A vital college information hub takes a closer look at how students really think about their digital content and services


How can a website dense with information help users easily find what they're looking for?

The Durick Library at Saint Michael’s College is a crucial information hub for more than 2,300 students and 150 faculty members. The library centralizes a number of resources for their users, from research assistance to practical campus information, with a growing preference for its online presence. The library collection is extensive and includes thousands of books, ebooks, journals, and databases.


The library website also provides information regarding the building itself, academic staff, research tutorials, policies, and more. The library website exists within the greater Saint Michael’s College website, which provides even more related information for students, faculty, staff, and prospective students. 

Users were frequently confused by the Durick Library website. The sheer amount of information that existed on the website grew disorganized and unstructured over time, and struggled with balancing the complexities of multiple large databases and information-dense pages. The library encountered regular feedback regarding the navigational issues of the website, which caused frustration for users and put undue strain on library staff. 


January - April 2019


Pembroke King

Stacey Knight

Bethany Dietrich

Denise Groll


Improved site map, updated microcopy and taxonomies, simplified UI, outlined future iterations


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Carrying out a UX project in an organization new to usability and design thinking: how can you prove the value of user research?

I was the Circulation Supervisor for the Durick Library from August 2018 to August 2019, during which I organized a UX team within the library to carry out user research ahead of the college’s greater website redesign. I oversaw the research project planning and organization, as well as evangelizing UX within the library in order to advocate for the project’s importance and value.

There were several unique challenges and constraints that had to be taken into consideration when planning the research.

Legal logistics.

Because the research would be done with students of the college, strict adherence to certain privacy and data regulations was required. An in-depth proposal of the research plan had to be submitted to the college’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).


View the full IRB proposal here.

A redesign within a redesign.

The library website needed to be cohesive with the greater college website that it existed within. Saint Michael’s College had an established branding and style guide that needed to be kept in mind for any proposed changes. Additionally, the college website was in the process of moving their CMS while the library platform transferred to Libguides.

Absence of an established UX process.

Budgetary restrictions and lack of UX awareness led to pushback on the notion that any user research was required at all. Library management was very numbers-driven, and wanted to see data that supported why the existing content shouldn’t just be immediately transferred to the new platform.


Start asking the right questions by taking a closer look at existing research. What do you know? What don't you know? What do you need to know?

Analyzing usability testing and journey maps that had been done a year prior helped us find a starting point to delve further into what was impeding students from easily accessing resources on the website.


To clarify the existing content we were working with, we conducted a full site audit to identify pages that were obsolete, redundant, or incorrectly incorporated into the information architecture. It also helped us see who had access to which page, an important consideration for the transferring of hosting platforms. We needed to clearly see which pages should move to Wordpress with the college’s greater website, and which would become the library’s domain under LibGuides. 

Content Audit Sample

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To really understand the challenges faced by users, start at the source and talk to them.

To kick off our investigation into the root of the site’s usability issues, we informally interviewed students, staff, and library management. This helped to map recurring paint points for site users and identify what key stakeholders required from the redesign.


We were able to identify the three most pressing usability issues for site users:

  • Confusing terminology 

  • Poor information architecture (grouping of relevant information)

  • Overwhelming layout of links / movement through page info requires significant cognitive effort (or more than users would expect trying to find quick info)

"I love going into the physical library building and wish the website was just as easy to find information through."

- User Interview Participant

Library management felt that the existing data on which site pages were visited frequently adequately represented the most sought-after information by users. We knew this wasn’t necessarily true - the pages most often clicked don’t accurately convey the ease at which a user reached that page, or if the information they were searching for was actually there. In order to explore these assumptions with analytics we could use to potentially validate them, we used the following questions to focus our research:

What kinds of associations do students make between the different information links on the library website?

How do students logically move through the website navigation?

How do students interpret the terminology currently used on the library website?


Conducting a card sorting experiment for students to thoroughly understand how they were interpreting the content organization and terminology of the website.

A volunteer class of 20 students at the college were divided into two sections. The first half of the class participated in an “open” card sorting exercise. Using the online tool OptimalSort in a moderated room, students were shown a set of 30 “cards” with different terms from the existing website links. Participants then grouped terms together using whatever logical, intuitive criteria they determined. We ask that participants notify us when they encountered any terms that were unclear, and manually noted these instances.

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The other half of the class subsequently completed a “closed” card sorting exercise using the same method as the open sort, but this time were given the categories in which to sort the same 30 terms. The given categories were taken from the existing site navigation hierarchy.

