MyResearch – Grant Application Insights for UW Faculty

Screenshot of the MyResearch application, a page called "Funding Status" that shows the status of a grant proposal

The Problem

As some university researchers confided to us, submitting a grant proposal for a research project can be almost as arduous and labor-intensive as the research itself. Some of this is for good reason, or is at least an unavoidable consequence of federal law, but initial research found a number of pain points in the grant application process that the UW could ease with some better software and better process. I helped a team at the UW’s Office of Research Information Services begin designing MyResearch, an as-yet-still-in-progress solution to these challenges for faculty and their research support staff.

The Process

We had little time or budget for user research in this project. (For the curious: the background above came from drafting off broader research done elsewhere in the university.) However, we were able to conduct enough interviews and surveys to figure out that feedback in the application process was the central issue. For researchers, the experience was akin to the days before UPS had package tracking – they knew they’d started the process, and they knew approximately when it would end, but that’s all they knew. If things seemed to be taking longer than expected, there was no way to resolve that anxiety.

Multiple designers worked on the application as a whole, but my primary responsibility was the page for an individual proposal. I started with understanding the lay of the land. What was it actually like to submit a grant application through our system? How many steps were there?

A long listing of steps in a process - details unimportant
Spoiler: a LOT of steps. And this is only the stuff before submission.

I spent most of my time figuring out the important inflection points in the process and attaching messaging to those features.

We went through many iterations. Like you do.

A screenshot of one iteration of the proposal process, showing a different version of the timeline
This view of the application details page is an iteration or three older than what is shown at the top of the post.

Our user data was not as complete as we would have liked – we made educated guesses when prioritizing pain points – but thanks to the magic of usability testing (see the results of one usability study I conducted), we eventually got to a place where the application provided enough value to serve real needs.

The Product

As stated at the top, the development of this application is ongoing. The design is still in closed beta (the screenshot at the top of the page is all I can show you), much has changed, and I’m not certain about what future development will bring. That said, there are multiple MyResearch improvement projects greenlighted, which tells me the initial efforts at the very least met expectations.

But I think the most important deliverable was a change in the team’s organizational culture. This project was an a user-centered design “experiment.” It provided a lot of evidence to the organizational leadership that talking to users is way less risky than not talking to them and that UX-driven teams can deliver just as quickly and in a more agile fashion. That’s always a satisfying conclusion.