Using User-Centered Design to Build a Library Website

Using User-Centered Design to Build a Library Website

Josipa Bašić


The rapid development of information technology and persuasive use of Internet in every aspect of an individual’s life changed the way library users use libraries and what content and services they expect from their library website. Library users often complain that library websites are not user friendly and do not allow customers to find information they need by themselves due to the clutter of the content and technical jargon understood only by librarians. For a library website to meet the needs and expectations of its customers, it needs to be designed using User-Centred Design. Following this approach, this paper proposed a process necessary to understand the library users, benchmark other library websites, conduct user needs assessment, define content strategy, conduct task analysis, card sorting, prototyping, heuristic review and usability testing to ensure the website is designed with its customers in mind.  The process described in this paper is based on author’s experience in the UX industry.

Keywords: library website, design process, user-cantered design, web usability


With the rapid development of technology and the pervasion of online services in every aspect of an individual's life, libraries need to take their online presence and offerings more seriously than ever before. Searching for information online is one of the most common everyday activities for information users in all age groups. Often library resources are not the first or even second choice of the users who chose more conveniently and more easily accessible resources, such as search engines. Users are accustomed to have all the information and necessary services just a few clicks away with as little effort as possible while enjoying their digital journey at the same time (Connaway, 2013). 

Cronin (1998) points out that the quality of information infrastructure is one of the key factors determining the ability to access and use locally and globally accessible information sources in digital era. Therefore, to keep meeting and preferably exceeding its users' needs and expectations, libraries are confronted with the demand to transfer their services online and build presence in an online environment that is now a new home environment for raising the number of their users. To successfully serve digital natives and digital immigrants in this online era, there is a necessity for libraries to reconsider their strategy and to promote their online presence as a higher priority when planning a budget and hiring staff. This is not to say that printed books are counting their days but that libraries should build a digital identity to attract new and maintain old users, as we are deep into digital era, where users expect most of information to be just a few clicks of a mouse away. For libraries, this would imply providing sufficient information about their policies and events, and to allow a user to use certain library services from their laptops or smartphones. Using user-centered design practice to design a new or redesign an existing library website is a starting point. Users often complain about library websites being difficult to navigate and full of jargon understandable only to library staff. For example, the majority of users search by a keyword, yet the search tool is not always simple and convenient (Connaway, 2013). As a result, many of the resources and features available on the website are often neglected due to cluttered landing page and overall poor usability across the system (Kruger, 2004). This calls for a transition from a library-centric point of view to having a library user in focus (Mclaughlin, 2015) and using a wide range of effective tools and pleasant user online experiences on a desktop but also on a smartphone and a tablet (Connaway, 2013).

How can libraries meet these expectations and create a top-notch experience that will motivate users to use a library when in need for any type of information and return to the library again, and again? Providing the right information and services to a variety of library user groups can be accomplished only by gathering feedback from user about their ever-evolving needs and expectations from a library website. This systematic user research to learn about their needs, expectations and motivations for using a library website is done by engaging directly with library users (Pennignton et al. 2016). What we suspect our library users need is almost never aligned with their actual needs and expectations (Murdoch & Hearne, 2014). Instead of basing design decisions on our assumptions about users’ needs and information seeking behaviors, it is crucial to incorporate learning about users’ actual needs and behaviors into evolving designs (Becker and Yannotta, 2013).

This paper proposes the guidelines for designing a library website based on user-centered design methodology, current design trends and years of applied UX industry research. It includes the steps needed to design a new website, which are also useful when redesigning an existing library website. In addition, it sheds light on the importance of following the principles of user-centered design throughout this process.


Library websites provide its users the access to the services the library offers, as well as the access to the online resources such as e-books, online articles, etc., for fun, to complete a particular task or to provide information about the library. Based on the evaluation of thirty library websites enrolled in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), Bowlby, Franklin and Lin (2011) concluded that the most important consideration when designing a library website is that the library website enables its users to locate information they need on their own. Although the authors were referring to academic libraries, one can assume this principle is applicable to other library types to a certain extent. In addition to independently finding information through carefully structured content and effective search function, according to Raward (2001), the design of a library website should pay careful attention to enabling a user to understand information, and to support the user tasks through logical display of information and navigation principles.

