competency navigator

Client: U-M Office of Research and Sponsorships

UX Research

and Design

Role: Product Manager and Product Designer

Year: 2019

Team: 5

Competency Navigator tool for Research Administrators at the University of Michigan to guide them in their career development.

The office of Research and Sponsorships at U-M has developed a “Research Administrator Competency Reference” spreadsheet to provide a framework of the skills and knowledge required to be successful in a research administration role.

The web based tool has been created to navigate the RAs in their career development path. This project utilised user research, qualitative analysis and Interaction design practices. The major challenge was to deliver a novel tool based on a spreadsheet for which no users currently exist. The competency reference tool will be an information resource for research administrators or anyone interested in exploring or developing in the career field of research administration.

Case study


Research Administrators (RA) are the key drivers of a research project from inception to funding to applying for grants. They carry out all the administrative tasks related to the research project. To carry out different stages of research tasks, an RA must learn to perform a variety of complex tasks in order to succeed in their roles and advance in their field. 


To help Research Administrators discover useful career advancement resources, the University of Michigan’s Office of Research and Sponsored Projects (ORSP) has curated a Research Administration Competencies Development Matrix. However, the Matrix, which currently exists in the form of a spreadsheet, is difficult for Research Administrators to access, navigate, and use. The need was to identify and create a visualisation for this data on a platform.

A typical profession of RA includes management of a Research Project in the above phases.

How might we help research administrators with their career development using the resources accumulated by their training managers ?


This chapter covers the following:


  • Decoding the matrix data 

  • Contextual Interviews

  • Qualitative Data Analysis

  • Personas


I, with one other teammate interviewed the client and the stakeholders about these giant spreadsheets as shown on the right, to understand the motivations behind creating them.


We realised that the spreadsheet was a giant knowledge book across different entities created by the training managers at the ORSP and created for over 2000 research administrators at the university. After the initial head start with the interview, we analysed this spreadsheet ourselves and tried to figure out a pattern to decode the data organisation. After a thoughtful analysis and excluding the outliers. 

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 2.49.29 PM.png

Creating a data flow to understand the information architecture.



We conducted a total of 7 interviews with Research Administrators at the College of Engineering and the Medical School.


Interviews were in-person and lasted between 30 minutes and 1 hour. 


I interviewed two research administrators in their senior positions to understand how they developed their skills in their early career.


Themes explored in the interviews include: background, experience in research administration, training and mentorship, approaches to finding career development resources, approaches to finding resources necessary for performing daily functions, and overall impression of the job. 

7 Interviews let us to find out about the current learning behaviours of RAs.


I with the team, developed an affinity map to discover trends and themes in our large amount of interview data. We wrote our interview notes on sticky notes, grouped them, summarized them, and grouped and extracted high-level insights from the summaries.

Key insights: 


  1. Search is currently the most important feature for finding resources.

  2. The nature of the RA learning and development curve is chaotic, not linear. 

  3. RAs learning is more empirical than theoretical. 

  4. RAs tend to use the websites such as the ORSP resource website extensively for resource searching. 

  5. RAs approach their supervisors/mentors for problem-solving. 

  6. Experienced RAs are an important resource for doubts and questions, given the nuanced and department-specific nature of RA work.

Having a tool with resources with ability to quickly search and navigate, with a mentorship platform for quick guidance is the optimum need.


Based on the above interviews we also made personas to define the general needs, technology constraints and highlight the pain points of Research Administrators. The following personas give a glimpse of the users both in their early career stage and experienced stage.

persona 2.jpg


This chapter covers the following:


  • Key Features

  • Design Strategies

  • Narrowed Concept

  • Digital Prototypes


Based on the above insights, we narrowed down to the key features of the solution.

1. A digital competency resource tool. 

2. Search functionality.

3. Mentorship or quick access to Q/A.

4. Feasibility of the tool to be developed quickly.


Data organisation in Airtable

1. Airtable  


Airtable is a flexible and user-friendly tool for creating relational databases. It combines the flexibility of spreadsheets with the integrity of relational databases, and provides an intuitive interface. Conveniently, Airtable also offers an API that can be used to pull, modify, and display data on a web page, such as ORSP’s

I prototyped an airtable instance that reflected the data flow that we understood in the Competencies Matrix. I linked each competency and task with their required resources, as shown in the figures below and created a table with the defined relations.

