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Award Explorer

An integrated web solution to reduce the anxiety of missing out on financial aid for University of Toronto students

For students, having financial obligations is a constant cause of concern and anxiety. The University of Toronto provides numerous scholarships and awards for students, but the institute's decentralized structure makes it difficult to gather relevant information. As a result, students frequently miss out on the opportunities and support that are available. The Award Explorer addresses this issue by aiding students in their search for financial aid and empowering them through the delivery of accurate and timely information.

Project Overview

Academic project

Oct - Dec 2021

Team of 5 students


UX Researcher

UX Designer


IBM Activation Journey


Adobe XD


Problem statement

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

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

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

Missed Opportunity
Missed opportunity.png

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


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

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Integrated Platform

Utilize information available with  the enrolment portal to build their award profile.

Personalized List

Quick access to all applicable awards based on the award profile.

Track Deadlines
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Shortlist awards of interest and track their deadlines in a single location.

Design process

We used the  IBM Activation Journey  over the course of 10 weeks to identify a prevalent  problem faced by the students of the University of Toronto, ideate a solution, create a mid-fi clickable prototype and test it. We chose the area of financial aid from the list of domains identified by the Innovation Hub.

User Research

We conducted secondary research to understand the domain of financial aid in education at the national level. Our primary research was focused on identifying the problems specific to University of Toronto students. In addition to a survey, we conducted usability tests of the existing Award Explorer application followed by a brief interview.

Research methods


• Reach more number of students.

• Collect quantitative data on award application.

• Learn if demographics play any role award application process.

41 survey responses collected

User interview

• Uncover current practices and processes.

• Learn about motivation and barriers.

• Gather insights on mental model and beliefs.

11 interviews conducted

Usability testing

• Identify areas of improvement in the existing solution (Award Explorer).

• Learn what is working and what is not.

• Understand how students expect the Award Explorer to assist them.

11 usability tests conducted


Level of study

05  Undergraduate students

34  Graduate students

02  Other students


22 Domestic students

19  International students


28  Faculty of Information

13  Others

Research learnings

1. In numbers


Of 41 respondents had  applied  for at least one award.


Of 19 international students had  not applied  for any award.


Of 41 respondents had  not used  the current Award Explorer.

2. Reasons for not applying to awards

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3. Common practices

Skimming Award Description
Skimming award descrption.png

Students skim through award descriptions for keywords to determine their eligibility.

Taking Screenshots
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A common practice for saving the information found during the search session.

Bookmarking Webpages
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A common practice is to come back to read details of awards of interest.

What did we learn from research?

We identified the three main pain points from research to address in our solution:

1. Scattered Information

Award and scholarship information is spread across various university and faculty websites. Students spend a lot of time in just searching for information.

2. Time consuming

Reading detailed award descriptions to determine eligibility takes a lot of time and energy. There is no fixed structure or format of award descriptions, students have to sift through the details of every award.

3. Missed Opportunity

Keeping track of information is chaotic. Students often miss application deadlines due to the chaotic and time-consuming nature of the award search process.

Designing the solution

User persona 

We created the persona of an international busy student so that the team can view the challenges through her eyes and come with ways to help her.

User persona.png


Everyone in the team spent time alone and as a group to come with several ideas to help Izzie's overcome the challenges she is facing.  

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Awards Team

Students work in teams to search and apply for awards.

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Awards for all

Giving financial assistance to all students based on need.


AI-powered chatbot that assists students in finding awards

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Award Explorer

Redesign the existing Award Explorer platform to make it comprehensive.

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Like a Dating App

Students swipe left/right on matched award profiles.

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Sorting Hat

A magical hat that can advise students on the awards they should apply for.

The selected idea

We used the prioritization grid to select the ideas to work on based on how  feasible  they are and how much  impact  they would have. 

Selected ideas.png

We decided to combine our top two ideas: 1. Filling a form to get a list of applicable awards

2. A solution integrated in the university student enrolment online portal.

Why we selected this idea?

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


1. Leverage information available in the student portal to reduce the amount time spent on searching for awards.

2. Use the student portal account as a place for keeping track of award applications.

3. A centralized place.

Journey map

A comparison of Izzie's current award search journey with the envisioned journey using our solution.

journey map.png

Design goals to product features 

1. Izzie can  eliminate  inapplicable awards  without reading  award descriptions.

Pain points alleviated

Time consuming

Product feature

Using the information such as nationality, program, GPA etc available on student portal to narrow down the list of awards.

