Notre Dame's Home Run. An academic web site for the 21st century

Author: Leo Robert Klein

Occasionally, a library web site comes along that advances both design and functionality, setting its own high standard in the process. Last year it was the Phoenix Public Library in the public library arena (“Phoenix Gets It Right,” LJ 7/04, p. 34-36). Similarly, the new site from the University of Notre Dame Libraries ( exemplifies what a well-thought-out academic site can accomplish. The web site, which debuted at the beginning of the academic year, features clean and sophisticated pages, consistency throughout, and the flexibility and robustness of database-driven architecture.p. Acknowledge the competition p. The web redesign team at Notre Dame, led by Eric Lease Morgan, head of the Digital Access and Information Architecture Department, had a big challenge: the University of Notre Dame (UND), South Bend, IN, has four undergraduate collegesArts and Letters, Science, Engineering, and the Mendoza College of Businessas well as the School of Architecture, Law School, Graduate School, and several major research institutes. Student population is nearly 12,000. In addition to the main library and the law library, the university has eight branch libraries. UND also knew its competition and understood that a significant portion of its user base would come to the web site with the experience of popular commercial sites, from Amazon to Google to eBay.p. As the library’s 2004 strategic plan warns, “If their perceived return on this investment appears smaller than their return when using other web sites, then people will be reluctant to use the libraries’ web site, even if its content is more authoritative and more scholarly.”p. The prior site, as Morgan puts it, was “organized like our organizational charts.” Information was often buried. None of the partslike the subject pages and the branch library pageswere organized in the same manner. The end result? “It just wasn’t usable,” Morgan says.p. User-centered design p. The web team knew all this from an extensive round of focus groups conducted in 2002 and a survey administered to over 900 respondents a year later. Both studies pointed to a number of issues that cried out for improvement. Solution number one was a healthy dose of user-centered design. This was accomplished through usability studies, log file analysis, and additional focus group interviews.p. One issue the web team spent a lot of time on was vocabulary. To make things usable, Morgan explains, “you can’t switch gears half-way through and call it ‘this thing’ in one place and ‘that thing’ in another.”p. How resources were presented and arranged needed to be uniform. Subject areas had to have a common arrangement so that going from one to another was more predictable and intuitive. Terms used to describe resources needed to be more consistent. The library even appointed “terminators” whose job is to review continually the adequacy of the classification scheme.p. This drive for consistency also extended to the layout and design of all pages, including, most significantly, the homepages of the branch libraries (see images at right). By adopting this approach, the user wouldn’t be dipping into a completely new, and unfamiliar, site when moving from, for example, the Architecture Library to the Math Library. Everything has the same “look and feel.”p. Database-driven p. There was another critical reason to focus on vocabulary. The web site was to be database-driven. After all, 75 percent of the web site was nothing but lists of resources. Why not just enter them all into a database and let the termsor “facet/terms” as they’re called at Notre Damedo all the work? You could have a page of resources in history that consisted only of “Electronic books and texts,” all generated on the fly.p. Some of these resources already resided in the OPAC. The trick here was to add fields to the MARC record so that each item would play nice with the local web-based classification scheme. Once this was implemented (using custom tags in the 596 and 695 fields), a daily report could be generated and the resulting records added to the “web” database. For web resources not in the catalog, there would be a web form to fill out.p. Flexibility p. p. Even static text (i.e., the other 25 percent of the site not in a database) could be tailored according to its site page. This “narrative text,” as it is called at Notre Dame, generally consists of longer descriptions, help texts, hours, and the like. Added by hand, this information would naturally change from one branch library or topic to another.p. Enhanced search capability was another strategic goal. That included adding a “quick-search” utility near the top of each page. This would allow for direct searches against the catalog, the site itself, or a number of key resources. Naturally the key resources would change according to what page the user is on.p. Design and data p. The web site also had to be “flatter.” Users reported that they didn’t like having to click through so many pages to get to information. Also, the unequal and varying depth of the site at different points led, many felt, to user confusion.p. In the focus groups and survey, users stated a preference for more full-text resources, so that became an objective of the site redesign. Users also wanted easier communication back and forth with the library. They wanted to perform a number of other taskslike renew books or order materials remotelyas well.p. Once these specifications were drawn up, the next step was to sketch how the pages might look. Each member of the web team came up with a layout. After synthesis of these designs, the web team handed them off to a professional graphic artist who executed them in the accomplished way we see today. This “design” part of the process lasted about a year.p. But in addition to interface design, the database needed to be developed and a workflow for adding/updating information implemented. The entire system runs off a MySQL database, with PERL scripting language. Indeed, the whole package is a modified and updated version of Morgan’s well-known “MyLibrary” application, which is available under a GNU Public License as open source software.p. The static or “narrative” text is added using “Contribute” by Macromedia. The web team feels the system works well with page templates, has a ton of nice features, and is relatively easy for the average user to master.p. At the end of spring semester 2004, the site had a “soft launch.” This gave the web team a number of months of relative calm for tweaking. At the beginning of the current academic year, the site received its official launch, with plenty of fanfare.p. Testing never ends p. Once the new web site was up, the UND web team didn’t rest. An ambitious series of usability tests examined how well (or badly) the new system worked. All in all, things went very well though the occasional user had difficulty identifying the proper database to complete an assignment (a common enough problem). As a consequence, the web team is looking at ways to “push” the right kind of information out to usersparticularly beginnerspossibly through some kind of Q&A function.p. This kind of follow-up testing is essential, Morgan reports. At the very least, it can provide a benchmark for future tests. “When we do the tasks again,” Morgan says, “we’ll see whether we’ve improved or not. Have we moved in the right direction? That’s always the big deal.”p. Just the beginning p. The current web site, so shiny and new, is meant to serve as the foundation for a number of ambitious initiatives. High on Morgan’s list is syndication. It’s all well and good to expect people to come to the library’s site, but library resources need to find their way out to partner sites.p. Planning for a universitywide portal is underway. Morgan believes it is important that the library have a presence here. Yet he emphasizes that the information finding its way to this portal should be tailored to the specific userstudent, faculty, or staff. This kind of targeted syndication also makes sense for other environments, e.g., departmental pages.p. Meanwhile, back on the library’s web site, Morgan envisions opportunities for both customization and personalization. Users could indicate what resources they’d prefer to see when they visit the site. In addition, the system could remember what they had used previously or what others with similar characteristics had used.p. Beyond customization and continued surveying and testing, Morgan is alert to opportunities to market the site. “I don’t think people understand what kinds of things are available,” he observes.p. If any of this sounds familiar, it should. Perhaps the greatest gifts our competitors in the commercial world have given us are examples of their own success. When those are combined with the kind of wares libraries have to offer (our real advantage in all of this), you have a formula that’s sure to be of enormous benefit.p. -———————————————————————————————-p. Author Information p. Leo Robert Klein is a Technology Coordinator at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has an MLS from Queens College, CUNY, and a master’s in digital media from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Programp.

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