Yeah, science!

An open letter to NIH Assist

Dear NIH Assist,

I know it says in your 119-slide webinar on how to use Assist to start populating the forms before we even start writing the grants, but you have to know that no one actually does this. Even if we did, there are so many last minute changes, edits, and additions that starting even a week early is pretty pointless.

So knowing that your users are likely waiting until a mere two hours before the submission deadline to even start filling out the information, you did your best to design the most user-friendly, easy-to-follow site possible, right?

No. No you did not.

First, the summary page.

The most important information here is the PI contact info. Which…you won’t let me edit. Until several pages later, where I enter the key personnel.

Okay, fine, I can wait to fill in that information.

Then at the bottom of the page, you offer me three choices to continue: 1) “Save and lock”; 2) “Save and release”; 3) “Cancel”.

Um, whatever happened to good ol’ “Save and continue”??

Please tell me, which of these options will let me both save my work and then continue on to the next section? Because I’ve only got it narrowed down from three options to two at this point.

Oh, you won’t tell me, anywhere on the page? Okay, I’ll check out your FAQ.

…Which is 100 pages. Also, the answer isn’t there. Also, I don’t think any of these questions have ever been asked by real people. “How can I tell if my attachments meet the ‘line spacing must be no more than six lines per vertical inch’ requirement?” Really? People ask this, frequently?

How about the user guide?

306 pages. Um, no.

So I have to google it and find the answer buried in your 119-page webinar?

Sure, I’ve got time for that…

Also, if your how-to webinar has to include a giant bubble asking “Where’s the budget?” (which, btw, is the first thing that autocomplete suggests when I google “nih assist where”), maybe you ought to make the budget – the most complicated part of the grant to figure out in the first place – part of the main form, rather than expecting me to figure out that I have click on “Add optional form” and then select one of several budget forms.

And, why do some sections of the budget spreadsheet auto-calculate, but others I have to enter the total myself? Did five o’clock roll around and you forget to make a note of where you stopped?

By the way, your webinar doesn’t actually answer the question of “Where’s the budget?” I had to google that too.

Anyway, three hours and many google sessions later, I think I filled out your forms correctly? At least, I didn’t get any error messages when I validated the application (again, I had to google what that meant, because you didn’t seem to think it was important to use any sort of linear progression that would take me to that step naturally).

Okay, after three tries, I have no more errors (the first three were all because I had uploaded duplicate documents, because you don’t have any sort of instruction on how to handle a situation where two studies use the same docs, but you won’t let me progress if I upload just one doc for both studies, so instead I had to go back twice and add a new doc named “Copy” to each study), two warnings (which you say I can ignore? Okay, then why – no, never mind), and I’ve generated the preview, which I’ve sent to everyone on the team to approve.

Four hours later, and three hours til the deadline (9am for me, because hooray for time zones…and all-nighters), I get my approvals back. So I can submit, right?

Well, after I google how to submit, because you didn’t see fit to either use a linear progression to take me to the big red submission button or even use a big red submission button, I discover…I can’t submit. The submit button is grayed out, which I didn’t really notice because 1) I had to google to find it, and 2) the gray really isn’t that much different a color from the rest of the buttons on the form.

So now I get to spend the next three hours (at 6am, because yay time zones) panicking about how to get this damn thing submitted, because the actual team members are on two different continents and apparently don’t check their email even when the subject line says “Urgent – can’t submit”, so I have to cold- email a complete stranger in a different country who is literally the only person in the entire world who can hit that submit button, and I don’t know if he even has any idea we’re trying to submit a grant today.

Because yeah, you thought it would be no problem to let me upload all 1000 grant pieces with my credentials, but didn’t think I needed to be told that my credentials wouldn’t actually let me complete the final step. I guess if you work for a behemoth institution who has a designated department for this, it’s obvious – but you do have that small business innovation mechanism for, you know, small businesses. We don’t have that kind of institutional support or experience with the nuts and bolts of grant submission.

Fortunately, the people I work with – including strangers on a completely different continent – are super nice and we got it in with 90 minutes to spare (not that I was counting).

But you know, I can’t help feeling like maybe a small redesign of your site – just a couple little changes, really – might make the process go a little smoother? Mybe talk to an actual human being who has to use it, get a tip or two?


Someone who has under-appreciated grant managers my whole career. 

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