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Award Explorer


Helping students at the University of Toronto access scholarships.

Project Introduction

Each year 10 million dollars worth of scholarships go unclaimed in Canada. This must mean students don't need the money right? no. 1 in 5 Canadian students graduate with an average of $28,000 in debt. So why do so many not apply for awards? I was excited to tackle this problem and research why students were no applying for awards.

The problem

University students are constantly buys and life as a student can be difficult. Juggling school, work and extracurricular activities can be a huge weight. Besides this, students are concerned about how to finance their education. Scholarships would be a great way to get funding. However, the time and the effort required to find appropriate scholarships can be demotivating to students. How might we help students access awards and scholarships best suited to them?

Design challenge

How might we help University of Toronto students find awards and scholarships best suited to them so that they can apply for awards they are eligible for? To solve this problem, our team started with some research.

Our solution

The Research

How did we get to our solution? Through research! We surveyed 41 students at the University of Toronto and conducted usability tests and semi-structured with 11 participants who had answered the survey. The research was conducted to understand how students currently feel about the process of applying on the UofT Award explorer website and how students interact with the website.

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The process

  • We conducted the user research by first screening out ineligible participants. We provided participants with a consent form which they needed to sign to participate in the study.


  • The usability tests and interviews were conducted online.


  • The data from the research was analyzed and organized using an affinity diagram and an empathy map. These artifacts helped our team understand the participants thoughts and pain points. 

Survey results

The quantitative results of the survey highlighted some key barriers to scholarships and proved that a problem existed.

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Figure 1: Frequency distribution of scholarship applications by domestic and international

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Figure 2: Frequency distributions of factors influencing participants scholarship application decisions

Key findings

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                                      Student pain points

1. Students were not applying for awards. 27 out of 41 participants surveyed had not applied for an award at the University of Toronto. 

2.  Difficulty applying for awards. Participants:

  • Cited the time and effort needed to find awards as a major reason they did not apply for awards.

  • Reported feelings of frustration and difficulty with accessing the award explorer website and finding awards they were eligible for.

  • In the usability test, 7 out of 11 participants were unable to find an award to apply for in 10 minutes.

  • Gave an average rating on the current award explorer , 3/5 in terms of being able to find and apply for awards. 

3.  Feelings of inadequacy. The participants cited feeling unqualified to apply for awards, having low GPA's and being unsure of which awards they could apply for based on their citizenship status in Canada.


I synthesized the results of the survey to build a persona that represents the sample user group. I will keep returning to the user throughout this study.

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Izzie's current experience

Right now, Izzie goes through 4 steps to find and select  an award. The process of finding an award ends with her being frustrated and worried. This is not an ideal situation.

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What does Izzie need?

Based on Izzie's current award search journey, we brainstormed and came up with some need statements to concisely address her needs and define some goals to solve her problem.

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Refined Needs statements

We came up with 8 need statements but chose to prioritize 3 key needs as they encompassed all Izzie's needs.

  1. Reduce the time spent searching for awards.

  2. Find awards she is eligible for.

  3. Track award deadlines.

Design goals

With our understanding of Izzie's needs, we could now come up with some design goals and precise statements on how we would resolve Izzie's needs. We created 3 goal statements:

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Exploring solutions

With Izzie's needs now clear to all of us:

  • Each member of our team brainstormed individually and then shared our ideas on how to solve Izzie's problems. We grouped similar ideas together.

  • We plotted our ideas on a prioritization grid then voted on their feasibility and impact.  

Our winning Idea

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ACORN is the student services system used by the university of Toronto students. By embedding an award profile in ACORN, students only have to log in to their ACORN account and will be able to see awards they can apply for.

Wire-framing & user flows

Based on our winning idea in the prioritization grid, our team got to work creating low-fidelity wireframes and user flows for a happy path. We created designs individually, then combined ideas together to create the final low-fi prototype. These wireframes would show the process of users accessing the award explorer through ACORN, filling in the profile questionnaire, accessing a list of awards they are eligible for and being able to see deadlines and application criteria for the awards.

