Lessons From my First Year as Web Content Strategist

Photo of a cupcake with a candle in it.
Photo by Theresa Thompson courtesy of Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Last July I joined the U-M Library in a newly created web content strategist position within the User Experience Department. The year has flown by and together we’ve accomplished a lot in the content arena:

  • Successfully piloted a new distributed oversight model for web content — the Web Content Coordinators group.
  • Created a style guide and best practices for web content.
  • Developed a new approach for presenting our collections online.
  • Refreshed the library gateway and Spotlight features.
  • And worked with content coordinators and units across the library on projects big and small.

Looking back, here are a few lessons that most resonated over the course of this first year:

We don’t have to fix everything at once.

There’s a lot to be done and it can feel overwhelming at times. A phrase from John Muir often pops into my mind when I’m working on web content:  “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

When, for example, we looked at updating information about remote access to electronic resources, it became clear than not only did we need new text, the pathways to the information were in need of further excellence. And trying to bring some order to an intermixed list of libraries and departments raised complex questions about how we define a library.

But knowing that turning over stones is going to lead to strange discoveries shouldn’t stop us from continuing to make steady incremental progress. We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. This is especially true for when we butt into frustrations with the current website design and information architecture; as Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “You go to war with the army you have — not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

No change is permanent.

The beautiful thing about web content is its plasticity, its malleability. It isn’t like carpentry or surgery where mismeasure or poor planning will lead to irrevocable harm. If something’s not working, we can keep trying out new ideas.

We worked on prototypes of our new collections architecture over several months, but continued to refine and improve the design based on feedback after moving to the live site.

We won’t be fully successful until we see it as our website.

More and more our website serves as a front door through which users access our materials and services. Our task in the User Experience Department is to help users accomplish their goals by making our offerings easier to find and to use.

But going back to John Muir, even though many of us are focused on fairly discrete areas — circulation, data visualization, creating exhibits, digitization — online, everything has to connect together fluidly. This makes it important to have folks like the User Experience Department and Web Content Coordinators group who can take a long view across all the silos and try to make improvements for the good of the whole.

So, to use a simple example, even though we offer printing at numerous locations, that doesn’t mean each location needs to create and maintain its own webpage on printing policies and directions. Having a central, shared home for that type of information can do two things:  

1) Cut down on upkeep requirements — the time an efffort required to maintain a dozen pages instead of one. (This can really add up when multiplied across the entire site.)

2) Limit the number of similar and duplicate pages that come up in search results, making it much easier for our users to find what they’re looking for.

This “one library” philosophy becomes even more important when it comes to broader, complex areas of content with many internal stakeholders.