Design Critique: NSF’s FastLane System (proposal functions)

NSF Proposal Page

FastLane is the online system used by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the management of research proposals and awards. This critique focuses on the system functions related to proposal creation. The proposal template provided by FastLane is comprised of a list of forms, which are edited by selecting the ‘Go’ button to the left of each form’s name.

Proposal Checklist

Design Problem 1: FastLane is low on error tolerance.

The Remainder of the Cover Sheet section (a sub-section of the Cover Sheet which contains information such as the proposal title) contains a combination of nearly 50 drop-down menus, checkboxes and text fields that can potentially be completed. At the end of the form are two buttons; one, marked ‘OK’, saves the form and takes the user back to the main Cover Sheet section but the other, marked ‘Go Back’, takes the user back to the main Cover Sheet section without saving the form. The similarity of the buttons and their proximity to one another could easily cause a description error, in which a user clicks ‘Go Back’ when intending to select ‘OK’ and loses all of her work.

Go Back and OK

Solution 1: Change button labels to “Save” and “Cancel.”

To increase understandability of the system, the names of the buttons should be changed to ‘Save’ and ‘Cancel’. This would create a clearer mapping between the button names and their function. Slips can be avoided by separating the buttons so that the chance of selecting the wrong one is decreased. An interlock function should also be used to prevent users from clicking the ‘Cancel’ button without indicating via checkbox that that is what they wish to do.

Suggested Fix 1 - Save and Cancel

Design Problem 2: There are no constraints to enforce character limits.

The Project Summary form provides three text boxes (each covering a specific aspect of the project). The total character count for the three boxes together must not exceed 4,600 characters, yet there is no character counter, nor are there any constraints to prevent users from entering more than the character limit. Visibility is limited, with the information on maximum character count given only in a single sentence in an entire page of instructions given above the text boxes.

No character count limit

Solution 2: Add a character counter to each text box.

In order to narrow the gulf of execution, a character counter should appear to the right of the boxes and track the total character count for all three boxes. This would clarify what the boxes afford in terms of text length. By using a counter similar to that employed by Twitter, FastLane would also provide feedback on exactly how many characters are left or must be eliminated (the highlighting seen below would appear only in the text box selected at the time). This is more useful than imposing a constraint which prevents text from being entered after a character limit has been reached, as people are seldom able to immediately identify text they wish to cut.

Twitter character counter

Design Problem 3: No indication that items are incomplete.

When a user enters more than 4,600 characters in the Project Summary form, FastLane allows the summary to be saved and brings up the screen below. This is helpful for a user who doesn’t have time to edit for length at that moment, and averts arbitrary truncation.

Saved above char count

However, once the user returns to the list of forms, there is no further feedback given to indicate that the Project Summary is unfinished.

checklist doesn't mention char count

Solution 3: Add more precise feedback to indicate status of the submission.

In order to narrow the gulf of evaluation, the form list should provide exact feedback on the status of the Project Summary section, as seen below. This mental aid will remind the user to return to the section later.

char count exceeded