Cornell University | Usability Case Study

When it comes to the wonder of higher education, there are typically 3 types of people that explore Cornell University as a potential school:

  • PERSONA 1: Wide-eyed secondary school students who are looking to the future. They are seeking a place to go to college that will embrace and foster the next stage of their life, while delivering on the promise of a fruitful career. They want to see a college that is both fresh and progressive, while also being able to feel the history of the institution.
  • PERSONA 2: Parents of the former who are seeking to validate the educational institution as credible and of good quality. They want to make sure that an institution has a quality program, and can be trusted with their precious child for the next 4+ years.
  • PERSONA 3: College graduates seeking a masters or higher level degree. They are exploring a variety of colleges, and they are familiar with the education system. They want to make sure that where they spend their money and the level of instruction are both of the highest caliber.

In this case study and am choosing to focus on the third type of person. In the US, first-time graduate school enrollment was up 3.5 percent in 2014 from the year before, the biggest annual increase since 2009, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools. This means that not only is this a huge segment of the US college population, but also that the importance of attracting these students is increasing.


I followed IDEO’s human centered design process since they are the big hitters in this space. It is a methodology supported by my school, IronHack.


Usability Testing

In my usability test I had my user (Jennifer) complete a few simple tasks. While Jennifer attempted to complete these tasks, I timed her and tracked the number of clicks required to complete each task.

Not surprisingly, Cornell has invested a lot of time into making their website easy to use and find information. My user was able to quickly find the answers to questions 2,3, and 4. However, her answer to question 1 left me wondering, “What is Cornell trying to accomplish with their landing page?”


I chose to analyze the results of the user testing using a 2x2 matrix. I feel that this demonstrates the importance of all 4 key areas the best, and allows me to convey to Cornell why any changes should be made. It also helps to identify where the business needs and the user needs come together the most.

First impressions are hugely important in the web space. As a rule of thumb, a bounce rate in the range of 26 to40 percent is excellent. 41 to 55 percent is roughly average. 56 to 70 percent is higher than average, but may not be cause for alarm depending on the website. Anything over 70 percent is disappointing for everything outside of blogs, news, events, etc. [source]

That means that Cornell can only reasonably expect 41–55 percent of perspective students to remain interested in their site. First impressions are crucial. Jennifer had already attended a 4 year college, and she was very familiar with college website layouts in general. If their landing page was confusing to an experienced student, then it could easily be more confusing to persona 1 and persona 2 types. It was clear to me that I needed to address the problem of the giant dog face on the landing page.


Pain point 1: Cornell wants all 3 persona types to be excited about Cornell, the education they offer, and the experiments/studies going on there. However, they are slamming the experiments/studies in user’s faces immediately upon arriving at This takes away from the user experience, and confuses users. It makes their website more difficult to navigate for first time users.

Pain point 2: Users want to experience all Cornell has to offer through their website. They want to get excited about the school. This includes the education they offer and the experiments/studies going on there. When one area is so prominent and so immediately displayed is does not encourage or allow the user to explore the website and be intrigued by it.


I came up with a four possible solutions for these problems by using rough UI sketching:

Based on these 4 sketches, I decided to go with the bottom right option. I believe that this one best resolves both Pain Point 1 and Pain Point 2.


Pain Point 1: By using this design I am able to make the website easily accessible and understood by all the persona’s/user types. Users will immediately encounter a user interface that would be familiar to them and work within their mental model of how a website or app should function. This style of layout allows users to click easily understood topics and explore the website deeper, while still accomplishing the core functions that Cornell needs it to. In addition, this experience would easily allow for a ‘Mobile First’ design and give users the same experience whether it is on a mobile device or computer. The current design would not allow that well.

Pain Point 2: This design balances all components of Cornell University with equal importance. The design allows the users to explore Cornell based on their interests, needs, and curiosity. Having enticing pictures and tag lines on the main screen in this format not only encourages users to click and go deeper into the website, but it also supports the concept that users can absorb information more easily by slowly introducing data and increasing complexity throughout the website. Finally, the addition of social media (Twitter, Facebook) and an RSS feed will allow the users to chose the type of relationship they want to have with Cornell and how they receive communication and news.

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I hope you enjoyed reading about my case study, but this is where it ends. The assignment was to complete a paper prototype of how to solve a problem I identified with Cornell University, and I believe this accomplishes that. Had we continued I would have created a wire-frame and then a hi-fi prototype. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

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