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Award Explorer

Helping University of Toronto students find awards & scholarships in a single search session

Financial obligations is a constant cause of concern and anxiety among students. In November 2020, CTV reported that "every year millions of dollars in grants and scholarships are left on the table because students don't bother to look for them." But why is that?


Innovation Hub @ UofT


UX Designer & Researcher


2 UX Designers

2 UX Researchers


8 weeks


How might we help the University of Toronto students FIND the awards best suited for their needs?

The University of Toronto offers 3,861 undergraduate awards and 1,004 graduate awards. But the institute's decentralized structure makes it difficult to gather relevant information. Students consider the task of searching for awards tedious, time-taking and frustrating. As a result, students frequently miss out on the opportunities and support available.


Time Taken

To find all the eligible awards


~3 mins

To create award profile & the get the list of eligible awards


A profile-based Award Explorer integrated with the university student portal (ACORN) to assist students identify and track awards they are eligible for

Design Process

Overview of the project phases


How do students pursue financial aid and what challenges do they face?

We wanted to uncover how students currently approach securing awards for supporting their education. We began with a survey to narrow down the area of focus, conducted user interviews to learn about motivation and barriers and finally ran usability tests on the existing Award Explorer to discover what is/is not working and students' expectations from it. 


Survey responses


User interviews


Usability tests

Insight #1

Very few students apply for awards

Despite the significant number of awards offered by the university, only a handful of students even apply for them. These numbers are alarmingly low when it comes to international students. Even though a tool (Award Explore) exists, more than 50% of students are unaware of it.


Students had NOT applied for ANY award


International students had NEVER applied for an award


Students were NOT AWARE of the current Award Explorer

Insight #2

Finding the right awards to apply for is a challenge

Award information is scattered across various university and faculty websites. Students spend a lot of time just searching for information. Reading detailed award descriptions to determine eligibility takes a lot of time and energy. The lack of a fixed structure or format for award descriptions causes students to sift through the every details of each award.

Research findings word cloud.png
Insight #3

Keeping track of awards is chaotic and inefficient

Without a proper tool, students often resort to their own methods which often cause frustration and confusion. The onus to stay updated with the latest information and newest awards falls completely on the students.

Taking Screenshots
Taking screenshots.png

Capturing information found during the search session.

Bookmarking Webpages
Bookmarking webpages.png

Saving references to read the details later.

The main problems students are facing

Scattered Information
Scattered info.png

Award and scholarship information is spread across various university and faculty websites.

Time Consuming
Time consuming.png

Reading detailed award descriptions to determine eligibility takes a lot of time and energy

Missed Deadlines
Missed opportunity.png

Application deadlines are often missed due to the chaotic and time-consuming nature of the award search process.

All the learnings and insights from our research indicated that the biggest hurdle the students faced in their financial aid journey was finding the right information.

Finding the right information was the biggest hurdle students faced

User Persona

Meet Izzie the busy international student

We synthesized all the data and insights from the research to create the persona so that the team can view the challenges through her eyes and come with ways to help her.

User persona.png
Design Goals

Defining the desired outcomes for Izzie

We defined the design goals so that the whole team can align to the vision and work together focusing on achieving on the same set of goals


Izzie can ELIMINATE inapplicable awards WITHOUT READING award descriptions


Izzie can SHORTLIST which awards to apply for in a SINGLE session


Izzie can TRACK all awards she in interested in a SINGLE place and never miss a deadline.


Exploring possible solutions


Selecting a solution based on impact & feasibility

The combination of these two ideas address the pain points identified from research:


1. One source of information - university student portal.

2. Expediting the search process by pulling student information from the portal.

User Journey

We documented Izzie's current user journey and envisioned the desired ideal journey with the selected solution.

Core Features

Key Solution Elements

We determined the key features in the solution to achieve the design goals.


A student profile to narrow down the list of awards for Izzie


One glance view of the Izzie's award application journey


A visual representation to help Izzie to keep track of deadlines

Defining a comprehensive award profile

From our research we identified common parameters that students use to determine if they are eligible for an award. In addition we analyzed 100s of award descriptions to identify patterns in eligibility criteria. Armed with this knowledge we defined a comprehensive award profile.


Academic standing in the form of GPA requirement, graduation year, faculty, program, level of study and major.

Extra-curricular Activities

Active participation in sports and community programs.


Nationality, gender and ethnic identity, accessibility requirements and household circumstances.

Financial Situation

Financial need and assistance received so far.  

Low-fidelity designs

From there, we started iteratively refining designs and went through multiple iterations. We on the three key solution areas that we defined. 

Create Award Profile

Awards Dashboard

Get Eligible Award List and Shortlist Awards 

Design Iteration #1

Design changes based on user feedback

We collected feedback on the low-fidelity designs from 4 students by walking them through the storyboard. We were looking to test the clarity of the question and comprehension of the features.

Adding description for unfamiliar terms


Certain terms such as 'Legal Status' used in the questions were unclear to the students.

Design changes 1_edited.jpg

Tooltips with description of the terms were added next to questions.

A focused dashboard

Design changes 5.1.png

Students were overwhelmed with the amount of information in the dashboard.

Design changes 5_edited.jpg

We reduced the sections of the dashboard, with focus on actions and overview.

Calendar view toggle

Since we removed the calendar view from the dashboard, we decided to introduce a toggle between list and calendar in the Eligible Awards and Shortlisted Awards tabs.

Mid-fidelity Designs

Usability Testing

Evaluation of Mid-fidelity Prototype

We evaluated the mid-fidelity prototype by conducting a short usability test with 3 graduate students. We were looking to test if the Award Explorer embedded in ACORN address the pain points identified in research and usability of the features.

  • Are the core features true to the design goals? 

  • Are any critical pain points not addressed?

  • Are the core features clear and discoverable?

  • Observation + Interview

  • 3 tasks

  • 30 - 45 minutes

Task result.png

Task completion




Satisfaction rating

Design Iteration #2

Design changes based on user feedback

We collected feedback on the low-fidelity designs from 4 students by walking them through the storyboard. We were looking to test the clarity of the question and comprehension of the features.

Download as calendar

Design changes 3_edited.jpg

Students did NOT find the Calendar view particularly useful.

Design changes 3.2.png

We learnt that students extensively use other calendar application to keep track of things. So we introduced 'Add to Calendar' feature.

Comprehensive introduction

Design changes 4_edited.jpg

The introduction screen did not provide enough information about how the Award Explorer works

Design changes 4.2.png

Clear instructional information was added to explain how Award Explorer works

Final High-fidelity Designs

Create award profile

Students create their award profile on the university student portal. The information already available on the portal is pre-filled in their profile. 

Shortlist and awards dashboard

Students received a list of awards they are eligible for. After viewing details, students can shortlist the ones they are interested in. The Awards Dashboard gives a clear overview.


Project Limitations

01 Lack of generalizability

Due to time and covid restriction we were not able to recruit research participants from a diverse student pool. Most of our participants were graduate students from our faculty. Therefore, our research findings lack generalizability.

02 Technical feasibility not validated

We were not able to validate the technical feasibility due to lack of involvement of concerned stakeholder. We made assumptions where ever necessary. Changes may be needed after consulting with technical team. 

Next Steps

01 From shortlisting to applying

Students' journey does not end with identifying the awards? How might we help them in applying for the awards?

02 Operating database of awards

Investigate the what, where, when, why, and how of creating and maintaining the awards database efficiently.

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