One of the key aspects of the design is a consistent template for topic pages to help citizens find and start their tasks. As an outcome of our optimization project for starting a business with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) and Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), the product design team at Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS) created a simplified steps pattern for topic pages to organize a group of related top tasks in sequence.

Topic pages fill the cracks between departments exists to provide better online service to Canadians for their top tasks, and topic pages play a key role. Many people don’t know or care which department offers a particular service. Topic pages bring together all of the service tasks onto one page, across federal departments. They act like a ‘home page’ for that set of services, providing links to help citizens find their tasks.

Topic pages have a consistent layout based on a template described in the design manual. Over time, some parts of the topic page template have been improved as task-based usability testing with Canadians has highlighted problems. But on the whole, there has only been the one template available, with links to tasks prioritized by demand or web traffic volume.

The Starting a business topic page used the standard template when the optimization team started:

Starting a business page back in October with publications regulations and random ordered topics

Sharing the headaches of start-up entrepreneurs in Canada

Only 67% of the 20 participants in our baseline usability test could identify any essential legal steps to start a business.

Although none of the participants had ever started a business before, many were students studying business. After they tried the tasks, some confided that based on the experience on the baseline site, they would probably have to hire an accountant or lawyer to start their own business someday.

Clearly, starting a business is pretty complex. The essential steps mandated by government were unclear for too many participants. How could we narrow the scope and convey the sequence?

Conveying sequence in simplicity

The solution was to pare down and describe only the essential tasks in a step-by-step process. We explain how we came to this understanding in a separate post: Helping Canadians start a business.

Once we had struck a balance with a set of steps that would be simple enough to follow and broad enough to cover the key things new businesses legally are required to do, we were ready to tackle the design. We built a working prototype of the site with the new pattern design and refined it through several iterations, having people walk through it and discussing it with our teams and experts.

First, we added numbers and changed the heading to say ‘steps’. This helped, but we noticed the new set of participants were still getting distracted, so we removed the ‘What we are doing’ links from the page, and put the steps into a single vertical column. We found that a single-column list was faster to scan and better conveyed the sequence.

The live Starting a business page matches our final working prototype very closely - Live version of Starting a business topic page on

Starting a business page now with steps and no photo of leaves at the top

Improved outcomes for Canadians starting a business

In two additional usability studies, 100% of 34 participants could find essential legal steps to start a business, with the new simplified steps pattern.

We were excited when we saw how comfortable the first few participants were with the steps pattern on the Starting a business topic page. They didn’t have to spend time reading links and descriptions, instead scanning the page to see which numbered link was where they were in the process. The steps gave them confidence that they wouldn’t miss something crucial, and they could come back to the topic page after completing each step.

Web analytics from before (February 4 to April 4, 2017) and after (May 26 to July 24, 2017) we launched the updated Starting a business page showed these improvements:

  • 66% fewer searches for the main steps to register a business Link to footnote 1
  • 10 times more people now get to BizPal, a wizard to help find required permits and licencesLink to footnote 2
  • 3 times more people now find business support and financing on the start a business steps pageLink to footnote 3

These outcomes from Canadians using the site support the prototype testing results. The steps-based design clearly addressed a real need, and filled a gap in our template design patterns. This design pattern is now available as an option for topic pages, and will soon be included in the Content and Information Architecture Specification. Services on can now use this to pattern to help Canadians understand and find the steps they’re looking for.

Find out more

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