4 keys to a dazzling library website redesign

Top portion of the U-M Library website homepage showing the site navigation, a large banner image of anti-racist pinback buttons, and a large

For the last 2 years, my work life has largely been consumed by leading the redesign of our primary website at lib.umich.edu, which launched in July. It features new technology infrastructure, designs, and information architecture, as well as fully rewritten content. 
 
The response to the new site has been overwhelmingly positive. While the true test will come when fall semester ramps up, we feel good! There are so many aspects of this project I could write about, but I’d like to focus on some of what I believe are the most significant factors in our success. 

Project team norms

I believe in project management for humans and feel strongly that projects need to be structured and adapted in response to members of the team. At the very beginning of working together, our redesign project team established a team charter and norms for how we would communicate, make decisions, and track work. We also established shared values such as: “We are not afraid of being wrong. We test our assumptions early and often and apply what we learn from our findings.”
 
Every time our group came together, we checked in on these norms and values, making adjustments along the way, including how often we met as a full team and how we used Slack. It wasn’t perfect, we had bumps, I negotiated conflicts, and there were tears (mine), but we committed to working together in an intentional way and the end product demonstrates that dedication.

Commitment to internal communication

The U-M Library has roughly 450 staff and librarians, as well as hundreds of student employees. Completely overhauling a website folks have been using for a decade was a significant undertaking. 

We committed to being strategic and thoughtful about our internal communication practices in order to build trust and prepare our colleagues for the change. As part of this, we:

  • Went on a listening tour and held conversations with departments across the organization, asking what they liked and didn’t about the current website, and what their needs were
  • Formed a group of champions from across the organization and kept them up to speed on project progress. They served as an advisory body, gut check, and network
  • Used change management best practices, specifically making clear what was changing, what wasn’t, and what people needed to do (even if it was nothing)
  • Engaged stakeholders in our content drafting process through conversations, review opportunities, and however much dialogue was needed

Focus on content strategy and plain language

My job title is web project manager and content strategist and I brought a strong focus on content strategy to our redesign. 
 
Our standing Web Content Coordinator Group (with representation from across the library) did years of work prior to the redesign to understand the library’s content needs and establish what belonged on our primary website. 
 
When it came time to take a first pass at our new site information architecture, we broke down all of the pieces and then built it back up into a structure that we tested and iterated on. Our legacy site was largely built around our organizational structure and physical buildings, resulting in siloed information and duplication, so a driving focus was to ensure we were delivering as one library.
 
And while we already had an editorial style guide, the redesign was an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to it and focus on using plain language. You’ll see this influence everywhere from our primary navigation to staff profiles.  

Needs-informed designs and development

We did not design or build for hypotheticals or one-offs and were committed to creating a sustainable and flexible site. It’s tricky designing a site piece-by-piece from scratch, but the niche elements were definitely kept to a minimum.

Further, our design decisions were based on content-driven requirements and needs uncovered in user research. And we tested. A lot! Card sorts, tree tests, first-click tests, intercept tests, and more. We were not afraid to change our minds and I attribute this mentality to the values we established as a team. 

What’s next?

A website is never done and we will continue to iterate and adapt. We are especially in tune to shifting content needs and any design adjustments that may require. 

We are also in the process of operationalizing our support for the site, including implementing editorial workflows and establishing ongoing measures for site user experience.

This project also bred many lessons learned for future initiatives, such as making technology stack and design decisions, structuring the team, and internal communications practices.

Acknowledgements

The website would not be what it is without the contributions of every member of our project team: Albert Bertram, Ben Howell, Bridget Burke, Denise Leyton, Eliot Scott, Ellen Schlegelmilch, Emily Buckler, Jon Earley, Mary Morris, Robyn Ness, and Tess Mendes. Doing this work with all of them was a privilege. 

Our work did not happen in a bubble and succeeded largely due to the organization being behind and part of it. We are grateful for the backing of internal teams, groups, and departments and our U-M Library colleagues at large—a generous, thoughtful, and passionate bunch—who gave of their time and labor by engaging with our project in a variety of ways.

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