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Best Practices Research Guide: Home

A guide to accompany our ACRL 2019 Poster presentation.


Mandi Goodsett

Performing Arts & Humanities Librarian

Cleveland State University


(216) 802-3362


Marsha Miles

Asst. Director for Collections & Resource Management / Art Librarian

Cleveland State University


(216) 687-2369


Theresa Nawalaniec

Sciences & Engineering/ Nursing Librarian

Cleveland State University


(216) 687-3504


Welcome to this short guide to accompany our poster presentation at ACRL 2019 in Cleveland! While we aren't necessarily trying to follow all of our best practices in this guide (the best practices are for subject and course guides), we're hoping this can be a useful place to reference if you're looking to update your research guide policies or template. We welcome any questions or ideas about improving guide design that you have! 

This study uses the methods of evidence-based library and information practice to develop a comprehensive list of best practices for designing LibGuides for subject and course research. The objectives of the study were:

  • To conduct a thorough review of the scholarly literature (including gray literature) about LibGuide design.
  • To develop a set of LibGuide design best practices informed by the literature.
  • To apply the literature-informed best practices to our institution’s LibGuides to improve usability and effectiveness of the guides for our researchers.

Evidence-based library and information practice (EBLIP) applies the techniques of evidence-based practice commonly employed in other fields, like health sciences, to the field of library science. EBLIP was used to structure the design of this study, which attempts to use evidence, rather than theory or previous precedent, as a basis for practice. That evidence includes local data, the impressions and experiences of the researchers, and a thorough review of the relevant literature.

To help frame the research and decide what evidence to obtain, the researchers used the PICO (Problem, Intervention, Comparison, Outcome) model to develop the research question. First, the problem was articulated:

  • Considering use and design, how useful are the Michael Schwartz Library (MSL) LibGuides to faculty, staff, and students on campus?

After evidence is assembled and analyzed, an intervention will take place to apply the best practices for usability and improved design to MSL LibGuides, and current MSL guides will be compared with the updated guides. The outcome the researchers hope to achieve is a positive user experience using MSL LibGuides as reported by the users themselves (for example, did the research guide meet their goals?). The outcome of the study will be measured by comparing survey results taken before and after the intervention.

The researchers gathered evidence by searching a variety of databases and platforms including Academic Research Complete; ACRL TechConnect; C&RL News; Digital Commons Network; Education Research Complete; ERIC; Google; Google Scholar; Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts with Full Text; and Web of Science. Results were excluded if the resource was published before 2013, not related to research guides (instead focusing on library websites or other online portals), or not related to user design.

The researchers assessed the gathered evidence by creating a list of codes for user experience and design best practices. Each of the three researchers developed codes separately and then codes were compared and assembled into a master list. Then the literature sources were coded by the researchers independently and results were analyzed and synthesized to create a list of best practices.


Some of the conclusions that we came to after our thorough literature review include:

  • Many librarians spend a lot of time creating guides that have very low usage. Improving usability has a good chance of ameliorating this situation.
  • Promoting guides is very important, because if students don’t access them, the time we spend improving their design is fruitless. Faculty promotion of the guide can be especially important.
  • Guides should be designed with their audience in mind, so regular usability testing of that specific audience is important. More guide usability studies on larger populations are necessary to improve guide design.
  • Imposing best practices on librarians can be challenging and may not be the best approach for all libraries. Using data (like studies referenced in this study) and demonstrating how bad design impacts user experience on their/other guides might help convince librarians to update their guide creation practices.
  • Users expect the same quality of experience on LibGuides that they have on other websites. They have a specific need and want to accomplish it and leave. Barriers in design/usability are frustrating and can quickly result in a student leaving the site. More attractive-looking guides are more likely to be used.
  • Consider whether you’re creating your guide for other librarians or for students. It can be tempting to show that you’ve found all the resources, but students are intimidated by that. Too much content may not only be less effective - it can have a negative effect for users.

Areas where, based on our literature review, we propose that more usability research is required:

  • Template - How much does using a guide template help? How much freedom should librarians have to modify their guides?
  • Sequencing - Does numbering/sequencing tabs or boxes help students?
  • Columns - How many columns is best and what size? Does the use of side navigation impact preferred column width?
  • Navigation - Is side navigation truly better user design? What if the rest of the library website does not use side navigation? Is including multiple pages in a guide even worthwhile at all?
  • Search Box - Does including a search box in the guide (for the guide itself) help students or confuse them?
  • Table of Contents - Does including a table of contents box help students who overlook the tab navigation? Does having side navigation negate the need for a TOC box?
  • Images - Do images that are not providing new content detract from the guide or clutter the page? If images do contain important content, how can we make them accessible? What visual elements do students find attractive vs. distracting?
  • Purpose - Should guides be made with learning outcomes in mind? Or do students typically use them to find a short list of useful resources? Do they read instructional content? Or do they skip over it?

Usability Design Best Practices for LibGuides


  • Provide a guide template for all librarians.

