completion means they eventually got to the right place, but didn’t take a perfect path there, while failure means they ended in the wrong place. The graph’s the demonstrate each tasks’ outcomes are wonderful:

Data & charts for a task

The data & charts Treejack shows for a moderately successful task.

"Pie tree" visualizing users' paths

A “pie tree” showing users’ paths while attempting a task.

We can see here that most of our users found their way to LibGuides (named “study guides” here). But a few people expected to find them under our “Collections” category and bounced around in there, clearly lost. This tells us we should represent our guides under Collections alongside items like databases, print collections, and course reserves. While building and running your own Treejack-type tests would be easy, I definitely recommend Optimal Workshop as a great product which provides much insight.

There’s much work to be done in terms of testing—ideally we would adjust our architecture to address the difficulties that users had, recruit different sets of users (faculty & staff), and attempt to answer more questions. That’ll be difficult during the summer while there are fewer people on campus but we know enough now to start adjusting our site and moving along in the redesign process.

Another piece of our redesign philosophy is using analytics about the current site to inform our decisions about the new one. For instance, I track interactions with our home page search box using Google Analytics events 1. The search box has three tabs corresponding to our discovery layer, catalog, and LibGuides. Despite thousands of searches and interactions with the search box, LibGuides search is seeing only trace usage. The tab was clicked on a mere 181 times this year; what’s worse, only 51 times did a user actually search afterwards. This trace amount of usage, plus the fact that users are clearly clicking onto the tab and then not finding what they want there, indicates it’s just not worth any real estate on the home page. When you add in that our LibGuides now appear in our discovery layer, their search tab is clearly disposable.

What’s Next

Data, tests, and conceptual frameworks aside, our next stage will involve building something much closer to an actual, functional website. Tools like Optimal Workshop are wonderful for providing high-level views on how to structure our information, but watching a user interact with a prototype site is so much richer. We can see their hesitation, hear them discuss the meanings of our terms, get their opinions on our stylistic choices. Prototype testing has been a struggle for me in the past; users tend to fixate on the unfinished or unrefined nature of the prototype, providing feedback that tells me what I already know (yes, we need to replace the placeholder images; yes, “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet” is written on every page) rather than something new. I hope to counter that by setting appropriate expectations and building a small but fairly robust prototype.

We’re also building our site in an entirely new piece of software, Wagtail. Wagtail is exciting for a number of reasons, and will probably have to be the subject of future posts, but it does help address some of the existing issues I noted earlier. We’re excited by the innovative Streamfield approach to content—a replacement for large, rich text fields which are unstructured and often let users override a site’s base styles. We’ve also heard whispers of new workflow features which let us send reminders to owners of different content pages to revisit them periodically. While I could do something like this myself with an ad hoc mess of calendar events and spreadsheets, having it build right into the CMS bodes well for our future maintenace plans. Obviously, the concepts underlying Wagtail and the tools it offers will influence how we implement our information architecture. But we also started gathering data long before we knew what software we’d use, so exactly how it will work remains to be figured out.

Has your library done a website redesign or information architecture test recently? What tools or approaches did you find useful? Let us know in the comments!


  1. I described Google Analytics events before in a previous Tech Connect post