Library websites are a point of access to information or users of many different characteristic, including age groups (toddlers, children, teenagers, adults and seniors), having different goals and motivations that drive them to use a library website (i.e. use of library website for leisure, work projects, learning, etc.) and different cognitive capabilities or physical impairments that impact their interaction with the system and experience with library website (i.e. low vision, color blindness, mental impairment, physical handicaps). It is expected that library websites are accessible and usable for wide user public regardless of their individual characteristics. Designing a web for all profiles of library users is not an easy task and the input should be collected from representatives of all user segments, or at least the most numerous ones or those whose characteristics affect the experience (Yoon et al. 2016).

Due to a limited budget,most libraries unfortunately do not have the resources to hire an experienced UX agency with a team of researchers, designers and programmers to plan, design and build a user-centric library website and conduct necessary user research along the way to inform each design iteration. Instead, many libraries hire a developer or turn to an internal staff member skilled in coding to do all the tasks. Using these approaches without following the principles of user-centered design methodology will unfortunately not result in a customer-centric library website. In their review of a library website designed without following these principles, Murdoch and Hearne (2014) confirmed that none of the users had the background, skills, knowledge and language of the library staff, and therefore should not be expected “to become mini-librarians in order to use the library”. They further said that convincing the library staff that their website might not be performing as it should was the most difficult task, and that the reason might be that it was designed by, and mainly for, librarians. Designing a user-centric library or any other website takes an array of knowledge in human computer interaction, user online information searching behavior, interaction design, information architecture and visual design, as well as an expertise in conducting user research that yields actionable results which can present each phase of library website development process. These are the knowledge and skills not traditionally taught as a part of library curriculum (Aparac-Jelušić, T. 2016).


User-centered design (UCD) is a design methodology and philosophy in which the needs, goals, and success of the end user are considered. The core assumption of user-centered design is that, for it to be intuitive for the user, the interface of a product, system or software application should match the user's mental model of the task they are performing (Lowdermilk, 2013). UCD attempts to optimize the website in a way that the users can, want, or need to use the website, instead of trying to force users to change behavior to adapt to the product. The user-centered design process often includes analysis of a user's typical tasks, identifying different groups of users based on their needs, rapid prototyping using mock-ups and storyboards, and usability testing (Lanter and Essinger, 2017). Following this approach, the needs, requirements and limitations of the target audience who will be using the website are given extensive attention at each stage of the design process.

Using user-centered design in library website design process

The stages of the design process following principles of user-center design include understanding library stakeholders (librarians and users), what other libraries are doing in digital space, customers' current experience and needs related to libraries, deciding what content to include, how to structure it and visually present on the website, and test the usability of the design with the actual library users before going public. These steps are listed in the order of execution and the results of each stage inform the content being iteratively developed and tested in the next stage. By the end of the last stage, assuming the research was done correctly, the website design concept should fully mirror the needs and expectations of the library users. This iterative approach to a library website design or redesign can yield tremendous results that have a user centric presence (George, 2005). Based on the results of these eleven stages, a new design of the website can be implemented, launched and ideally tested after the customers had time to experience the new website.

Several user experience (UX) research methods and practices should be implemented to support creating a user-centric library website with user interface (UI) layout, content and information architecture, as well as the aesthetics of the new library website that meets the users’ needs. Depending on the size and experience of the team, this iterative process can take six months to a year to complete. This time estimate excludes the follow up testing done as the last step after six months of being live.

Before getting started, it is necessary to form a team and agree on the common goal, roles and responsibilities. To cover all the skills required to successfully design a website that fits library customers' needs and expectations, the team should include at least one library staff representative to be the voice of the customer, a UX researcher to design user-centric research and drive data collection through engagement with the real library users, a visual designer to create visual concepts for each page within the library website, and a programmer to code the website.

