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.

desktop-unfriendly

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.

  • Student user research:
    • We did some guerrilla-style user research in the library lobby with 11 students: we showed them our existing guide and a model used at another library and asked a couple of quick questions to give us a sense of what we needed to explore further
    • I did 10 in-depth interviews with undergraduate students and 7 in-depth interviews with grad students. There were some questions related to subject guides, but also general questions about their research process: how they got started, what they do when they get stuck. When I talked to the grad students, I asked if they were TAs and if they were, I asked some extra questions about their perspectives on their students’ research and needs around things like subject guides.
    • One of the big takeaways from the research with students is likely what you would expect: they want to be able to find what they need quickly. Below is all of the content from a single subject guide and the highlighted bits are what students are mostly looking for in a guide: databases, citation information, and contact information for a librarian or subject specialist. It’s a tiny amount in a sea of content.guide-overload

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.

  • Staff user research
    • We did a survey of staff to get a sense of how they use guides, what’s important to them, target audience, pain points – all at a high level
    • Then we did focus groups to probe some of these things more deeply
    • Biggest takeaway from the research with staff is that guides are most important for their teaching and for helping their colleagues on the reference desk when students have questions. Students themselves are not the primary target audience. I found this surprising.

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

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.

  • Hard limit of 5 Key Resources
  • Can have fewer than 5, but you can’t have more.
  • One of the students we talked to said: “When you have less information you focus more on something that you want to find; when you have a lot of information you start to panic: “Which one should I do? This one? Oh wait.” And then you start to forget what you’re looking for.” She’s describing basic information overload, but it’s nice to hear it in a student’s own words.
  • Some students still found this overwhelming, so we put a 160-character limit on annotations.
  • We recommend that databases feature prominently on this list, based on what students told us and our web analytics: Databases are selected 3x more than any other resource in subject guides
  • We also recommend not linking to encyclopedias and dictionaries. Encyclopedias and Dictionaries were very prominent on the tabbed Subject Guides but they really aren’t big draws for students (student quotations from user research: “If someone was to give this to me, I’d be like, yeah, I see encyclopedias, I see dictionaries… I’m not really interested in doing any of these, or looking through this, uh, I’m outta here.”)
  • Related Subject Guides and General Research Help Guides
  • Link to Detailed Guide if people want more information on the same subject. THERE DOES NOT HAVE TO BE A DETAILED GUIDE.
  • Added benefit of the 2-version approach is that staff can use existing tabbed guides as the “Detailed Guides” until they are removed in Sept.2017. I think part of the reason we didn’t feel much pushback was that people didn’t have to redo all of their guides right away; there was this transition time.

Detailed Guide

detailed-guide

  • From a design point of view, the Detailed Guide is simpler than the Quick Guide. Accordions instead of tabs
    • Mobile-friendly
    • Students all saw all the accordions. Not all students saw the tabs (that’s a problem people have found in usability testing of LibGuides too)
  • Default of 5 accordions for the same reasons that Key Resources were limited to 5 – trying to avoid information overload – but because target audience is staff and not students, they can ask for additional accordions. We wanted there to be a small barrier to filling up the page, so here’s someone adding the 5th accordion, and once they add that 5th section the “Add another item” button is disabled and they have to ask us to create additional accordions. add-accordion
  • There’s now flexibility in both the labels and the content. Staff can put as much content as they want within the accordion – text, images, video, whatever – but we do ask them to be concise and keep in mind that students have limited time. I really like this student’s take and made sure to include this quotation in our presentation to staff as well as in our documentation:
    • When I come across something… I’ll skim through it and if I don’t see anything there that’s immediately helpful to me, it’s a waste of my time and I need to go do something else that is actually going to be helpful to me .

And speaking of time, thank you for yours.