We chose to do the two different card sorting exercises to help highlight which terms were made unclear because of the copy being used, and which were suffering more from poor integration into the information architecture with regards to student’s existing mental models of the content. 


Making sense of the data and pulling out key insights with the help of information visualization.

The open card sort results clearly showed us the terms that were unclear to students, and which were designated as outliers in their grouping. After standardizing the data to make it easier to analyze, clear patterns emerged in the way students mentally grouped the content terms. I synthesized the various ways that OptimalSort visually displayed the results and made a document summarizing the findings that was clear and easy to read.


View the full open card sort notes here.

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'A dendrogram is the quintessential cluster analysis output. The more times an item is sorted together with another item, the more similar they are. They then appear closer in proximity in the dendrogram.' (MU)


We used them to identify the main categories participants created to group the given terms into:



About the Library

Help or Questions

New or Current


This was interesting because it varied significantly from the structure of the existing website taxonomy.

Notable finding from the open card sort: the highly divisive nature of certain terms that appeared in the top 20 visited site pages for the previous year.

Similarity Matrix


We analyzed term pair combinations and clusters to further identify the logic students were using during the card sorting. The Similarity Matrix allowed us to make more sense of the dendrograms and see which terms should ideally be grouped together for the redesign.

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The Similarity Matrix shows the percentage of time that a card is grouped with another card.

Despite being several of the most frequently visited pages, the similarity matrix made it obvious that students were in high disagreement over where the following terms logically fit into the content structure:


  • Information for Students

  • My Account

  • Schedule a Research Appointment 

  • New in the Library

Placement Matrix


By requiring students to sort terms into pre-selected categories during the closed card sort, we were able to identify a framework for the new and improved website information architecture by looking at which terms had the highest agreement. The Popular Placement Matrix visualizes these category groupings.

View additional notes from the closed card sort here.

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The data visualizations helped clarify student's mental models and allowed us to determine the following content clusters.

Research Resources

Terms: Databases, Research by Subject, Articles, Books, Encyclopedias, Newspapers, Videos, Archives, Cite Sources, Get Research Help

Library Services

Terms: Interlibrary Loan, Recommend a Purchase, Schedule a Research Appointment, Reserves, Library Catalog

Student Information

Terms: My Account, How Do I?

About the Library

Terms: Hours, Staff, FAQ, Policies, Contact Us, New in Library, Events 

Navigation Taxonomy


The improved outline of the information displayed on the website's homepage reduces repeat content, simplifies the user flow, and clarifies available resources.

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Assessing project goals and making insights scalable for future iterations. 

View the new library website here.

The greater college website redesign took longer than expected and significantly delayed implementation of the new library website. Decentralized access to the new CMS and shifting timelines from the college Marketing Department resulted in having to move the entire library site onto Libguides with only the initial landing page moving over to Wordpress. This is beneficial to library staff overseeing the content structure of the internal library pages, but limited the control we had over the landing page.


Nevertheless, we were able to use our research findings to simplify the navigation layout and group content in a method that more closely matched student’s existing mental models

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Wordpress Home - Above Fold

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Word Press Home - Below Fold
Word Press Home - Below Fold

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Libguides Landing Page -  Below Fold
Libguides Landing Page - Below Fold

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Wordpress Home - Above Fold

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Terminology has been simplified and grouped in a more intuitive way, reducing the cognitive effort involved in finding the information needed. 

The research project also helped establish a solid UX presence within the library by clearly demonstrating the value of user research and taking the time to deeply understand the problems faced by users of the library’s digital tools. By digging deep, asking the right questions, and listening to user needs we were able to make changes that positively impacted the academic experience for members of the Saint Michael’s College community.


Where do we go from here? How can we continuously excel in meeting user needs to provide a seamless user experience at the Durick Library?

There are many opportunities to continue improving the Durick Library website. I would've liked to conduct user testing of the new website that confirmed the effectiveness of the redesign. In the research done prior to this project, students were given tasks to complete using the old library website. The library staff made note of the user flows for the various tasks, as well as the time it took students to complete them. It would be useful to have students complete the same tasks using the new website to see if the information architecture has been properly simplified. 


The UI itself could be further focused on to compliment the improved content structure. After user-testing several academic library websites, the proposed home page interface for the design’s next iteration was developed: 


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Implementing this new home page is dependent on several plans currently still in progress within the college’s Marketing Department, so further collaboration and communication would be ideal. Additionally, more user testing on the proposed iteration could be done, particularly taking into consideration site users other than students such as faculty and staff.

Thanks for reading.

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