Throughout the process, under the lead of the UX researcher, the team will conduct 1) generative research to understand the customer, including user needs and expectations, and the competitor benchmarking, 2) formative research activities to define content strategy, do task analysis to understand the steps within each task, do card sorting to create website structure, and paper prototyping to create and test visual concepts, as well as 3) validation or summative research to determine if the design is meeting the bar in terms of customer expectations through heuristic or expert review and usability testing.

The following section explains all eleven phases of the user-centered process of designing a library website in more details based on the author’s industry experience. Each phase includes the objective, data collection approach and the outcome of the phase.

Phase 1. Put yourself in the customers' shoes

This first phase is to define the variety of user groups and the most common tasks each user group would want to complete using the website. Each team member is asked to be a user in all the identified user groups and perform the respective tasks. Afterwards, the notes from this task based exercise are shared within the team and the biggest surprises are documented. Next, main goals, motivations, and frustrations for each user group when using the website are defined with a goal to foster empathy and allow the team to start thinking on the behalf of the user population. At the end of this phase, there should be an idea of who the target users are, what they want to do using the website, what are the characteristics that might influence their ability to use the website and the experience they have using it (Datig, 2015; Marquez et al. 2015; Murdoch & Hearne, 2014).

Phase 2. Competitor benchmarking

This phase helps the team understand what other libraries are doing. Conducting a competitive analysis will shed light on the best practices that other library websites serving similar user population are using related to the content and services available, the structure of the website and its visual design. In case of redesigning of an existing website, this will allow to compare how well the website content, visual design and functionalities compare to other reputable library websites by completing the same exercise from the Phase 1. Bowlby, Franklin and Lin (2011) developed a systematic framework for evaluating academic library website design by using three primary evaluation criteria – visual layout, information architecture and content. A similar methodology can be used to discover and adopt best design practices for other library types. At the end of this phase, the team should know the best practices to follow related to content, layout, structure, and service offered on a library website.

Phase 3. User current experience and needs assessment

The most efficient and easiest way to learn about the needs and current experience the existing user population has with the library website is to conduct a survey with a large number of the existing library users (Duncan, Baker Jones and Wildermuth, 2016). The questions can be asked about their current experience with library website including positive and negative impressions and additional services or content they would like to have available on the website. The sample should be large enough for the results to be generalizable to the entire population and include all customer segments reflecting the diversity of library user population (e.g. if 30% of your user population is older than 60, make sure this is reflected in your sample size). For the users younger than 18, it is recommended to collect this data during an in-person interview with the parent or guardian in attendance and to have their approval obtained in advance. At the end of this phase, there should be an understanding of users' current pain point and delighters with using a website as well as the needs that a website needs to address in order to provide good user experience.

Phase 4. Content strategy

In this phase the team should decide what content the website should contain, including services or functionalities (e.g. catalog, ask a librarian, book a study room, etc.), feature (e.g. bookmark favorite book), textual content (e.g. about library, mission, upcoming events, popular books) and pictures (etc. staff photos, library photos, book cover). In addition to learnings from the user needs assessment, web analytics can be used to determine the most commonly visited sections/features used on a current website (Fing, 2007; Blakiston, 2013; Blakiston and Mayden, 2015). At the end of this phase, the team should know the services, features, textual content and pictures that should be featured on their library website.

Phase 5. Task analysis

Task analysis phase is used to identify the steps needed in order to complete a certain task. At the end of this phase, the team should have the list of most commonly performed tasks, which are further broken-down into steps needed to complete each of them (Hackosh and Redish, 1998).These steps will be used to design the interaction between the user and the website when completing these tasks.

