Web Architecture trumps Web 2.0

I am re-designing a website where I work, and need to keep my technolust in check. For one, we are going to use Joomla and that product has just about everything you could ask and more — RSS feeds, wikis, blog capability, community space, discussion groups, multimedia sharing and lots of extras.

Well, my bosses sat me down and insisted I focus on architecture and I did.

I am really close to presenting an architecture design and, thanks to a great Website team and alot of “consensus-building” (aka heated arguments), I think we have it down-pat.

Now, having gone through this process and knowing that Michael Stephen’s Web 2.0 & Libraries: Best Practices for Social Software out, I just wanted to offer my advice on the hot and the helpful.

I know that it is important for libraries to think outside the box, and I think Web/Library 2.0 is also very important. I also know that Michael Stephen and all other Library 2.0 advocates are not proposing that you sacrifice all information architecture in order to provide Library 2.0 services. So, really, this is a contribution to the Web/Library 2.0 discussion, not an anti-2.0 post.

I think that Architecture trumps Web 2.0. What I mean is that, if you have a website with cruddy architecture and no Web 2.0 capability, you should always put your resources toward architecture first, and then the rest toward 2.0. Here are the reasons why:

  • Web 2.0 power with no product is like pedalling hard with your bike chain unhitched

The following are easy to imagine:

  • An RSS feed or podcast containing information no one cares about.
  • A wiki that becomes a link farm for spammers.
  • A blog without regular updates, clear headlines and unreadable content.
  • A site so pointless that no one will bother to tag it.

I would be surprised to hear anyone argue than any of the above are useful to library customers.

Architecture insists that you look at your website in terms of its core products. Sometimes the core products are just simply library hours and locations. If that’s all you have to offer, then a single page with that information is enough. Web 2.0 ought to make the path to core products easier. It will do that only if you have a solid architecture for your site.

  • “Push” requires at least one “pull” transaction

Ok. Fine. Once a person has your feed, they may never need to visit your site again. But they still need to visit the site the first time. What if. . .?

  • You were sure there was an RSS feed on the site somewhere, you just don’t know where.
  • It took 20 clicks, a login and extra software to just to find a site’s wiki?
  • You are invited to social tag a page, but you don’t know what the heck it is about?

If you have an un-navigable site, Web 2.0 will probably only make it worse.

If you have an un-navigable site, people probably won’t bother trying anyway.

You can’t “push” anything to your customers that doesn’t already have an inherent “pull.”

  • Sometimes, the Web 2.0 is a hardware advancement in the guise of a web-based enhancement

Content sharing is a good example. I barely use Flickr to full capacity because I don’t own a digital camera. I only watch YouTube because I don’t own a DV cam, and my dedication to the site is pretty lame. Some Web 2.0 doesn’t have its full power when the hardware is missing. And I daresay that many key users of library websites cannot afford the technology.

In many ways, Flickr and YouTube is more about the ease of content creation than it is about the online service. Can you fit a DV Cam, editing software, and maybe an external harddrive in your budget? Then maybe video sharing via YouTube is not for you. You’d be much better off making it easier for people to find out when your programs are on.

Either way, YouTube and Flickr is already full of wonderful stuff. Can your product be as compelling or edgy as Mr. Pregnant? If not, then your marketing strategy might be lost, except to librarians like myself who are interested in how libraries are using YouTube. That’s not customer focussed to me. It’ll get my attention, but I am much more dorky than your customers.

  • Most people don’t know they are using Web 2.0

I did a staff survey of the current website, and I asked them whether they used RSS feeds. Most said “no.” Then I asked them to comment on their favorite websites, and they said things like “My Yahoo” or “Google’s personalized home.”

Most people don’t care if you have Web 2.0 capability. They want easy access to the information and fun stuff they desire. Web 2.0 should almost be invisible to your customers.

  • Web 2.0 can appear confusing and/or unpolished

In my view, libraries are about experience. Look at the Seattle Central Library. I believe that a library website should do the same thing. You walk into a cool library and there is awe. There is “learning by osmosis.” There is “I am free to sit down and read and no one will bug me about it.” There is “man these librarians are friendly.”

The website should do the same thing. Social software is cool for a variety of reasons, but the “library” experience can be lost on some people if the architecture is not there.

  • Web 2.0 is not always as easy as some say

This kind of goes back to the Flickr/YouTube statement above. If you barely understand the internet, you will have an even harder time understanding the syntax of a wiki. If you do not have a fast computer with broadband Internet, YouTube is pretty much lost on you. If you are a person who is apt to tap the monitor with the mouse when told to “double-click the My Computer icon,” then Web 2.0 is going to be lost on you.

Has anyone tried reading an RSS feed using Jaws? I haven’t. Maybe I should take a look before I add one?

Again, I am not saying that Web 2.0 offers nothing of value to website. On the contrary, I believe there is unlimited potential for Web 2.0 in library websites. There are lots of great ideas to keep people up-to-date on the latest and greatest. I just think that sitting down, thinking about how your site is designed and how it can be designed better is much, much more important.