A digital branch for an iconic library

  • Client Location Seattle, Washington
  • Industry Public Library
  • Client Since 2016-08-01
  • Available Links spl.org

The legendary architecture and design that make the Seattle Public Library's central branch a standout cultural landmark also reflects the institution’s role as a community cornerstone. SPL patrons care deeply about their iconic library: it’s a vibrant place to connect, learn, discover, and create. And Seattle citizens had made their voices heard. They wanted the Library to improve its online services and upgrade the dated website.

Partnering with SPL, it quickly became apparent that we were dealing with more than a “website.” With more visits a year than all 28 branches combined, the online gateway to the Library is truly a digital branch. And yet, the website hadn’t been redesigned in over a decade, and it wasn’t responsive on mobile devices. It was time for a digital project worthy of the Library’s passionate community and legendary design heritage.

World-class digital service, local community engagement

We set out with the shared goal of bringing a world-class standard of digital service to the online experience in a process that welcomed the community into the project; it was essential that this project be wholeheartedly transparent and people-centric. This meant embracing community listening in a robust way. In every phase, the SPL and Domain7 teams found ways to invite input from Seattle residents, conducting numerous public surveys, interviews, and focus groups. The SPL team created a detailed public-facing project page that kept patrons updated on the status of the project, shared community feedback, and provided ways for individuals to speak into the site’s creation on an ongoing basis. SPL included a “race and social justice initiative” outcome in the project goals, and we ensured that together we reached out to underrepresented communities and individuals to ensure we were hearing from a truly diverse range of voices.

The rich insights we received from patrons informed the design process as we went, creating a more sharply relevant experience at each level of design. The open process avoided any big reveals or surprises, keeping the community informed as to what the site would look and feel like post-launch. The reaction was overwhelmingly warm and engaged, with patrons taking to social media to applaud the participatory process—many characterized the project as an example for community organizations to embrace. Post-launch, the SPL team continues to listen closely to their community as needs change, finding ways to respond meaningfully.

A video walkthrough of the new site design, created in collaboration with the SPL team and presented by our Design Director, Tracey Falk, was distributed for public feedback.

Radical simplification and discovery

“We make it difficult; it doesn’t have to be,” an SPL team member told us early in project discovery. Just like a bricks-and-mortar branch, the digital space needed to provide truly welcoming service while making it easy to find programs and resources. The original site reflected the complex structure of a robust municipal library with multiple branches: there were many, many layers of navigation, a huge array of pages, and complex steps needed to achieve simple goals such as booking a meeting room. We reassessed each process and navigation task from the viewpoint of the patron, implementing user-centric design to achieve what SPL called “radical simplification.”

We also needed to consider community and discovery. In a physical branch, Seattle patrons felt connected to their neighbourhood, and often they would discover programs or resources they didn’t know they were looking for. As we designed the online experience, we looked for ways to communicate and unleash that transformative power of libraries to help people connect, discover, and grow. Search results were expanded to include a range of discovery across the catalogue and website. Relevant events and recommendations were incorporated in carefully considered ways, and previously-hidden resources and programs were showcased. The new site has demonstrated increased traffic into new areas of the site, with users going beyond simply searching the catalogue to discover the fuller breadth of SPL experiences.

Search functionality was expanded to include more than just the catalogue and presented in a "bento-box" format, allowing the top results from all of the integrated sites to be displayed.

We reassessed each process and navigation task from the viewpoint of the patron, implementing user-centric design to achieve what SPL called “radical simplification".

Accessibility-first

Part of the power of a library lies in its ability to open doors onto new worlds, ideas and opportunities—for anyone. So it was important that the online experience be as truly inclusive and accessible as the Library is offline. We design with what we term an “accessibility-first” mindset, considering the needs of people of different educational levels and abilities.

At each stage we tested carefully for accessibility and sought input from blind and visually impaired stakeholders, among other groups. We also ensure that the site works on any device a patron may choose. The result is an outstandingly accessible site that provides exceptional service for all.  

Flexibility and resilience

With so much rich information and a diverse and growing community, SPL needed to be able to adjust digitally as needs continued to become known. We reimagined the Library’s digital space as more than a static repository of information, planning intentionally for change and iterative improvements. Using responsive UI components to power the entire site created a seamless and flexible bridge between design and development. This approach pays off long after launch, contributing to design integrity and increased agility as the site necessarily flexes over time.

Alongside building for technical and design resilience, we wanted to equip the Library’s team to confidently steward their digital property. Building capacity in the Library’s internal team set them them up for future success, and ensured they weren’t solely reliant on external agencies after we launched the site. An empowering institution deserves an empowering project.

A modular approach was taken with the site design, with the intention of keeping consistency, flexibility and usability at the forefront, both for library patrons and the website editors.

Alongside building for technical and design resilience, we wanted to equip the Library’s team to confidently steward their digital property. Building capacity in the Library’s internal team set them them up for future success, and ensured they weren’t solely reliant on external agencies after we launched the site. An empowering institution deserves an empowering project.

Translating legendary design online

When you step into the Seattle Public Library’s central branch, you’re instantly aware of the attention to design. Legendary architect Rem Koolhaas designed the building and Canadian design great Bruce Mau created the remarkable interior wayfinding and signage. 

Our design team ran with the abundant inspiration, drawing from typefaces and architectural elements to reflect an authentic online experience that blended with the offline experience. Clean lines, colour blocks, iconic shapes, and a vibrant palette were all employed in a warm, functional design treatment that put people and their needs first.

Strong architectural lines, bright colours and bold wayfinding were some of the inputs used to guide the visual design. Above are photos taken inside SPL's Central & Beacon Hill Libraries as well as the final Style Tile that we created to set the foundation for the site design.

The future for a beloved institution

The hallmarks of transparency and community engagement that the SPL project established is just the start of an ongoing legacy for the Library. The digital leadership team continues to reach out to patrons and the community to inform their stewardship and development of the site.

This team and institution serves as a remarkable example of how community-first, transformative web projects can move libraries squarely into the digital era while maintaining and amplifying what makes them such valued anchors of society: places of gathering, collaboration, learning, discovering, and becoming.

Results by the numbers

 - Overall traffic +13%

 - Bounce rate -13%

 - Library card application +11%

 - Hours and locations +36%

 - Magazines/newspapers +40%

 - Museum Pass +48%

 - Event calendar +53%

 - Reserve a room +55%

 - Ask Us +153%

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