Positives : Can be edited or updated by anyone with minimal knowledge of relational databases, thanks to the form updation feature in Airtables. Gives a bird’s eye view of the entire resource map. 


Negatives : Lacks accessibility and visualisation in the raw form.

2. Wiki  


A Wiki is a decentralized but moderated knowledge base website that allows any user to easily edit the content on the website. The archetypal example of a wiki is Wikipedia, the biggest wiki in existence. Though Wikis allow all users to edit pages, page moderators, who can block pages from being edited, can be established. Additionally, Wiki allows all users to easily track the changes that have been made to a page, which can facilitate page moderation.


Owing to our finding for RAs to find a centralised source of all the interconnected resources. We created a wiki instance prototype as one of the solutions.

Positives: It can be updated by a large number of RAs who have different and often specialized areas of expertise as highlighted by our interviewees. A crowdsourced database of RA information would be useful for describing the specifics of complex tasks, for instance.



1. Wikis lack the concise visualization of information that can be offered by a spreadsheet. 

2. Resources can be of different format (Text, video and audio) and wikis can only support text.

3. Web Tool 

Owing to the finding of extensive use of the ORSP website for resource searching for RAs, I paper prototyped a web tool for the career development resources that can blend with their day-to-day research searching depended on the project lifecycle phase.


We tried out several different interface layouts (vertical, accordion) for the information hierarchy of the spreadsheet to see which was the most intuitive. We also tried to visualize competency mapping based on market title. These paper prototypes allowed us to evaluate the usability of each idea and to receive feedback on them quickly.


After doing a speed dating of the above prototypes with the prospective users and understanding requirements with the client we realised that a web based tool integrated in the current ORSP resources website would be convenient for the users and would also match the feasibility of the stakeholders to develop it with their current resources. We also improved our narrowed concept based on the feedback received from the user testing, for instance, it was suggested that we should add filtering functions and a link to the already in place mentoring platform owing to our research findings. 


A competency Navigator on the current ORSP website for the RAs. The competencies will be listed according to the project lifecycle phases.


Based on our findings and after brainstorming with the team, I designed the following mid- fidelity designs of the tool using Figma

The design consists of a web page that allows users to explore different project lifecycle phases, competencies, tasks, and resources via browse and/or search. The prototype offers functionalities such as: breadcrumb navigation, search filters, ability to export the web page as a PDF or print the web page, and ability to “Ask an Expert” which can be linked to an already in-place mentorship platform at ORSP.

Design Decisions

The colours of each project lifecycle phase was chosen to be consistent with the peacock framework used by the ORSP in their website to show resources for each lifecycle phase. This would make the search relevant to the lifecycle phase and easy for the user to differentiate when searching for or navigating through the resources. 


The user flow below shows all of the interactions possible within the prototype. 


The export functions were added to keep the flexibility for opting for a bird’s eye view of the entire competency list with resources, that can be helpful for someone starting out their career.

digital prototype flow.png

A colourful competency navigator tool, with each colour corresponding to the project lifecycle phase for decreasing the scanning time due to the glut of resources.

SHOW RESOURCESresources.jpg


This project was an eye opener in terms of keeping the balance between user needs and client requirement. Getting the clarity of the user needs and bargaining with the client about the same gave me an example of a real experience into the professional UX world.

While I had lead teams in the past, leading an interdisciplinary team for a client based project was a completely different experience. Having a peculiar background with teammates from different backgrounds and different countries, put me in an interesting spot. While my project management skills improved, This project essentially tested my people management skills. I learned a lot from my team. Most importantly that everyone had different workflows and priorities and even though I struggled initially, I learned to accommodate every team member’s best skills into the project in their own flexible ways.

We showcased the project at the UMSI Expo 2019 and were greatly appreciated by our happy clients!

Designed with ❤ by Ruchita