  • A template is only so useful - guides should be customized to their unique audiences in some cases, and authors should retain freedom over guide content and design.


  • Create standards based on best practices or other criteria.


  • Use a unified, consistent format and design (fonts, background, color scheme) for subject guides and their content. 
  • Make sure labels and language are consistent across guides.
  • Consistently name a core set of tabs by subject or format.

Key Resources / Best Bets Box

  • Provide a “key resources” or “best bets” box in a prominent location on the guide. 
  • Use a large enough text size (larger than default for LibGuides 1.0).


  • List resources strategically or by importance, rather than alphabetically.
  • Sequence content in the order students would likely need to encounter it to accomplish their tasks.
  • Put the most important content on the left and/or top of the page in an F-pattern.


  • Use the main library or university website “frame” to visually integrate the guide with the rest of the website.

Personal Presence

  • Include a professional photo of one or more librarians on the guide. 
  • Make guides more personal by providing librarian contact information and option to chat.

Chunking Content

  • Split up content into meaningful chunks.

Number of Columns

  • Use a two column layout.
  • [Use a three column layout.]
  • Don’t include important content in right column (students ignore this as it is commonly ad space on websites).

Top vs. Side Navigation

  • Use side/left navigation to make menu more visible.


  • Tabs tend to be unnoticed and large numbers of them confuse students & cause clutter, so use only most relevant ones, usually all in a single row.

Search Box

  • [Don’t include a LibGuides search box on guides, as students often treat it as a discovery or Google search. If a search box is included, include a description of what can be searched.]
  • Include a search box as students prefer to be able to search the guide for content rather than browse/read.
  • Provide embedded search boxes for research tools (i.e. databases, catalog, etc.).

Table of Contents Box

  • Do not provide a box on the guide that outlines its contents, while also providing tabs, as it is considered redundant by users.
  • [Provide a table of contents box on the homepage of each guide because students often overlook tabs and/or to prevent students from having to scroll down.]


  • Avoid the use of jargon throughout the guide or, if it’s necessary, provide clear explanations of unfamiliar language.


  • Use short, clear, meaningful titles for guide names, boxes, menus, pages, and tabs.
  • If possible, include a description (annotations) for tools provided in the guide, especially if their titles are not self-explanatory or use jargon.
  • Name guides, tabs, and boxes the way students would search for them.

Writing for the Web

  • Write content using best practices for web writing. 
  • Use bullet points and bolded or varied text sizes to make pages easier to read.

Content Maintenance

  • Regularly check for broken links, perhaps with link check tool. 
  • Make sure videos and screenshots are up-to-date. 
  • Make sure terminology and content is current. 
  • Develop a maintenance plan for guides. 
  • Use the LibGuides asset manager to efficiently update links and reuse content across all guides.

Friendly Tone

  • Use a conversational tone in the text of guides.

Audio/Visual Material

  • Incorporate interactive and visual content to engage students.
  • Use images sparingly, as they often add more clutter and waste space.


  • Include a chat widget allowing students to chat with the subject librarian when s/he is online.

Less Text / Content

  • Ensure amount of information on pages and in boxes is appropriate.
  • Include less content/fewer pages to avoid cognitive overload and encourage more usage.
  • Avoid long lists; if lists are used, create them such that users can skip to sections/content of interest.
  • Ensure guide can be easily read by a screen reader.
  • Ensure all videos on guides are captioned.
  • Ensure all images have alt tags.
  • All “click here” links should instead have descriptive text for the link location.
  • Ensure the color of text and other elements contrasts enough.
  • Avoid relying solely on color for meaning.
  • Make guides ADA accessible (or meet other accessibility standard).

Instruction vs. Reference

  • Consider the purpose of the guide (to teach or to provide curated resource lists) when designing the guide.
  • Provide instructional content in the guide that will help students complete the tasks that likely brought them there.
  • Build the guide around one or more student learning outcomes or other pedagogical goals.
  • Create course specific guides rather than broad subject guides.

Considering Audience

  • Think about how students will search for content in the guide, and in accessing the guide. Let that govern your design.
  • Purpose of the guide should be made explicit to students.

Connect to Class / Assignment

  • Tie the content of guides to specific course research and assignments.


Guides Menu

  • Organize guides by how students would likely require access to meet an information need.

Promotion & Marketing

  • Librarians and, especially, instructors should promote guides.
  • Link to guides in the learning management system.
  • Email a link to the guide to students, provide the link in an in-class handout, or demonstrate how to access the guide in class.

Guide Access / Discovery

  • Provide a link to guides on the library’s homepage.
  • Provide links to guides in the learning management system.
  • Consider ways of improving findability of guide in an organic search.

Reduce Duplication / Stale Guides

  • Remove unused or stale guides.

Guide Assessment / Maintenance

  • Use guide usage data to regularly assess guides.
  • Use usability testing (focus groups, surveys, etc) and outreach to regularly assess guides. (not library staff)
  • Guide authors should review guides regularly.

Guides Team / Administrator

  • Assemble an administrative team to maintain upkeep of guides and set guide standards for the institution.