 Client                                Timeline                                   Tools                                             Team                                                           Platform           Roles

University of Toronto       October-December 2021        Balsamiq •Mural •Adobe XD     Anya Nandkeolyar •Arpana Khalko,         Web                •Analyzed qualitative research •Created personas

Innovation Hub                                                                   •Miro                                           •Francine Jiang •Samson Tran                                           •Conducted usability testing •Created mid-fi prototypes                       




Iterative process

Creating the low-fi wireframes and prototypes was a lot of fun for me and the team. It was not as easy as it seemed to create a flow that would make sense to the users. But now we needed to test out how users responded to our design.


To do this, we tested our designs with 4 graduate students recruited through word of mouth at UofT. I walked the users through the low-fi storyboard and asked for feedback. We analyzed the feedback through an affinity diagram. 3 themes emerged.

We learnt that users wanted the prototype to:

  • Set clear expectations, so they knew what to expect from when they logged into the website.

  • Provide help and support when users were confused about their next steps.

  • Reinforce information accuracy, so that students feel confident that the information they are getting from the platform is always up to date.

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Mid-fi Prototypes

Keeping the feedback we received from the low-fi prototypes in mind, we moved on to creating the midfi prototypes. This was done using Balsamiq and we all worked on creating the protoypes together and making them clickable. Each team member worked on making a few screens clickable.

Izzie's new experience

Izzie is now able to login to ACORN and use the menu on the left of the dashboard to go to the Award Explorer. She can also click on the find eligible awards button. 

Meeting Izzie's goals

1. Izzie can eliminate ineligible awards without reading any award descriptions.

Izzie fills the profile questionnaire and this provides her with a list of awards she is eligible for. This meets Izzie's first goal.

2. Izzie can decide which awards to apply to in a single search session

After Izzie sees a list of eligible awards, she can save them to her list. The details of the awards are visible to her and she can decide to apply for them. She can also decide to view them in calendar mode. This meets her second goal.

3. Izzie can track all her awards and never miss a deadline

After she fills her award profile, the Award explorer dashboard now shows upcoming awards by their deadline. This meets Izzie's third goal.

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Based on user feedback from the low-fi prototype, we incorporated some changes to the midfi prototype.

  1. Setting expectations- Letting users know how long the questionnaire will take and assuring them of their privacy helps users know what to expect before they fill the questionnaire.

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2. Providing help and support- we included tooltips to help explain unfamiliar terms.

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Evaluation of mid-fi prototypes

We wanted to test our prototype with representative users to evaluate it's usability.

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Usability test

The participants were asked to do 3 tasks.

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Usability test results

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  • The participants rated our prototype as better than the existing platform in terms of being able to find and access awards.

  • Our prototype was not perfect, most of the participants could not complete task 2. 

  • Participants also found the dashboard busy.


Our evaluation had some limitations due to the time frame we had to conduct it.


Due to the limited time:

  • We recruited the same participants we conducted the lo-fi evaluation with.

  • We would have like to use Figma for prototyping but instead used Balsamiq because of its shorter learning curve. 

  • We were not able to add multiple clickable paths to mimic the variation of answers in the 3 step questionnaire.


The prototypes had a few limitations:

  • We created separate links for each flow to keep prototype files simple.

  • Simulation of tooltip was not easily supported by Balsamiq due to which we had use the ‘Treat as hypertext’ feature as a workaround. Therefore pressing ‘M’ key was required display the tooltip popover in the prototype.

Next steps

There's more work to be done! One of our next steps would be iterating our prototypes based on user feedback and creating a high fidelity prototype.

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Lessons learnt

  • Listening to users is important. Without really listening empathetically to users needs, it is impossible to really capture their pain points and work towards creating a solution. It is really easy to start designing something I would want but I had to repeatedly remind myself that I was not designing for myself.

  • Users want products that make their lives easier. I was surprised to see that when our prototype was evaluated users did not care so much about the visual look of it but they were more focused on how much easier and quicker it was for them to find awards. People do not want to be stressed using a product. So it is not about making fancy designs if they do not serve the user.

  • Collaborative design is kind of challenging. This was my first time using IBM's activation journey to work on a design problem. It can be difficult to come to a design when every team member has such different and interesting ideas. I learnt the importance of being able to explain my thought process. I also learnt that I can't hang on to every design idea or get too attached to them because I'm not designing for myself. Collaborative design can be difficult but working with a supportive team makes the process really exciting and brought out my creativity.

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