This is not a new finding: a similar survey for Better connected in 2012 reported that renewing a library book was ‘not a well-designed task for the customer’ on most council websites, with a key problem being ‘the interface between the council website and the third party library system on which the task depends’. This latest survey, carried out in January 2016, indicates that this problem is far from solved.
According to the survey, 45% of the English county councils, metropolitan districts, and English and Welsh unitary councils tested were rated as providing a good or very good experience.
Better connected reviewers test websites by visiting them to carry out a structured survey exploring whether a specific task – in this case ‘renew library book’ – can be easily found and completed. Reviewers start from a Google search and use the site’s own facilities to seek key pieces of information and complete the task quickly without encountering errors or out-of-date information.
Some of the questions asked in the 2016 survey had been asked in previous surveys on the same task, and in many of these showed improvement. For example, where a password or PIN is required to log in to a user’s library account, two thirds of sites now provide a ‘Forgotten your password/PIN?’ link next to the login – up from about half of sites when this question was last asked.
However, on the question ‘Were all the relevant pieces of information/pages for this task linked together to make a smooth, coherent journey?’ there was a notable decline from 49% of sites to 34%.
This specific finding underlines the continuing problem with integration of third party library systems with the library pages on the main council website.
Reviewers reported that: ‘Taking the ‘renew library books’ link from the main council site [into the third party system] immediately changes the site ‘look and feel’, confusing the user’. Many library systems present very busy library homepages with poor positioning and promotion of the renewal task. Key features, like login fields, were often not immediately visible, sometimes featured only as a small link to ‘login’ tucked away in a corner.
There were also complaints about use of default labels provided by the system suppliers for login. A field that should be described straightforwardly as ‘library card number’ was frequently and confusingly termed ‘Borrower ID’, ‘Borrower number’, ‘User ID’ or ‘Library barcode’.
Even the most basic links between the third party system and the council’s library webpages were often found to be overlooked and reviewers found many examples where there was no direct link back once inside the library system. This is a real barrier if key information (eg a schedule of fines) can only be found on the council website.
Does the result of the 2016 survey suggest that libraries are going backwards when it comes to the online experience? The survey report says not, but does raise the question of whether libraries are improving their online offering fast enough, given the wider context of development of web and social media technologies and user behaviours.
A number of individual council websites do perform particularly well on this task however, including East Riding of Yorkshire; East Sussex CC; North Lincolnshire; Staffordshire CC, Surrey CC, Warwickshire CC and West Sussex.
Further detail can be found in the task report ‘Libraries: renew library book’ available at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/services/libraries/renew-library-book/2015-2016
Following the libraries report, Better connected will be publishing results of surveys on council tax (‘pay council tax’) and planning (‘object to a planning application’). These will be followed by leisure (‘find out about keeping fit’), housing (‘find out how to apply for housing’), and business (‘register a food business’).
Surveys on usability, accessibility, and website performance when accessed from mobile devices will come after this, and an overall ‘star ranking’ for each council website will follow in April.
A series of Better connected awards will be presented at Better connected Live on 24/25 May in Birmingham [this link no longer exists]. This major new event will place the Better connected research in the context of ‘the digital council’ in an age of austerity and devolution. The event will also feature a half day event for library service managers presented in partnership with the Society of Chief Librarians.
Notes for editors
All councils can access headline results from Better connected surveys, but details of individual council reviews are available to Socitm Insight subscribers only (around 75% of all councils).
Any employee of a Socitm Insight subscribing council can register for free with Socitm.net and then get access to the detailed results for their council.
Vicky Sargent, Better connected programme
Tel: 07726 601139