Institute of Education Sciences – Usability Case Study

After struggling with jargon-filled solicitations and a confusing website, some applicants were ready to give up on seeking grants from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Their complaints prompted a Plain Language makeover for the Institute’s funding materials.

As the research arm of the U.S. Education Department, IES’s mission is to provide rigorous and relevant evidence on which to ground education practice and policy. Beginning in 2012, the project applied a Plain Language best practices to both their Funding Opportunities page and the grant solicitations themselves. The goal was make the information more user-friendly, clarify requirements, and make the application process easier.

Stage One: Redesign of the IES.ED.GOV/Funding Portal

The first step was to improve the website. In 2011, the IES funding page was a list of grant opportunities in reverse chronological order.

Original 2011 IES.ED.GOV/Funding page

As new Requests for Applications (RFAs) were released they were simply added to the top of the list. Over time, this gradual “content creep” made it difficult to determine which opportunities were open or closed, to distinguish among different types of opportunities, or to find instructions on how to apply.

To redesign the page, IES staff asked: What is the most important information for applicants? They agreed that “How to apply” was most crucial and identified a five-step process to post at the very top of the page.

Each step included an action and a hyperlink to the materials required to complete the step. A checklist graphic visually reinforced the idea of a five-step process.

Revised IES.ED.GOV/Funding

Next up was organizing the long list of funding opportunities. Staff removed all previous years’ opportunities from the page and grouped the current fiscal year’s opportunities first by the type of grant funding (research vs. research training), then by RFA in numerical order.

List of Current FY15 Funding Opportunities on IES.ED.GOV/Funding

Each RFA was hyperlinked to a separate landing page summarizing the funding opportunity.

Example of Landing Page for specific request for applications (Special Education Research 84.324A)

Stage Two: Improving Requests for Applications

After redesigning the funding page, IES staff turned to the RFAs and supporting materials. Applying for federal grants is a complex process, involving multiple documents and usually multiple individuals, often across more than one institution. For the FY 2011-FY 2013 funding cycles, applicants had to follow instructions in two separate documents (the RFA and an application submission guide) and a separate application package found on Grants.gov.

In addition, the RFAs themselves have many layers of complexity. To improve them, IES staff applied plain-language techniques to the FY 2013 and FY 2014 RFAs. While staff had anecdotal evidence that applications were becoming clearer (fewer email and phone calls from confused applicants), IES surveyed applicants in 2013 to solicit more formal feedback. Most respondents said they found the new format clear and helpful, though some acknowledged having to read it very carefully and multiple times.

IES continued to refine all seven FY 2015 RFAs based on staff input and the survey responses. Major changes included:

  1. Modifying the format of the RFA to clarify the minimal requirements for an application to be peer reviewed.

  2. Defining key terms within the document using text boxes and a glossary at the end of each RFA.

Sample of Definitions Provided in RFA (Education Research 84.324A)
  1. Combining the application submission guide with the RFAs. Instead of having two separate documents, the Grants.gov information was merged into each RFA. This reduced duplication and opportunities for errors, particularly because different people complete different sections of the application.

  2. Providing applicants with a summary table of all required application content.

Summary of Required Forms/Documents (Education Research 84.305A)

Stage Three: Continuous Improvement

IES will continue to solicit feedback and revise its RFAs for FY2016 and beyond to further improve the process for the next round of grant competitions.

For questions about IES plain language revision of its funding materials, please contact NCER program officer Katina Stapleton.

Katina Stapleton is the Plain Language Liaison for the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and a plain language trainer for the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing.

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