What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?

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What Does This Mean to Me, Laura?

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Why do web myths live on in libraries?

21st February 2019

Last week, I received an email from a library where the staff were concerned about the amount of scrolling needed to see all of the different databases. There’s at least two major problems inherent in that (misplaced) concern: let’s break them down quickly.

  1. Believing that scrolling is bad dates back to the late 90’s/early 00’s, before the advent of mobile devices (not to mention actual data on user behaviors and best usability practices). Back then, lots of scrolling was believed to be inconvenient, and there was a great battle to get as much as possible “above the fold.” We now live in a time where mobile access may well be the primary way patrons view a library’s site. And, believe me, if patrons didn’t consider scrolling a normal behavior, they’d already have given up their smart phones and tablets by now.
  2. Notice that the email focused on the needs of staff. It’s probable that the staff uses desktops to access the database list. So, I can understand that they may not want to scroll through something long. The problem is, the public website is for the (often mobile-using) PUBLIC. If library staff want something different, that’s fine, but put it on an intranet. It’s virtually impossible to balance staff needs and user needs on the same website: they’re two very different audiences, with different mental models.

So, putting aside the idea of scrolling for a moment, this is not the only web usability myth I’ve heard from library staff. I’ve also been told:

  • “Nothing should be more than 3 clicks from the homepage.” (Wrong.)
  • “Carousels are awesome!” (Spoiler alert: nope, they’re often bad for users.)
  • “We know what our users think/how they use our website” (Statements like this are often based on staff anecdotes.)
  • “We need graphics to jazz up the website” (Don’t even get me started on the problems in this one.)

And I’m sure there would be many more, if I were to comb back through the years.

I spend a fair amount of time educating library staff about how user behavior has changed, and sharing current data. And, that’s actually okay, I love talking about this stuff (and I’m sure some people are sick of it by now!). Many libraries that I work with are surprised that there are now actual, concrete practices that websites need to follow.

Why do these myths continue to be perpetuated in libraries? Perhaps because so many of us grew up alongside the web. We were initiated in the very early days, when it was truly a Wild West-type environment. Not everyone realizes that those days are truly long-gone and there’s actually real sheriffs in town.

Another reason may simply be that some truths are hard. The fact that carousels actively turn off users doesn’t jibe with the love affair many libraries have with them. The fact that users do scroll doesn’t always harmonize with the perspective of a librarian at the reference desk. Mythology persists, even in an industry devoted to the dissemination of information, because it can be hard to give up what’s comfortable.

My hope is that, by the time I eventually retire, that whomever comes after me has to do less mythbusting in libraries. In the meantime, let’s all be information professionals: let’s put aside our outdated views and our own convenience to create better websites for users.