Phase 6. Card sorting

In this phase the information architecture of the website is being defined, including how the content will be grouped and structured.Card sorting is the main technique used to define information architecture of the library website content and navigation. This includes creating content categories that logically belong together and deciding how each topic hierarchically relates to other topics (Spencer, 2009). By using software such as Optimal Sort, or paper cards, representatives of different library user groups are asked to group, label and structure the website content providing the design team with user input on how to structure the content of the website. At the end of this phase the team should have defined information architecture and labels for each category and sub-category that make sense to the end customers (Guo and Yan, 2011; Duncan and Holliday, 2008).

Phase 7. Prototyping

Based on the input from the first six stages, the UX team creates one or more prototypes capturing the necessary content and functionalities as well as the page layout. Warfel (2008) suggested that between five and seven test participants representative of the library users are shown the paper or interactive prototypes of new interface designs in a randomized order. The participants are to select which of the interface features they preferred from each design through a structured interview in order to combine the best elements of layout and features into an optimal prototype. At the end of this stage, the team should have a conceptual prototype specifying the content, functionalities and visual layout to be programmed as first version of the website.

Phase 8. Heuristic review

Once the prototype is programmed, UX experts familiar with usability principles and libraries examine the new prototype resulted from the previous phase to inspect design/layout, navigation, functionality, aesthetics, content and terminology in accordance to the heuristic principles (Nielsen, 1992). At the end of this session, the results of the heuristic evaluation are shared with the developers to be implemented into the final website design to remove any identified pain points before testing the design with real library users.

Phase 9. Usability testing

After the learnings from the heuristic evaluation were implemented in the new website concept, more structured usability testing is conducted with five to seven representative participants using the previously identified five most common task users do on a library website. During the usability testing, the participants are asked to think aloud as they are working on the tasks. However, if metrics such as time on task or mouse clicks are being measured, it is recommended to do unmoderated study where participants perform tasks on their own pace without interacting with the moderator (Emde et al., 2009). If a library is serving a diverse user population (children, teenagers, adults, seniors, etc.), it is necessary to test with at least five representatives from each group (Nielsen, 2000). At the end of this phase, any remaining usability issues or other pain points are being identified and removed before the website launch.

Phase 10. Implementation and website launch

In this last phase, developers build the final version of the library website and the new website is being launched for public use. It is recommended to advertise the launch using social media and other PR communications.

Phase 11. Post-launch

It is recommended to evaluate library users' satisfaction with the existing library website on a regular basis to check if the website functions as intended and to identify any new library user needs or opportunities that should be taken into consideration. The usability of a library website is tested post launch using the same approach described in Phase 9.


The described steps provide the design team with valuable insight for creating a website that is user centric, and as such, accessible and usable for the variety of its users. Following the proposed iterative design process will result in an easy to navigate, user centric, and aesthetically pleasing library website. Having insight into what library users think and feel about the website brings empathy into design process, which opens the door to achieving user centricity. Having a library website that allows a user to find the information they need while creating pleasant user experience will inevitably result in more traffic on the website.

Assuming that not all the teams will have the time, resources or experience to conduct all the steps described in this paper, this approach allows for some flexibility. Every project should include some formative research, summative and validation, ideally including activities that help understand what library users need or want from a library website and their personal characteristics that impact how they interact with the website and shape their experience (e.g. age, low vision, physical disabilities), content to be included on the website and the way it should be organized, as well as the usability testing with the real library users before the launch. It is essential to evaluate usability of the website with the real users before the website launch.

This article introduces one novelty in prototype testing methodology. Allowing the test participants to select features from different prototypes and combine them to one optimal prototype is an innovative approach to user design that allows for more creativity and flexibility in creating user-centric designs and experiences. This approach is slightly different than mainstream prototyping method where test participants are asked to select one design as their favorite and does not allow them to combine elements from different prototypes into one 'ideal' design prototype.

