Starting with Understanding for a Blogs Platform Redesign

Sculpture of the word

Introduction

The library blogs platform provides a valuable, shared space for blogs from across the U-M Library and is an important part of our web content strategy. Blogs are also built in Drupal 7 — which will soon reach end of life support — and so a redesign project kicked off in November 2021. While each individual blog has dedicated managers, I oversee the platform as a whole in my role as web content strategist and am the project manager for the redesign. 

The Design and Discovery department aims to follow a 5-phase design and development workflow with projects we are involved in, and it starts with taking the time to understand. For the blogs redesign, this meant documenting “what is,” looking at analytics, reviewing what other libraries do, and conducting a needs assessment survey with our stakeholders. 

Dedicating time at the start of the project to get our bearings and gather information has turned out quite beautifully. This work allowed us to efficiently make decisions about the infrastructure to use going forward and craft design requirements based on established needs. It also engaged stakeholders early in the redesign process, which helps build buy-in and trust.  

Know where you are

When I approach a new project where we’re rebuilding something that already exists, I always want to know as much about the current state as possible. 

The existing blogs platform is mostly self-sustaining and doesn't need a whole lot of attention. So the first thing I did was document the current specifications. This breakdown captured “what is” in our current blogs:

  • Content in the header and what type of pages there are — homepage, A-Z list, individual blog landing page, post — with details of each

  • Behavior of “Most recent posts” and sidebar components that scope

  • Access and authentication, as well as authoring and manager roles

  • Content authoring setup

  • Admin screens for managing blogs 

Documenting these legacy specifications helped inform what kinds of things I wanted to look for in the competitive analysis, as well as questions to ask in the stakeholder needs assessment survey, both of which are described later in this post.

The other part of knowing what we have was checking out the analytics for usage and any interesting trends. This is something we look at roughly every year, and I pulled 18 months of data for this review. In general, the blogs see decent traffic, but it varies widely depending on the blog. The top 10 posts from the time period came from 5 different blogs and cover a variety of topics: from book reviews to 3D printing to the Ted Kaczynski Papers. These popular posts also show a blog doesn’t have to be super active for posts to get traffic since they’re indexed by search engines. You also can’t count out older posts. Two of the top 10 were from 2014 and none were from the last 2 years.

Learn from others

A competitive (or comparative) analysis is a research method where you systematically checkout how other people are doing the thing you’re going to do, and learn from it. I looked at the blog setups (or lack thereof) for 20 Association of Research Libraries members, including 10 from the Big Ten Academic Alliance

In this analysis, I wanted to know:

  • If they had blogs and if they did, was it one or multiple? And for those with multiple, are they each distinct or in a shared platform? How’s everything connected?

  • What options are provided for search and browse?

  • What interactions are available (sharing, subscribing, commenting)?

  • How are blogs findable from the primary website?

All but 2 of the libraries I looked at had blogs in some form, the majority (14) had more than one. 7 had multiple blogs in separate sites and another 7 had multiple blogs in one shared site. The remaining 4 had single blogs. So we are in no way unusual in having multiple topical library blogs.

Blogs were integrated into the respective websites in a variety of ways, often with proximity to “news” content. None of the sites with multiple blogs offered searching across them like ours does, and browsing functionality was all over the place, primarily available only on individual blogs. 

The analysis mostly validated our existing design choices — in that there aren’t really that many ways to do blogs to begin with — but did provide ideas for other homepage options that show the list of all blogs. It also helped me notice how some of the design patterns we’ve used on our website could work well in blogs. 

Talk to your people

All of the other work to understand what we were getting into with the redesign led up to the stakeholder needs assessment survey. 

Stakeholders included all blog managers, frequent authors identified by blog managers, and web content coordinators (representatives from across the library who help support web content creation and management and steward our web content strategy). 

The goal of the needs assessment survey were to:

  • Engage with stakeholders early in the redesign process

  • Understand the primary audience and purpose of blogs for different stakeholders, as well the publishing workflows used by blog managers

  • Assess the importance of specific blogs features and their availability across all blogs and specific to individual blogs

  • Learn what works well in the current platform and what could be better

We received 28 responses to the survey, with at least one from each blog.  The findings were instrumental for informing our path forward. Some of the most informative ones included that:

  • Stakeholders care most about having a clear space for their individual blog, but they also value what the shared platform affords.

  • Keyword search is slightly more important than browsing by tag, and both functions are more important than browsing by date.

  • We need to keep RSS feeds accessible for those who rely on them and indexing by search engines.

  • Blogs are increasingly used for student engagement, so continuing to support students as authors is very important.

  • Our primary area of improvement is around images, both how they are added to posts during content creation, and options for displaying them in a post.

As a follow-up, I hosted two stakeholder update sessions in February 2022 to share our findings and discuss some outstanding questions. Out of those we were able to make the call to get rid of comments as a feature in the redesign.

Plans for what’s next

It was clear from the research that we should retain a lot of what we currently have. The platform is largely effective for our stakeholders. It also does the trick of offering a diverse set of blogs in one, well-integrated platform, while also having a scoped presence for individual blogs. So with that, we’re sticking with Drupal and moving to Drupal 9. 

Using the knowledge from our research findings, I wrote specifications for the backend content management system, as well as design requirements, and recently completed work on interface designs using Figma. Our Drupal developer has our development site in place and work is in progress. We aim to launch the upgraded and redesigned platform in late summer 2022.