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

Pain points alleviated

Time consuming

Scattered information

Product feature

A robust award profile which will significantly narrow down the list of awards students have to go through.

Embedding the solution into the student portal to make it centralized.

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

Pain points alleviated

Missed Opportunity

Product features

A dashboard that gives student an overview of their award applications.

A calendar view to help student plan for submitting applications on time.

Defining the Award Profile

From our research we identified common parameters that students use to determine if they are eligible for an award. We used this information and analyzed the existing Award Explorer and read 100s of award and scholarships descriptions to design an "Award Profile" that can be used to shortlist and recommend awards to students. Thereby reducing the time and effort they put in the process.


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.


Common demographic criteria include nationality, gender and ethnic identity, accessibility requirements and household circumstances.

Financial Situation

Financial need and assistance received so far.  

Low-fidelity Wireframes

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Design Decisions

Eligible Awards_edited.jpg
Tab Layout

We chose tab layout over cards to follow the existing design of Acorn


Instead of adding a filter to the awards list, we intend to make a comprehensive award profile

Feedback on Low-fidelity Wireframes

We recruited 4 graduate students to get feedback. We did a storyboard walk-through and asked them to describe what they thought about each screen - what is attracting their attention, do they understand the information, what actions they can do there and their opinions in general.

Questions participants asked

"How much  time  will this take?"

"Will my information kept  private ?"

What they wanted?

Setting expectations

How we addressed in mid-fi prototype?

State estimated time before the forms.


Address privacy concerns in the welcome screen.

Questions participants asked

"Are all questions are  mandatory ?"

"What does 'Mature student'  mean ?"

What they wanted?


How we addressed in mid-fi prototype?

Calling out mandatory and optional questions.

Adding tooltips to describe specific terms.

Questions participants asked

"When was this scholarship  last updated ?"

"Where can I get  more information ?"

What they wanted?

Reinforcement of information accuracy

How we addressed in mid-fi prototype?

Including 'Added/Created on' information.

Adding external links for award details.

Mid-fidelity Clickable Prototype

Building award profile and shortlisting an award

12. Awards Dashboard (post-profile).png

Award Explorer Dashboard

8. Eligible Awards Calender.png

Calendar View of Eligible Awards

Evaluation of Mid-fidelity Prototype 

  • Are the core features true to the design goals? 

  • Are any critical pain points not addressed?

  • Are the core features clear and discoverable?

  • How does the prototype fare against the usability metrics?

  • Observation + Interview

  • 3 graduate students of the University of Toronto

  • 3 tasks

  • 30 - 45 minutes


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Task completion




Satisfaction rating

Areas of improvement identified

Visual Information Hierarchy
Information hierarchy.png

Participants'  attention  was attracted more towards the Resource section rather than Deadlines on the dashboard screen.

Clear, Consistent Language

Use of the word 'Calendar' at two places referring to different things  confused  the participants

Guided Interactions
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Participants did not  expect  the questions to be pre-filled with the information available with ACORN (the student services portal)

Next Steps

Our course ended with the mid-fidelity prototype. Given more time, below are the next steps that we would like to take.

1. High-fidelity Prototype

Create a high-fidelity prototype that addresses the feedback from usability tests with special attention to the visual information hierarchy.

3. Administering Award Explorer

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

2. Comprehensive Solution

Conduct more research to determine if and how students' needs vary based on level of study to make the solution more comprehensive.

4. Beyond MVP

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

Reflection and learnings

1. Research Limitation

Due to shortage of time and covid restriction we were 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.

2. Diverse team = diverse ideas

Our team members had very diverse backgrounds - psychology, engineering, software development. We all had different perspectives and approaches which resulted in a more comprehensive solution.

3. Storytelling in a critical skill

We learnt the importance of telling a compelling story when it comes to presenting design work. It plays an important role in envisioning the proposed design solution by invoking empathy and helping to relate to the emotions of the users. We developed this skill through presentations to industry panellists at the end of every two-week design sprint. 

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