Adventures in Information Architecture Part 2: Thinking Big, Thinking Small

When we last saw them in Part 1, our Web Committee heroes were stuck with a tough decision: do we shoehorn the Ottawa Room content into an information architecture that doesn’t really fit it, or do we try to revamp the whole IA?

There was much hand-wringing and arm-waving. (Okay, did a lot of hand-wringing and arm-waving.) Our testing showed that users were either using Summon or asking someone to get information, and that when they needed to use the navigation they were stymied. Almost no one looked at the menus. What are our menus for if no one is using them? Are they just background noise? If so, should we just try to make the background noise more pleasant? What if the IA isn’t there primarily to organize and categorize our content, but to tell our users something about our library? Maybe our menus are grouping all the rocks in one spot and all the trees in another spot and all the sky bits somewhere else and what we really need to do is build a beautiful path that leads them…

Oh, hey, (said our lovely and fabulous Web Committee heroes) why don’t you slow down there for a second? What is the problem we need to solve? We’ve already tossed around some ideas that might help, why don’t we look at those to see if they solve our problem? Yes, those are interesting questions you have, and that thing about the beautiful path sounds swell, but… maybe it can wait.

And they kindly took me by the hand — their capes waving in the breeze — and led me out of the weeds. And we realized that we had already come up with a couple of solutions. We could use our existing category of “Research” (which up to now only had course guides and subject guides in it) to include other things like the resources in the Ottawa Room and all our Scholarly Communications / Open Access stuff. We could create a new category called “In the Library” (or maybe “In the Building” is better?) and add information about the physical space that people are searching our site for because it doesn’t fit anywhere in our current IA.

The more we talked about small, concrete ideas like this we realized they might also help with some of the issues left back in the weeds. The top-level headings on the main page (and in the header menu) would read: “Find Research Services In the Building.” Which is not unpleasant background noise for a library.

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Adventures in Information Architecture Part 1: Test what we have

For a while now, Web Committee has been discussing revamping the information architecture on our library website. There are some good reasons:

  • more than half our of visitors are arriving at the site through a web search and so only have the menu — not the home page — to orient them to what our site is and does
  • the current architecture does not have an obvious home for our growing scholarly communications content
  • the current architecture is rather weak on the connection with the library building, which is a problem because:
    • people are searching the site for content about the building
    • there are more visits to the building than visits to the website

However, we also know that changing the IA is hard. Our students have already told us that they don’t like it when the website changes, so we really want to make sure that any change is a positive one. But that takes time.

And we have a pressing need to do something soon. The Library will be opening a new Ottawa Resource Room in the fall that has related web content and we can’t decide where it fits. So: user testing! Maybe our users can see something we don’t in our current IA. (Spoiler: they can’t)

We did guerrilla-style testing with a tablet, asking people to show us how they would find:

  • information relating to Ottawa (we asked what program they were in to try to make it relevant; for example we asked the Child Studies major about finding information related to child welfare in specific Ottawa neighbourhoods)
  • information about the Ottawa Room
  • (for another issue) how they would get help with downloading ebooks

As an aside: We’re not so naive to think that students use the library website for all of their information needs. We made a point of asking them where on the library website they would go because we needed to put the information somewhere on the website. For the ebooks question, we also asked what they would really do if they had problems with ebooks. 6/8 people said they would ask someone at the library. Yup. They’d talk to real person. Anyway, back to IA…

We talked to 8 different students. For information relating to Ottawa, the majority would do a Summon search. Makes sense. For information about the Ottawa Room itself, the answers were all over the place and nothing was repeated more than twice. So our users weren’t any better than we were at finding a place in our current IA for this information. (Hey, it was worth a try!)

So… we either need to shove the Ottawa Room somewhere, anywhere, in the structure we have or we need to tweak the IA sooner rather than later. So on to Web Committee for discussion and (I hope!) decisions.

Retrospective post: Revamping our 404 page

When I started at Carleton back in 2013, one of the first things I did was make a more friendly 404 page. The “page not found” message at the time looked like this:

Unfriendly 404 page

Not very helpful, and it didn’t even have our footer menus included. So, I added what I thought were useful options if you happen to hit a 404 page – search, index, help pages, feedback to tell us we messed up and deleted something important. Plus a fabulous image created by my fabulous colleague Kevin Bowrin. Since I was new to Carleton, I didn’t get the whole raven thing (Carleton sports teams are the Ravens) and dubbed this lovely guy the “Oh no crow”:

Friendly 404 page with links that might help

Less than two weeks into the job and I knew I was going to love working here.