Every year, a National Science Foundation (NSF) program awards
approximately $200 million to small businesses developing cutting-edge
technology. In particular, the program provides funding and mentorship
to entrepreneurs who may be too early-stage or considered too high-risk
in their product development to get private equity investments.
Recently, they’ve funded innovations that include synthetic voices and
bricks grown from bacteria.
But the brand and official name for the program — the NSF Small
Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology
Transfer (STTR) program — didn’t communicate the program’s purpose to
the current market of tech entrepreneurs.
Embrace testing and iteration to build what’s right
Together, 18F and the NSF team began prototyping a new website and brand
for the SBIR/STTR program. The team started with the U.S. Web Design
System and modified it to use design
patterns the team found during research with tech entrepreneurs. They
then iterated on the designs, based on feedback gathered through
prototype testing with actual users. For example, on the portfolio page,
the team discovered that founder stories and data visualizations didn’t
perform as well as a short text list of NSF-funded companies.
A separate initiative that funds the NSF program changed the program
name to America’s Seed Fund. The NSF team took their research and the new
name to create “America’s Seed Fund powered by NSF.” The new website
used concise language and bold design to speak directly to the target
audience. The website also surfaced features of the NSF program that
differentiated it from other grants or seed funds, while providing more
transparency about the application process.
During this project, the NSF team embraced the practice of testing
prototypes with real users and continually incorporating their feedback
into the final product. And they adapted their workflow to move away
from lengthy change requests to a simple way for the project team to
edit its own website. This project helped the NSF learn techniques to
better reach the public and fund the innovative technologies of