Libraries of 21st century need to make it their mission to build digital presence to keep up with their users' lifestyles in order to be able to fulfil their needs and expectations. Building a website following the user-cantered design methodology is a first step. In addition, libraries need to make their website responsive to different platforms, including desktop, smartphone and tablets. Using mobile devices to check information on-the-go is a part of people's everyday life. Library users are likely to want to look up if a library has a certain title, reserve a room, or check floor map while on their way to the library. Using mobile technologies is more widespread among younger generations, and as such, libraries need to readjust offerings for new generations (Rennick et al. 2015). With an increased need for electronic presence and offering library services online, librarian communities need to add an additional set to their toolbox – building and maintaining digital content that is customer-centric in nature. This assumes a need to educate future librarians in the field of user-cantered design and building user experience online. In accordance with this idea, García-Marco (2009) states the need for librarians of a hybrid profile whose responsibilities in everyday work go beyond traditional librarianship. Furthermore, in her paper on education for digital libraries, Aparac-Jelušić (2016) describes the trend change in education for digital libraries of the 21st century and emphasizes the need for education for new skills required for the design, use and preservation of digital collections.


Aparac-Jelusic, T. (2016). Obrazovanje za digitalne knjiznice: pogled iz Europe. Libellarium, IX, 2 (2016): 5 – 24.

Bowlby, R., Franklin, B. and Lin, C. (2011). Utilizing LibQUAL+ to Identify Best Practices in Academic Research Library Website Design. <em>UConn Libraries Published Works.</em>Paper 40.

Carole A. George (2005). Usability Testing and Design of a Library Website: An Iterative Approach,&rdquo;OCLC Systems and Services 21(3)178.

Connaway Silipigni, L., Lanclos, D. And Hood, E. (2013). I Find Google a lot Easier than Going to the Library Website. Imagine Ways to Innovate and Inspire Students to Use the Academic Library. ACRL Indianopolis, IN, April 10-13, 2013.

Cronin, B. (1998). Information professionals in the Digital Age. International Information and Library Review 30, 37&minus;50.

Davis and Venkatesh(2004). Toward preprototype user acceptance testing of new information systems: implications for software project management.<a href="">IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management</a>, 51 (1).

Datig, I. (2015). Walking in Your Users' Shoes: An Introduction to User Experience Research as a Tool for Developing User-Centered Libraries, College & Undergraduate Libraries, 22:3-4, 234-246.

García-Marco, F.-J. (2009). Teaching digital libraries in Spain: Context and experiences. Education for Information 27: 127-155.

George, C. A. (2005). Usability testing and design of a library website: An iterative approach. OCLC Systems &amp; Services, 21(3), 167.

Hackosh and Redish (1998). User and Task Analysis for Interface Design. Computer Publishing, New York.

Nielsen, J. and Tahir, M (2000). Keep Your Users in Mind. Internet World 6 (24), 44.

Krueger, J., Ray, R. and Knight, L. (2004). Applying Web usability techniques to assess student awareness of library Web resources. Journal of Academic Librarianship 30(4): 285-93.

Lowdermilk, T. (2013). User-centered design: a developer's guide to building user friendly applications. O' Reilly Media, Inc. Sebastopol.

Manzari, L. and Trinidad-Christensen J. (2006). User-Centered Design of a Web Site forLibrary and Information Science Students: Heuristic Evaluation and Usability Testing.Information Technology & Libraries 25 (3).

Marquez, D., Downey, A. and Clement, R. (2015). Walking a Mile in the User's Shoes: Customer Journey Mapping as a Method to Understanding the User Experience. Internet Reference ServicesQuarterly, 20:135-15.

Murdoch &amp; Hearne (2014). Journey into the user experience: creating a library website that&rsquo;s not for librarians.VALA 2014 Proceedings. VALA conference.

Nielsen, J. (2000). Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users. Available at:

Raward, Roslyn (2001). Academic Library Design Principles: Development of a Checklist. Australian Academic and Research Library, 32, 2, 123-136.

Spencer, Donna (2009). Card sorting: designing usable categories. Rosenfeld Media, 1sted. LCC, New York.

Warfel, T (2009). Prototyping: A Practitioner's guide. Rosenfeld Media LCC, New York.

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Libellarium (Online). ISSN 1846-9213 © 2008


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.