My Web Change Soapbox

Few things strike more dread and horror into the hearts of librarians and library staff than the words "web site redesign." Ten years of managing web sites for four libraries (three academics, one public) and hearing of similar experiences from web colleagues has shown me that this is universal. Changes-real and even merely proposed-often result in intense emotional reactions, especially for public services folks doing reference and instruction. I get that; I did reference and instruction for the first five years of my career, and given that the site is used as a teaching tool day in and day out, this is understandable. But why the knee-jerk negative reaction, even in light of changes that are intended be positive?

I think libraries-collectively-fear web site change because we’ve-collectively-managed it so badly in the past. We came late to the usability game, we didn’t do usability as often as we should have, and when we did, we based it on tasks that were important to librarians' conceptual frameworks about information. In one testing round that I coordinated, the poor undergrads slogged through a 20-item to do list, filled with tasks like "find this book" and "find this peer-reviewed article." This is not to say that being able to do these things isn't important; however, it's not taking into account what THEY want to do on our site, and how THEY approach information and our library services. In short, it is not a user-centered experience, and it therefore does not result in a user-centered product.

If the change is bad for the users, then the public services staff are put in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with their negative reactions. I get that, too; I've been there at the reference desk, sometimes even as the person responsible for the bad change experience. If the web folks haven't done due diligence with usability testing and approaching web design and development, the public services folks' jobs are doubly hard: they're getting used to the new site as users themselves AND having to train our customers as well. It's hard to do your job when you're frustrated with your tools, even more so when your customers are, too.

If we make positive changes that make users happy, based on what they’ve told us-NOT what we want them to know how to be able to do-the public services staff won’t be stuck apologizing for our mistakes, and hopefully they will fear change less.

It's also important to remember that librarians and library staff are, in fact, users. This does NOT mean that they get to design the web site, and that what they want the site to look like goes. This is a tricky line, politically; other library work type divisions, such as that between reference and tech services, are more definitively drawn. For example, tech services does not get to dictate how reference services are provided. This doesn't mean that input is not welcome, but at the end of the day, management for each area of library work calls the shots. The web folks and their management need to be able call the shots when it comes to the final decisions regarding any site development or changes.

That said, if all staff are invited to weigh in about the process, their voices are heard and they will hopefully fear impending change less because they have been included. Ask them what works, and what doesn't, for THEM, as staff members doing their jobs, whatever their duties may be, and ask also what they see working or not working for our customers. Sometimes, maybe even often, these two things will be difficult to resolve into a single tidy solution. However, focussing on their input at this high level-not about design particulars of the existing or proposed site-will produce valuable input for new developments and improvements.

I'm hopeful that by correcting bad change management habits and focusing on external and internal needs-and of course, open channels of communication throughout any web development project-that this web change fear will gradually subside. What do you do in your role at your library to mitigate the fear of web site change?