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Montana University NSF EPSCoR

Project Services

Drupal-based website design and technical upgrade for an interdisciplinary research and education organization

The core mission behind Montana NSF EPSCoR is to impact the capacity and competitiveness of science and engineering research across the Montana University System. To successfully move toward its goals and engage multiple audiences online, the organization needed both a visual website refresh and an update to the underlying CMS. Five Jars collaborated with the client to roll out a new digital image, significantly improved content architecture, site navigation, and usability, as well as performed smooth Drupal 7 to 9 and hosting migrations.

Supporting innovative education and research

Estab­lished Program to Stim­u­late Com­pet­i­tive Research (EPSCoR) was launched in the USA in 1978. Montana became one of the first five states to participate in the initiative. Since that time, Montana NSF EPSCoR, a Montana University System (MUS) program, has significantly impacted the region's R&D capacity and has become an important science and engineering research hub.

The organization works collaboratively across the state's higher education institutions, including 7 tribal colleges and partners from business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Montana NSF EPSCoR operates from offices at the University of Montana and Montana State University and aims to develop, manage, and connect long-term research projects across multiple disciplines.

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Faculty hired in strategic areas


Graduate students supported on projects


Undergraduate students supported on projects

Website content and audience specifics

For the Montana NSF EPSCoR team, their official website is a core instrument that contains information and action items for the currently running project. It also serves as an archive with essential data on all the previous initiatives. Each project consists of multiple parts that should be highlighted online. This can include research details and materials, a project team, associated education programs, student support, fundraising efforts, collaboration with business partners, and grant support.

Though not aimed at the general public, the website serves multiple niche audiences whose participation is crucial for the success of the program’s mission.

In need of a reliable tech partner

Before hiring an external vendor, the team managed the website content and tech maintenance independently but clearly understood that it could do more to serve the organization’s goals. The site could better represent the Montana NSF EPSCoR breadth of expertise and capacity with a better user interface and simplified web content management.

The team was looking for a tech partner with deep expertise in Drupal CMS development that would understand the specifics of the educational sector as a whole and the research organization’s specifics in particular. They sought a team of cross-domain experts who could dive deeply into their project nuances, make design and tech audits, suggest improvements, and bring them to life, letting the core team only prioritize the scope of things to be done.

Five Jars was selected among a range of other vendors for its extensive experience in digital strategy and design for higher educational establishments, as well as proven experience in Drupal website migration and technical upgrades.


Project challenges & goals

With multiple projects, newsletters, and reports highlighted, the old site had grown too complex and content-heavy. It was hard to navigate for all target personas. The website failed to unite people within an active project and didn't serve as a source of information on the completed initiatives. Web content accessibility was another important aspect that required improvements. Besides, to proceed with any of the design enhancements, Drupal 7 CMS needed an update, so our tech team started planning this process immediately.

The two teams began a close collaboration with an ambitious intention – to reimagine the online presence of the Montana NSF EPSCoR institution. Some of the goals appeared right on the surface and were included in the project scope from the start; others were added after a set of discovery calls and a comprehensive analysis of the business, design, and engineering sides.

The core objectives included:

Shift focus to the main project
The design should revolve around the current project, capturing visitors' attention and providing everyone with the relevant information they seek.
Improve user experience
Improve the website's visual look to drive collaboration and interaction between students, researchers, and partners and optimize navigation and content hierarchy.
Simplify content management
Website admins needed a more straightforward and user-friendly way to build and publish new pages and keep existing content up-to-date.

Upgrading the website technology

Our engineering team quickly identified the importance of prioritizing the migration from Drupal 7 to Drupal 9, as this upgrade would directly or indirectly address many of the main concerns with the site that arose after the tech audit. 

To ensure the migration ran smoothly, and the site was functional under its new version, we drafted a detailed migration plan, taking into account any problematic or uncertain areas and simplifying the process wherever possible. Our tech team scanned the site’s modules and themes to check for deprecated code, updated custom modules and themes, analyzed the quality of the source code, and identified errors that needed to be fixed before the migration. Once all the preparation work was completed, we upgraded to Drupal 9 by updating the site’s core and database.

Client quote

During a comprehensive site audit in view of the migration, we also reviewed the existing hosting environment and concluded that it was incompatible with Drupal 9. So, our team migrated the website to a new hosting provider that ensured smooth performance with the updated CMS version. This phase was more technical and allowed our client to take Five Jars for a spin, trying out our approach to work. After this step, the Montana NSF EPSCoR team was certain to move together toward a bigger milestone  – a design update.


Design and usability audit 

While the site migration was underway, the Five Jars design team started to work on the comprehensive design audit, moving the project to a new phase. We evaluated the content architecture and consistency, navigation menu, including the upper menu and the footer, usability of the main pages, analytics data, internal search performance, and accessibility. 

