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Understanding the users of an academic research journal

One of the most recognized names in education, Teachers College Record has published significant and groundbreaking research for over 100 years. At the start of a redesign project for the online publication, I gathered insights from the most influential stakeholders the journal has— its readers.


Teachers College Record (TCR) is one of the most recognized names in educational research journals. Although it publishes innovative, leading-edge research, its website is far from modern, having not been updated in 15 years. Before breaking any ground on this redesign project, we needed to understand the people behind the success of this journal— its readers. 


Recruiting and interviewing participants took place between July 15-29, 2019


Led all UX research efforts; synthesized findings and provided recommendations for the product, design, and development teams as well as library management and the editorial team behind TCR. 


Stakeholder interviews, server log queries


Continuously published since 1900, Teachers College Record (TCR) is the longest-running journal of educational research in the United States. In the early 1990s, then-Editor-in-Chief Dr. Gary Natriello opened it up to an entirely new audience when he brought TCR online. Though an unprecedented move in academic publishing for the time, the look and feel of TCR has largely been frozen in that moment with little to no site improvements made since then.  


With the call to redesign this paragon of scholarship, it felt supremely necessary to check in with the ultimate stakeholders of TCR— its readers —to hear their thoughts on the current state of the site, and ideas they had for the future.


  1. Who are the people that frequent TCR? 

  2. Why do people visit TCR?

  3. What perception do people have of TCR? And how does it compare to other journals in the field?

  4. What do people find most frustrating about the TCR website?

  5. What do people find most enjoyable about the TCR website? 


Data analysis

After establishing what I wanted to find out, I decided the most straightforward way to find these answers was to conduct interviews with our subscribers. I wanted to create a representative sample of participants, so I looked to our server logs to help me identify with whom to speak. 

I used Metabase to dig into our subscriber database. Metabase provides a front-end friendly interface that allows people like me, who do not know SQL, to run somewhat complicated queries, all in language that I understand. 

These were the categories of users I wanted to speak to:

  • Long-time online subscribers (which I defined as >5 years)

  • Recent online subscribers (< 2 years)

  • Users who purchased an a la carte article rather than a subscription

  • Subscribers to both print and online versions of TCR 


For all above cases, I wanted candidates who had visited TCR "often" (defined as >100 visits) and "recently" (defined as within the last year). 

Once I had a list of about 5-8 interview candidates in each category, I contacted them with a personalized email and invitation to talk about TCR for 30 minutes. I reached out to a total of 25 people; 8 agreed to be interviewed. 

Stakeholder interviews

User interviews are my favorite UX research activity. There's nothing like directly connecting with the people using your product! I referred back to my research questions to create the backbone of the interview script I used with each participant. I always leave room for spontaneous followups (that's often where the juiciest insights come from!). 


Now, I'll share with you a controversial opinion I hold. Most interview guide articles will instruct you to start with the same softball question, "What does a typical day look like for you?" I despise this question, mostly because it almost always feels irrelevant and unnaturally stiff. It also has a generic small-talk vibe about it that makes me bristle (I am not one for small talk). To each interviewer their own, but I prefer to jump right into the questions. 

Questions I asked centered around

  • their relationship with TCR (their meet-cute story, how it fits into their workflow, why they started subscribing),

  • their general feelings towards the site and its related newsletter, and

  • their thoughts regarding the future of academic publishing. 

I was lucky to have my colleague sit in these phone interviews with me to help take notes and debrief after each conversation. She is wonderfully observant and takes such meticulous notes that we always had a lot to discuss and process, like themes and patterns that were beginning to develop in responses across participants. 


Report and presentation

After conducting the interviews, I reviewed the notes my colleague and I took and began to refine the emerging themes further. Knowing that I would be presenting the results of this study to a mixed group of internal stakeholders that included the editorial team of TCR, TC Library directors, product managers, a UX designer, and software developers, I wanted to create an engaging story that "introduced" the team to the people they are ultimately working for (interestingly, one piece of advice from one of my interviewees was, "pick one master to serve."). I also wanted there to be clear take aways for our designer and product leads. 

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