Content Style Guide: Website Guiding Principles

One of the best ways to ensure that our website is user-friendly is to follow industry best practices, keep the content focused on key user tasks, and keep our content up-to-date at all times.


The primary purpose of our web presence is to meet the needs of our patrons by providing access to resources and services, instructional guidance, and support information–so it is important that we treat our website with the same respect and diligence as we do our physical collections. Our website advances the Library’s position as the university’s intellectual heart. To help us serve these needs in a thoughtful manner, the following principles will guide our efforts and keep us focused on what matters most — helping our users get their work done.

1) Focus on patron needs

Understanding patron needs is central. Our design, development, and content efforts should take into account what real people need — what they need to do, their obstacles, and their context. Our decisions should be informed by data about these needs followed by our own expertise (remembering that what users ask for is not always what they need) and internal needs (to satisfy technical, ethical, professional, and legal requirements).

What this means:

  • Patron needs should be at the center of every discussion.
  • Focus web content and site organization around patron needs, not the org chart.
  • Assessment should be done early and often. Projects should begin with discovery of patron needs. Difficult decisions should be informed by or validated with feedback, usage statistics, and usability testing. Results should be measurable so we can evaluate, learn, and refine.
  • When something (for example, features, applications, tools, design elements) isn’t working (doesn’t meet patron needs or expectations), isn’t aligned with library goals, or isn’t worth ongoing maintenance, we should let go of it to help make room for new and better things.

2) Design and build for everyone

(aka universal design)

Designing a website for inclusion will help ensure a quality experience for all. Our patrons are novice and expert users, desktop and mobile users, people with visual, hearing, motor, or cognitive impairments, non-native English speakers, and users with different cultural expectations.

What this means:

  • Websites should employ the principles of inclusive design: equitable use, flexibility in use, simple & intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.
  • Accessibility is incorporated into design, coding, and content from the beginning of a project and throughout.
  • Content should use proper markup and plain language so it is simple, concise, readable, understandable, and works well with different technologies. Multimedia requires extra effort (for example, videos should have captioning).
  • Design for simplicity (aka, principle #4 – “keep it simple”) to help reduce barriers and streamline task execution.
  • Avoid introducing new technology that is not accessible. All new code must be accessible by default and legacy code must be reviewed and improved.

3) Do less, do it better

Our web presence is large and complex. Developing and maintaining it requires prioritization and re-prioritization over time. To improve the search experience, the content, and the underlying structure to make it accessible and responsive, we need to be selective about what we choose to do and focus our efforts on things that have high user impact. In other words, deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do. As a general rule, 80% of a product’s usage involves 20% of its features/content — so we should focus more of our attention on the 20%. We should also recognize that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well — and doing it well requires skill and time.

What this means:

  • Always ask whether or not we really need to do “this” and why. It’s an important part of the process and isn’t meant as a critique.
  • Focus on things only the library can offer and avoid developing tools already offered elsewhere or creating content readily available on the open web.
  • Prioritize development efforts. Focus on “core” areas that have potential for high user impact and avoid niche features and tools.
  • Prioritize content efforts. Favor putting effort towards “core” areas that have potential for high user impact over niche, or “just in case” content.
  • Reduce existing, and avoid adding new, technical debt.
  • Redesign of core systems takes precedence. In order to stay focused on improving for the future, all new content or development efforts need to be prioritized alongside redesign efforts.

4) Keep it simple

Making something simple to use can be extremely difficult — especially when the underlying systems are complex. Keeping things simple will help keep the whole system: sustainable, upgradeable, scalable, extensible, archivable, accessible, cross-browser compatible; have a consistent look and feel; consistent branding; quality content; and a user-friendly interface.

What this means:

  • Quantity of content matters. Users are often better served by fewer pages that contain more concise and useful content. Webpages that are redundant, out of date, or unnecessary will create a signal-to-noise ratio issue, especially in the website search results, making it difficult to find relevant results. We should err on the side of being strategic over being exhaustive. And remember, everything that is created must continue to be managed.
  • Quality of content matters. The better the content, the more useful and usable it is.
  • Use time- and cost-effective user research methods that require fewer resources yet still yield quality results.
  • Use simple design aesthetics to make it easier to apply the styles consistently and broadly. Use design to simplify and improve interactions.
  • When considering custom elements, add-ons, widgets, third-party applications, mobile app platforms, or advanced technology, make sure the user need justifies the use.
  • Be mindful of archival responsibilities, maintenance, and development overhead needed to manage long-term.

5) Take a holistic view

There are many challenges to supporting research needs and engaging with the campus — but there are also many solutions.

We are a large and complex organization but users shouldn’t have to know anything about how our organization is structured to find the information they need. The website is an extension of our physical space and services and should be designed and developed as part of a whole user experience.

What this means:

  • Language and design should be used consistently across all physical and virtual spaces.
  • Content should be created and organized within the context of the whole library. Unit-specific content should not duplicate content applicable to everyone (or available elsewhere already). Core content that’s used by many areas of the library should be organized and presented according to patron needs and task based categories.

6) Have a sustainable infrastructure

A healthy infrastructure will help ensure that the website is sustainable in the long-term. The more we can use our existing platforms, the more seamless the user experience will be (and the more time we will have to improving those existing platforms). Connecting these platforms through widgets, feeds, and consistent look and feel, will help reduce user confusion, streamline content creation and management.

Just because different back-end technologies are used or different development groups are contributing code doesn’t mean we can’t present those systems as a unified whole.

What this means:

  • When possible, new sites and tools should be built within existing frameworks.
  • Preference for CMS and database-based systems over custom, one-off “artisanal” sites.
  • All GVSU Libraries sites and systems should use some level of consistent visual design and branding.

7) Embody the 21st century library

The library is much more than a physical space that houses books and a location for obtaining reference assistance. We are also much more than a clearinghouse for the electronic resources we make available. Increasingly, we are a unique and important campus resource for a wide array of technology-driven services and expertise — research data management, technology labs, collaboration spaces, digital archives, etc.

What this means:

  • Our web presence should clearly and robustly communicate what a 21st century library is and does. These newer aspects of the library should be presented not as “add ons” but as a vital part of our core identity.
  • As libraries across the world (united and separately) offer access to similar suites of electronic resources, we must continue to find ways to emphasize what makes our Library unique and valuable to our users — in terms of expertise, services, collections, etc.

Your friendly Web Services Librarian

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Matthew Reidsma
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(616) 331-3577

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Planning, creating, and managing quality web content isn't as easy as it might seem. It’s hard work to make things simple. Contact the Web Services Librarian if you have questions, feedback, or need help.

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Guide content originally created by Suzanne Chapman for the University of Illinois Libraries. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons By 4.0 license.

  • Last Updated: Apr 17, 2024 11:25 AM
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