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Top 10 content design lessons the Canada.ca design team learned in 2019

In January 2019, the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) team launched the Canada.ca design update to modernize and simplify the trusted digital brand of the Government of Canada. Throughout the year, we continued to work with departments to improve the user experience across government information and services. As we count down to 2020, we’d like to share the top 10 content design lessons we learned this year.

1. Watch people use your content

“Always be testing. Watching people use your content is critical to ensuring that they are successful using it. Best practices and educated guesses can only get you so far, because how people use content and interact with it will very often surprise you.”

- Jennifer Mealing

2. Work collaboratively with others

“Including staff from the call centre teams at CRA and PSPC dramatically increased the potential impact of those projects. They brought data and an in‑depth understanding of user pain points and potential solutions to the entire team.”

- Lisa Fast

3. Show up and be open to change

“The Travel Advice project brought together a committed, engaged, cross-departmental and cross-functional team. They showed up for every workshop and were open to change. They were also inspired by the evidence, and by each other, to challenge long‑standing practices in how travel risks are categorized and conveyed to Canadians.”

- Jane Stewart

4. Guide people with interactive content

“On both CRA projects (Contact Us and Canada Child Benefit), we used different patterns to help people find the right answer depending on their situation. We used interactive questions and expand/collapse patterns to reveal only what people were actually looking for. When mutually exclusive answers depend on different variables, simply putting all situations and answers on a page (separated by headings) doesn’t cut it. People have a hard time figuring out what applies to them, and often “satisfice” by choosing a wrong answer. Making people choose the situation that applies to them first is very effective. It guides them to the right answer for their situation.”

- David Pepin

5. People don’t do math

“People find numbers hard to process online. They find it even harder to figure out how to put numbers together to find the answer they’re looking for. Avoid numbers where you can, and strictly limit how many numbers you present on a single page. People just don’t do math. If math is essential, show the equation so that they can duplicate it. But if you can use simple language or a wizard to help users avoid having to do math altogether, that’s the better option.”

- Laura Piper

6. Not more content, smarter content

“Until you see how little people read online, it’s hard to believe. Watching people scan for keywords and ignore everything else has been eye‑opening. Tend your content like a garden. Don’t plant more seeds until you remove the weeds! It’s like what Sarah Richards says, “Focus on a ‘not more content, smarter content’ approach.” Another page of content probably isn’t the solution.”

- Lana Stewart

7. Always test your content—you can’t predict what will trip people up

“In one of our tasks, people needed to figure out whether they needed a yellow fever vaccination to enter Costa Rica. The fact is, you do need a vaccination if you’re coming from countries that have yellow fever outbreaks—with some exceptions. We included a message to alert people to the possibility. Then, they had to click on to see the details. When we started testing, we found that 2 of the first 4 people stopped reading after they saw “is required” in the initial message. They never read on for the conditions.

We tried a variation that changed “is” to “may be.” After that, every single participant clicked the link to get more information!

The first version was correct, but we needed to introduce a little doubt to get people to think more about it. What this illustrates so clearly is that you can’t know how people will respond until you test it. “Is required” is perfectly reasonable. It’s factually correct; it seems clear. But when you test with real people, you see that even when you’re right you might be wrong.”

- Patrick Lajeunesse

8. Good service relies on good measurements

"Successfully improving a service relies on understanding the pain points and empathizing with citizens who are trying to complete a task.

Making sure you’re tracking useful metrics is the only way to make sure you can provide good service.

Don’t measure success with volumetrics. Measure with conversions, rejected applications or form errors. Don’t measure success with the number of calls. Track the change in callers with the same issues after a change in web content. Track the outcome of moving people to online service from paper filing.

Instrumental to successful task optimization is measuring the performance ahead of time, so that you can focus your experiment on the changes that will make the biggest difference.”

- Miguel Borges-Porteous

9. Words matter

“The actual words on the page can make a world of difference. Do your research and use the words that real people actually use. For example, in one of our projects, we found out that people use “student aid,” not “student financial assistance,” which was used everywhere on the site. So, we used “student aid” in our prototype.

When we are trying to find an answer on a website, we all do the same thing: we scan the page, looking for a hint as to where to go next. We look for an “answer scent.” Front‑load your navigation link with the right keywords, carefully craft your headings using the right words, break down walls of texts, and simplify the language: all of this will help people scan the page and locate where to go next.”

- David Pepin

10. Focus on top tasks

“You can’t work on everything. You need to choose where to focus your efforts. We use the concept of top tasks—the most important things that people come to do on our websites—to determine what we should be working on. Whether it’s from survey data, web analytics or call centre intelligence, understanding the most important things from citizens’ point of view is pretty straightforward. And once you’ve identified your top tasks, then that’s what you need to concentrate on measuring and improving.”

- Peter Smith

We hope you find these lessons helpful too when improving your content.

Looking forward to 2020

The Digital Transformation Office would like to wish you rest and relaxation over the holiday season. We have big, BIG plans for 2020. We look forward to collaborating with our many colleagues across government as we continue to work as a community to improve both Canada.ca and the GC design system.

A photo of the Digital Transformation Office team.

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