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Creative testing leads to unexpected results


The ​Gottesman Libraries (aka the Teachers College Library aka the TC Library) plays an integral role in the student and faculty experience at Teachers College Columbia University.  The version of the website that existed prior to June 2018 was in serious need of a user-centered redesign that included updates to its information architecture and content strategy to make it easier to find and access information and online services. 


January 2018 - June 2018


Defined project goals; led all UX research efforts and synthesized findings for the product, design, and development teams as well as library management; provided design recommendations based on user feedback. 


Usability testing, stakeholder interviews, web traffic and server log analysis, participatory design, market analysis



The Teachers College Library website serves all students and faculty of Teachers College as well as everyone within the Columbia University network, which totals over 40,000 enrolled students combined (based on data from both CU's 2018 academic school year and TC's). On average, the majority of TC patrons (70%) use the website from outside of campus.


Over the years, the TC Library has made significant investments in digital materials, providing patrons convenient access to thousands of ebooks, ejournals, and other online resources. 

With an organically increasing demand to support digital scholarship, the TC Library team needed to reassess whether their website mirrored the usage needs of patrons. Discovery research revealed major opportunities for improving the user experience of the entire TC community— patrons and staff alike. 


1. We aim to build a library website that is designed primarily around learner needs and behaviors, both known and anticipated.


2. We aim to re-categorize and re-organize site content to facilitate navigation and increase the findability of resources.


3. We aim to provide a streamlined experience, removing the unnecessary steps it takes to get to a destination.


4. We aim to provide a customizable experience, allowing users to access their most trafficked and meaningful pages and to discover resources they didn't know were available to them.


5. We aim to promote a constant stream of fresh content on the site to keep patrons informed of ongoing activities within the library's ecosystem of learning opportunities.


6. We aim to provide an inclusive online experience by making our site compliant to accessibility standards. 




The goal of this stage was to understand user behavior in order to challenge assumptions and reveal opportunities for improvement. Research activities included the following:

  • Stakeholder interviews 

    • Semi-structured interviews with staff provided insight into problematic interactions with patrons and the website workarounds staff have created to maintain excellent service standards.​

  • Version reviews

    • The TC Library website had undergone at least 2 major ​redesigns prior to the current project, most recently in 2006. Using the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine and speaking to members of the team who were part of those foundational conversations, I gathered insight into an evolution of design decisions, beginning in the late 1990s. Interestingly, early versions of the website were designed primarily by the librarians on staff. 

  • Participatory design workshop

    • The purpose of this workshop was to bring the entire library team together to generate buy-in and, more importantly, hear general feelings towards the then-current website and possible design directions. Every available staff member participated (around 30 people). I led everyone through an assortment of activities like writing love or breakup letters to the site, identifying patron goals and our organization's objectives, and finally a service-design-based prototyping activity. 

  • Website traffic/server log analysis

    • A crucial step in understanding user behavior is looking at what t​hey are actually doing (as a supplement to what they say they do). Using tools like Google Analytics and Matomo (the more private, open source version of GA) I identified the "hot spots" of the then-current site and top search terms. Looking at the data also helps me substantiate stakeholder concerns. 

  • Guerilla usability tests

    • By setting up shop in the busy main library lobby during finals, I was able to easily sell passersby on doing a 5-minute usability test with me (in exchange for coffee and a sweet, naturally). This was a great way to get quick insight into the biggest friction points of the then-current website.  I was also able to gather anecdotal info on patrons like how long they've attended TC, their relationship with the library, and their research/study habits. I spoke to 10 students across 2 busy finals-filled days.  

  • Market analysis

    • The library website is an ecosystem of independently-hosted online services that the TC Library team built from scratch. This ecosystem includes static content pages, a room reservation system, a support ticket system, and a course reserves system. Because the library website project had a total timeline of 6 months and each of these services needed to be revamped in some way, I suggested we look into third-party solutions for our room reservation and support ticket systems.  In conducting the analysis of available products that met our requisites, I created a matrix table so that our stakeholders could easily compare across options. I also called vendors directly to inquire about pricing and contracts. 


Some insights I gleaned from this stage of discovery research, based on the then-current library website homepage (seen at the bottom of this page):

  • The amount of text is overwhelming, it's hard to know what to focus on

  • Font size is too small

  • Aesthetic is outdated

  • Hard to find specific content ("impossible to navigate")

  • Content seems disorganized

  • "Unwelcoming" homepage

  • Too complicated to use, prefers to find library content on Google Scholar



Once we felt we had a solid understanding of our users and what they needed from the site, I worked with our UX designer to test his prototypes so we could iteratively validate the designs. 

  • Usability tests

    • No reworking of a site, service, or product is complete without some classic usability tests to help get that necessary point-of-need feedback. I created tasks and scenarios to test throughout the prototyping stage; I once again ran the guerilla-style feedback sessions for quick returns but also conducted more traditional, 45-minute one-on-one sessions for comprehensive feedback the closer we got to our launch date.


Feedback gathered throughout testing sessions helped us refine our designs. Some of the feedback we responded to included

  • The library ecosystem lacks cohesion. The separate parts (i.e., the library catalog and the support system) do not feel integrated

  • Search results are displayed in a confusing way / are unhelpful 

  • When asked to find specific content by browsing (rather than searching), users were able to do so with a 90% success rate on the new website (compared to a 60% success rate on the old website)



I am the first to propose talking to users to get direct feedback, but I also value finding authentic feedback in the spaces users frequent. That means monitoring social media for mentions, reading support tickets, and, of course, analyzing website data. 

  • Metric tracking/server log analysis

    • Throughout the design and development process, I kept track of what behaviors we wanted to quantify that went beyond standard pageviews; things like the difference between the click of a link on the homepage vs clicking that same link elsewhere on the site. These are recorded as "events" in our web analytics software. Events are customized metrics that tell us exactly how people are interacting with the site. This gives us a good idea of the impact of our design decisions. Some events we are collecting include

      • Search behavior​

      • Navigation behavior (i.e., header and footer menus)

      • Room reservation behavior (i.e., how many rooms are booked in a given time period, how many people occupy rooms, reasons for booking rooms, etc) 


  • The homepage, in particular our newly introduced "quicklinks" section, plays a huge role in directing traffic to other parts of the site.

  • The number one most popular action of all time is also the most predictable. It's... *drumroll*... performing a search of our catalog! 



The TC Library management team responded positively to my proposal for a hosted support ticket system. The chosen solution is incredibly flexible and allows us to use APIs to create a customized look and feel. This is a direct response to the feedback we received regarding a lack of cohesion across library systems.  


Use the slider to see how our UX designer, Sabarish Raghupathy, implemented feedback from our stakeholders to create a more user-friendly and user-centric library website.

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