We returned to the client with a list of actionable recommendations for improving their current state and discussed them with them on a call. The Montana NSF EPSCoR team enthusiastically received our suggestions. They helped us prioritize the scope, and based on this, we were able to develop a roadmap with clear expectations and deadlines for each step.

Updated website grid

Updated website colour scheme

Updated website design

A new, vibrant look and improved usability

Through continuous iteration, our team developed a system of typefaces, colors, and UI elements and extended them to every block, section, and page on the website. We created a design system that was scalable and flexible as needed and, at the same time, ensured consistency and accessibility at every turn. Following a component-based approach to design, we built out a unified system of components (buttons, graphic elements, tabs) before constructing any individual page layout or content type.

Our team created and presented wireframes to the client that showcased new content hierarchy and layouts for key landing pages. Beyond these foundations, we saw an ample opportunity to inject more energy into the site through a fresh new look. The new aesthetic was minimal, clear, and professional, with bright accents leading users to the necessary information and action items.

Updated navigation
We introduced new content architecture and a more compact view for the upper menu and footer, eliminating duplicated or close-in-meaning sections.
Enhanced accessibility
Readability issues due to poor contrast were fixed. We added a visual hierarchy for the buttons and incorporated high-quality media content into the layout.
Maintained consistency
Consistency was a key consideration at every stage of the project, from initial design and development through front-end implementation.

Bringing the main project into focus

Being able to feature an active project on the website was a core requirement from the Montana NSF EPSCoR team. Previously, the homepage included a wide array of content, from general information about the program to other projects simultaneously. This structure often led to confusion about which project was currently running and required major attention.

In the new design, the focus is shifted towards one active project highlighted on the Home Page. When users proceed to the project-specific page, they can access all the necessary data and contacts. When the project ends, this component and page layout can be reused to add information about the new one. All the general information and archives of data are also accessible from the main page and menus, but they have much less highlight.

Updated website on mobile

Internal search and on-page filters

Adding a separate page with the program team members with all the necessary contacts to foster internal and external collaboration was also critical. When designing this page, we introduced on-page filtering that allowed users to navigate and find necessary contacts faster.

Filters with the same functional logic were introduced to the Events and News pages that helped visitors drill down without being overwhelmed with options and content amounts. Internal website search was also fine-tuned in terms of design, visibility, and relevance of search results.

Filters in action

Intuitive website content management

The new version of Drupal allowed us to incorporate the capabilities of Layout Builder and streamline web content management for the Montana NSF EPSCoR team. The new admin panel became a huge improvement for the content editing experience and overall site governance, with a much more user-friendly interface.

Existing content can now be updated without the involvement of the tech team and by admins with no tech expertise. Our engineers composed a library of pre-built templates that also greatly simplified the creation of new pages. By selecting and mixing the components, the team can now add new content that is consistent across the whole website.

Our team prepared detailed guides on content management to make the onboarding for the  Montana NSF EPSCoR team smooth and seamless. We then conducted a series of workshops to clarify all the questions that arose.

Efficient collaboration at all steps

Working sessions with the Montana NSF EPSCoR team throughout all project phases kept our teams in sync and paved the way for a strong partnership that we are really proud of today. We clearly understood the client's objectives and ensured that their priorities were at the heart of every decision we made. 

The client trusted our design, engineering, and industry expertise and was always open to our suggestions. This made the environment where we collaborated pleasurable, trustworthy, and, as a result, very effective. The client team was always up-to-date with what was happening in the project, could instantly prioritize the scope, and left all the implementation and tech nuances to us.

Updated website UX

Core results and future plans

The main achievement of our collaboration with the Montana NSF EPSCoR team is not just a technically robust and visually appealing website but a compelling digital resource for the whole organization. It directly addresses the challenges the team wanted to overcome and will serve as a key instrument in their mission to drive research and boost Montana’s innovation potential for years.

Technical website upgrade
With the migration to Drupal 9 and new hosting, the client received a more functional site with greater maintainability, improved security, and a longer lifespan.
New look and improved navigation
The new design creates a cohesive web presence that scales across the entire organization and helps diverse audiences quickly locate relevant information.
Simplified content management
The library of pre-built, styled, and easy-to-use templates helped to drastically reduce unnecessary complexity allowing the web admin team to manage content at scale.

Today, our collaboration with Montana NSF EPSCoR continues. Five Jars has become a trusted partner that takes care of the organization's website, from technical maintenance and security to design and usability updates. We're always happy to offer our ongoing support to our clients after the core work on the project is done.


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Amir (AJ) Elkamel

Strategic Business & Solutions Specialist