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Old habits die hard (when feelings get in the way)

By Celeste Côté, Privy Council Office

I’ve been working in digital content for the better part of a decade and I’ve often wondered why it’s so hard to get good work done when the best practices are out there, backed by research, and logically, we know what we need to do.

Gerry McGovern’s talk on top tasks and UX (user experience) hit the nail on the head:

The main challenge of improving the UX of our sites and services isn’t the adoption of a particular technology or tool; it’s the adoption of new values and approaches — culture change.

Photograph of Celeste Côté during the Gerry McGovern master class at Bayview Yards in Ottawa, February 13, 2018
Celeste Côté during Gerry McGovern's master class at Bayview Yards in Ottawa, February 13, 2018.


McGovern joked about traditional approaches to design being very Mad Men — bosses smoking cigars in back rooms making decisions. While workplaces have changed over the years, we still have the tendency to base decisions on personal preferences — especially when those decisions involve design, about which everyone tends to have no shortage of feelings and opinions.

Meanwhile, our culture is changing in ways that are going to require us to become comfortable with being more vulnerable, not having all the answers, asking more questions, putting users’ priorities ahead of our own, avoiding assumptions, and relinquishing a bit of control —namely, setting aside our ability to make decisions based on opinions in favour of basing decisions on evidence.

A favourite quote in the UX community is “you are not the user” (or in the writing community, “you are not the audience”). So how do we know what users want? We ask them.

“The worst thing you can do is put 5 smart people drinking lattes together and have them design a website,” McGovern joked.

So what kind of evidence do we collect?

McGovern warned us about what he calls the cult of volume — the idea that lots of visitors visiting lots of pages and spending lots of time on the page is great. If lots of visitors go to a website, can’t find what they’re seeking and spend more time looking for it, this is not success.

So what does success look like and how do we measure it?

McGovern advocates this simple approach:

  1. Find out what tasks users are trying to accomplish on our websites (through the use of site analytics and surveys);
  2. Find out whether users are successful in accomplishing their task;
  3. Find out how long it took for users to accomplish their task;
  4. Test and iterate, aiming for a 90% completion rate and a short completion time.

He also provided some specific guidelines on conducting user testing:

  • Testing should happen on the user’s own computer and short prompts can be sent via remote desktop sharing application (such as WebEx);
  • Task prompts should be short (~30 words) and should not contain keywords or information that would give away the answer.

The steps are relatively straightforward. Now, our top task is to convince more of our colleagues to put the users first and adopt this approach.

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About Celeste Côté

Celeste Côté joined the public service in November 2017 to work with the stellar PM Digital Operations team in the Privy Council Office. As team lead for PM web, Celeste manages the operations of the Prime Minister’s website (pm.gc.ca) along with a great team of publishers. She also provides web publishing advice to other teams within PCO and across government as necessary.

Between her time in the non-profit sector and as a consultant, Celeste has been in communications and content strategy for over a decade. She’s redesigned website layouts and architecture, planned and executed multi-platform campaigns, and evaluated efforts through analytics.

Celeste is passionate about the (constantly changing) way people interact with information online and keeps up with best practices by taking as many courses and webinars as possible.

She’s acclimatizing to life in government but still needs colleagues to spell out acronyms on occasion.

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