I am the information architect and interaction designer at a non-profit foundation. I have designed a web application that my organization uses to intake, review and award applications for research grants. This year over 1000 applications were submitted online and we are awarding about $50 million dollars to scientific researchers at institutions across the US and abroad.
There is an administrative piece which enables our internal grants administrators to approve applications that meet our compliance standards, determine eligibility and qualifications for external reviewers (scientists and doctors), assign appropriate applications to these reviewers (filtering conflicts of interest between applicant and reviewer institutions, among other criteria), monitor the reviewing process (reviewers submit scores and comments online), set and adjust funding amounts and balances, and monitor post award progress reporting (also done online by grantees) through the term of the awarded grant.
There's a lot more, but here's one of my issues. The administrators enter their own comments for various elements on the screens. I have a comment text field on almost every screen and I also display a comments log, which is stamped with author, date and time, so one administrator can read another's comments and respond (but not overwrite). There are multiple line items on every screen (think IRS form, insurance claim, etc.) and, as an enhancement for next year, the administrators want a separate comment box for each item. (Don't ask me to explain the culture here - it is what it is.)
This will lead to extremely busy screens filled with comment boxes. I am thinking about taking all the comment boxes off and putting a comments icon next to each item instead - maybe a speech bubble - that the admins can click to open a separate window where he or she can enter the comment specifically associated with that item. I can put something in the speech bubble (an exclamation mark maybe) so that at a glance you can see that some items already have comments. The admins would always go to a separate screen to see all comments, organized by line item, and read or respond to them there, instead of on the admin screen where they are performing their other tasks.
I'd love to know if anyone has resolved a similar interaction design issue. All of our development is in asp.net. Our developers are very good at adapting .net controls to create rich interactions, but they look to me for UI direction, CSS enhancements, workflow design and interpretation of complex business rules.
Thanks in advance.
(Apologies for cross-posting.)