Shelley Gullikson

Redesigning our Subject Guides: Student-First and Staff-Friendly


I presented about our Web Committee’s redesign project at Access 2016 in Fredericton, NB on October 5, 2016. We started doing user research for the project in October 2015 and launched the new guides in June 2016 so it took a while, but I’m really proud of the process we followed. Below is a reasonable facsimile of what I said at Access. (UPDATE: here’s the video of the session)

Our existing subject guides were built in 2011 as a custom content type in Drupal and they were based on the tabbed approach of LibGuides. Unlike LibGuides, tab labels were hard-coded; you didn’t have to use all of them but you could only choose from this specific set of tabs. And requests for more tabs kept coming. It felt a bit arbitrary to say no to tab 16 after agreeing to tab 15.

We knew the guides weren’t very mobile-friendly but they really were no longer desktop-friendly either. So we decided we needed a redesign.

Rather than figure out how to shoe-horn this existing content into a new design, we decided we’d take a step back and do some user research to see what the user needs were for subject guides. We do user testing fairly regularly, but this ended up being the biggest user research project we’ve done.

I assumed that staff made guides like this for students; they put all that information in, even though there’s no way students are going to read it all. That assumption comes with a bit of an obnoxious eye roll: staff clearly don’t understand users like I understand users or they wouldn’t create all this content.  Well, we did some user research with our staff, and turns out I didn’t really understand staff as a user group.

We analyzed all of the user research, looked at our web analytics and came up with a set of design criteria based on everything we’d learned. But we still had this issue that staff wanted all the things, preferably on one page and students wanted quick access to a small number of resources. We were definitely tempted to focus exclusively on students but about 14% of subject guide use comes from staff computers, so they’re a significant user group. We felt it was important to come up with a design that would also be useful for them. In Web Committee, we try to make things “intuitive for students and learn-able for staff.” Student-first but staff-friendly.

Since the guides seemed to have these two distinct user groups, we thought maybe we need two versions of subject guides. And that’s what we did; we made a quick guide primarily for students, and a detailed guide primarily for staff.

We created mockups of two kinds of guides based on our design criteria. Then we did user tests of the mockups with students, iterating the designs a few times as we saw things that didn’t work. We ended up testing with a total of 17 students.

Once we felt confident that the guides worked well for students, we presented the designs to staff and again met with them in small groups to discuss. Reaction was quite positive. We had included a lot of direct quotations from students in our presentation and staff seemed to appreciate that we’d based our design decisions on what students had told us. No design changes came out of our consultations with staff; they had a lot of questions about how they would fit their content into the design, but they didn’t have any issues with the design itself. So we built the new guide content types in Drupal and created documentation with how-tos and best practices based on our research. We opened the new guides for editing on June 13, which was great because it gave staff most of the summer to work on their new guides.

Quick Guide

The first of the two guides is the Quick Guide, aimed at students. I described it to staff as the guide that would help a student who has a paper due tomorrow and is starting after the reference desk has closed for the day.

Detailed Guide

And speaking of time, thank you for yours.