HOW NOT TO REDESIGN A WEB SITE
by Marylaine Block
I have two words for the American Library Association: beta test.
It's not that ALA didn't need to redesign its web site. And its goals were admirable: according to ALA Executive Director Keith Michael Fiels, "The new site will make it much easier for members and the general public to find the information they are looking for".
The site address for this news announcement about the redesign, however, is
ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=25861, which is a good clue to the basic problem. This is easier? Easier than what? Than if it was inscribed on the head of a pin? Than if it was written in Sanskrit? Than if it had to be assembled like the parchment pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls?
The thing is, many of us have existing links to ALA's various web sites, now rendered inoperative. Only last week, I linked to ALA's Washington Office, once at http://www.ala.org/washoff/, a simple and obvious address that one could actually remember, could say in a conversation or a presentation. Its new address is
Offices/ALA_Washington/Washington_Office.htm. I sent an e-mail to the webmaster pointing out that this was an unusable URL, and got back a cheery message explaining that it was really no problem at all because, like fully 130 of ALA's web pages, this page had redirects to the new URL, and the rest could easily be found with a simple search from ALA's web site.
I beg to differ. It IS a problem. How is this wrongheaded? Let me count the ways:
Redirects for only 130 sites? Come ON! Why only 130, and how were those chosen? Was this selection the result of careful link analysis? The whole assumption about how internet users get to websites is flawed. We don't want to go to a massive web site and search inside it, we want to follow links to exact resources. That's why librarian webmasters have created links in the first place, and those links should be honored.
Simple search? I think not. Looking for ALA's misplaced list of great sites for teens, I tried searching teen sites, which yielded zero results. Then I tried just teens, and got a curiously ranked set of results, the first several of which were news items about teen read week. Surely major pages about teen services should have come up first? Then I looked for the nice guide ALA created for parents about children and the internet. I tried the search phrase parents + internet, and again got no results. I tried just the word parents and got a bizarre set of results, the first 13 of which, theough they had high relevancy rankings, seemed totally unrelated to parents: a SAC task force on Library of Congress Subject Headings revisions, ALA advocacy, a WSS 1999 newsletter, "alahandbookfinal," etc. I never did find it, and I'm a pretty determined and persistent searcher. Most people would be more likely to say the hell with it, and look elsewhere.
Maybe the webmaster assumes that URL length doesn't matter, because the URL is concealed, and all people do is click on the title of the link. Not true. I make all my links visible, for two reasons: I assume that people may want to print out ExLibris and NeatNew and pass it around, and I publish an e-mail version of ExLibris and NeatNew, in which web site titles alone are useless. Given the visible URLs in the printed text, people can simply type the URLs into the location box -- they just won't bother when the URLs are a couple of hundred characters long. It's also true, as Karen Schneider of lii.org pointed out to ALA in a lengthy critique of the new web site, that many of us tell each other casually about web sites -- go the Banned Books Week site at http://www.ala.org/bbooks/index.html -- which we won't be telling anybody now that the address for it is http://www.ala.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Our_Association/Offices/ Intellectual_Freedom3/Banned_Books_Week/Banned_Books_Week.htm . In short, word of mouth promotion of useful ALA web pages will not happen.
- Maybe they think we'll find things using the site map, which does reveal the entire logical architecture of the site. Unfortunately, it's so astonishingly lengthy and detailed that it takes even longer than the home page to load (Chris Zamarelli, the "pernicious librarian," timed the home page download at 38 seconds). If you can correctly deduce which section of the site to look under you might just find what you were seeking. Or not -- I did finally find the link for the teen site I was looking for, Teen Hoopla, only to follow it and learn that "Teen Hoopla has gone into the sunset." Who sent it there and when was unclear -- ALA? The Young Adult Library Services Association?
Furthermore, ALA should not be so cavalier about the criticism it's getting. The replies they're sending are almost insulting; they sound so certain of their righteousness and so convinced that if we would only follow the directions and work three times as hard as we ever used to have to, we'd find everything we want. It's not a small thing to make Karen Schneider and Jessamyn West mad -- they're well-known and respected for their internet expertise, they're not afraid to speak their mind, and they have well-read soapboxes to complain from.
In fact, instead of letting everybody wait to see the full glory of this monstrosity at the drum roll for its announcement, it might have been a good thought for ALA's webmasters to offer internet librarians like Gary Price and Karen Schneider an advance peek at it (especially given how many links to ALA's web sites they will now have to spend hours tracking down and revising on their own sites). I would have appreciated a hint myself, since I just finished correcting proofs for my book, which now contains many easily remembered but inoperative ALA URLs. The web designers could have used our feedback to alter fundamental mistakes before rolling the site out for the whole world to see.
My recommendation is that the site designers spend a little time studying the research on what people want from web sites, and how they find their way around them. Then invite redesign suggestions from some of our outstanding librarian webmasters. After that, make another stab at a usable design. And then, TEST IT. On real live librarians, preferably those who need to find known ALA pages they use frequently. If it takes skilled librarians more than one minute to find anything, go back to the drawing boards, because the cardinal rule of web site design is: Do NOT waste our time.
Oh, one other reason the webmasters should pay attention to librarians' critiques: the webmasters may think it's ALA's web site. Librarians don't. We think it's OURS. Don't muck it up.
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From "Top Ten Web-Design Mistakes of 2002," by Jakob Neilsen:
9. URL > 75 characters:
Long URLs break the Web's social navigation because they make it virtually impossible to email a friend a recommendation to visit a Web page. If the URL is too long to show in the browser's address field, many users won't know how to select it. If the URL breaks across multiple lines in the email, most recipients won't know how to glue the pieces back together.
The result? No viral marketing, just because your URLs are too long. Bad way to lose business.
from Alertbox, Dec. 2002, http://www.useit.com/alertbox/20021223.html
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