has always been about making it simpler and easier for Canadians to find and understand the Government of Canada information and services they need. Recent testing is showing that while people are finding what they are looking for, they still can’t understand what they’re reading once they get there. While there is still work to do on task findability, we are shifting the focus now to task success.

Optimization projects are a way to make meaningful improvements for Canadians without investing a lot of time and money. Through these projects, we are tackling the root cause of most usability problems people have: poorly written, overly complex, and disorganized content, written for public servants instead of the public. The projects are also a great way to apply UX methods in a lean, focused way to demonstrate real improvement.

Optimization projects: improving specific top tasks

Optimization projects are short, typically lasting 3 to 4 months. They are intensely focused on increasing user success for specific top tasks.

The first challenge is to think like a citizen and identify tasks. Sometimes a task is fairly simple to identify, and people can accomplish it by finding and reading content on a web page. There are thousands of these out there, and they can be fixed quickly.

Sometimes a task is more complex, and involves multiple steps, logging in, or supporting databases and applications. Applying to immigrate to Canada or filing income taxes are good examples.

More complex tasks may take full service re-design to fix, involving the removal of IT and legislative barriers. However, even in complex situations, there remain opportunities to fix content that helps people to “get started” with their tasks, such as understanding eligibility. Defining the task optimization in achievable terms is critical to success.

Methodology for improving task success

Overview of steps in the optimization process - details follow

Data and evidence drive the 3 to 4 month sequence that we are using to optimize online services:

  1. Discovery research: the existing evidence is gathered and synthesized into insights and hypotheses to produce scenarios for baseline testing
  2. Baseline testing: moderated usability tests are done with Canadians trying the scenarios on the existing webs content
  3. Design and prototyping: sprints are used to iteratively design, build and test a prototype that solves the problems seen in discovery and baseline testing
  4. Validation testing: the baseline test (usability testing) is repeated on the new prototype site with a different but similar set of Canadian participants
  5. Prototype launch: if the validation test shows a measurable improvement, then the successful aspects of the prototypes are integrated and released at the earliest opportunity.

Successful teams are multi-disciplinary

Optimization teams must include people with various skills and experience to be successful. We bring an experienced optimization lead, designers, behavioural researchers, project managers and content advisors. Members from departments usually include web communications leads and program specialists, and ideally their own UX researchers and designers if available.

Teams may occasionally pull in deeper-level specialists. For example, experts from Corporations Canada joined the recent “starting a business” optimization project to workshop baseline testing results. Corporations Canada then stepped back and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada represented them moving forward. As projects ramp up into the design and prototyping stage, teams work together through frequent face-to-face workshops and online tools like Github and Webex.

Usability testing is key

You’ll notice that 2 of the steps in the process involve moderated usability testing. In fact, usability testing is key to the success of every project. The research is done with participants from across the country performing realistic task scenarios on their own computers, tablets and phones. This kind of research study gives teams valuable measurements of how well tasks are performing, and helps them understand how people are using the content on the site.

Through moderated usability testing, we gain 2 things:

  1. measureable improvements in terms of task findability and task completion
  2. evidence we can leverage to further guide our improvement activities

In terms of measuring improvements, we are aiming for a big increase in the participants’ ability to both find and complete tasks. Before and after tests often show gains of between 10 and 20 percentage points. However, the higher your baseline testing results, the harder it is to improve task success in a single project.

Insights that teams gain from observing people performing tasks during usability testing and analyzing the results feed directly into the design phase. It’s only once the baseline testing is completed that we actually know what to focus on as potential solutions to build into prototypes.

The insights drawn from usability testing are also leveraged to improve the overall design system for We’re always looking for patterns in the issues that testing uncovers. When we spot a trend, we work on updating our design manuals to address them. You’ll see evidence of this in updates to:

Catalyzing continuous improvement

Optimization projects are not only about driving tangible improvements to specific top tasks at a particular moment in time. They also help departments and agencies to build capacity for continuous improvement. The teams that participate in these projects learn fast and respond quickly to research and testing evidence. They gain valuable “on-the-ground” skills and experience in designing prototypes. Success with short-term optimization projects builds confidence and momentum, which acts as a catalyst for sustainable, ongoing improvement of

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