Although this blog was originally designed to evaluate the effectiveness of Twitter and Facebook as used in public and national libraries, I’ve decided to also include a few posts on the user-friendliness of the homepages of several institutions, with a focus specifically on accessibility and navigability. They are, in a way, related to the use of social media, as users aren’t likely to connect and engage with an institution if the homepage isn’t user-friendly and they don’t know how to navigate it effectively. Also, to be totally honest, this second part was an optional part of our blogging assignment, and I thought I’d incorporate it into my work.
With that out of the way, I decided to take a look at the overall design of the Library of Congress website. The Library of Congress has an immense collection, and one would expect that it would be difficult to express this effectively online while maintaining a user-friendly interface that gives the user what he or she wants. As the site presumably attracts hundreds of visitors a day, it has to be easy to use and easy to learn. Users don’t have time to try and constantly learn how to navigate new webpages, and thankfully, the LOC makes it easy on them. The website is esthetically pleasing and laid out in a simple three column design. Although full of information, it doesn’t appear too busy or cluttered. The page is accessible and has a reasonable, but not great, sense of organization, brought about by the three-column design. Users can navigate around the site using the left sidebar, and they access important information such as “contact a librarian” quickly by using the top navigation bar.
However, one of the annoying things about this site is that it does not chart your path correctly. What do I mean by this? If a user clicks the “Digital Collections” button on the top of the page, a site with a directory of ten different thematic topics appears. These topics including the performing arts, legislative information and American History and Culture. However, if a user clicks through to “American History and Culture”, rather than being shown a ‘breadcrumb trail’ of “Library of Congress>Digital Collections> American History and Culture”, they are shown the path of “The Library of Congress>American Memory Home”. Supposing a user wanted to navigate back to the Digital Collections, they would have to use the “back” button on their browser. Clicking the “Library of Congress” link would return the user to the homepage, where he would have to click through to “Digital Collections” once again. Of course, this is really frustrating, and although it’s a problem that is easily remedied by the user, I can see a lot of peoples’ parents getting quite frustrated by clicking on a link that they think is going to take them somewhere and ends up taking them somewhere else.
One of the great aspects of the LOC website is that it recognizes that people skim websites, they don’t read. Steve Krug noted this in his book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, as well as noting that people have a tendency to not read the instructions, but rather to “muddle through” and figure things out on the fly. The LOC has included several wonderful images on their homepage that serve as places to direct one’s attention. They serve as one-dimensional representations of “Visual Affordance”, in which the portrayal mimics the “real world”. For example, if users are searching for newspapers, the newspaper image is obvious, and will attract one’s attention. The user finds himself focusing on them and then reading the content next to them. People don’t want to be reading great long chunks of text to find what they’re looking for, and the LOC lays everything out nicely for users. This has the added benefit of letting users easily learn how the site works as they go, without having to think too long and hard about how the webpage might ‘work’. With a quick glance, users can understand what is happening on the page without having to read every single word. However, there is plenty of content available for those who do wish to read in detail, and it’s nice to see the LOC finding a balance between casual and detailed users.
All in all, the design is well done, but it would be nice to see some additions to the navigation structure. I’d say this one gets a 9 out of 10!