The Digital Transformation Office carried out a wayfinding research project to better understand how people navigate different parts of the Government of Canada’s web presence. We worked with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Veterans Affairs Canada and Statistics Canada to investigate how people use the global theme and topic menu on We knew that some institutions were finding that the menu wasn’t meeting their more complex navigation needs. In some cases, this prevented a few institutions from adopting the design.

To find a solution we needed to look beyond the menu and toward navigation habits as a whole to see how institutions could meet user needs effectively.

Navigation is about wayfinding, you can't treat it as separate because many other things run parallel with it. If you look at studies in wayfinding, everything from exhibit design to building the cathedrals, it's about creating a complete system. It's about looking at the whole.

– Clement Mok

The Wayfinding project

The research included a baseline study to discover and assess findability problems and a comparison study to test possible solutions. Our findings have informed changes to the design.

Research and prototyping activities explored options to remove the menu while maintaining or improving the effectiveness of global navigation. We also wanted to preserve the confidence and trust we’ve established with the site brand.

Our prototype included the following design elements for testing:

  • a global header without a menu
  • theme links from the menu moved to the footer
  • a Sign in button in the global header
  • more prominent breadcrumb links
  • a simplified theme page template

We applied the new design to pages that were already using the design, as well as pages that weren't. Task success remained consistent and there was even an improvement for navigating between themes. One of the reasons for the consistent performance is that breadcrumbs are used more often than the global menu for navigation. People can find their destination when there are clear links to theme-level pages in the breadcrumb.

We also found that people use the menu to find a way to sign into their account. Since signing in is a top task on, we exposed a contextual Sign in button on relevant pages to see how it affected use of the menu. We put it at the top-right, just below the global header, where people typically look for signing into an account. It worked. Applying these design changes maintained or improved task success in the comparison round of testing. Check out our research summary for more details. Wayfinding research summary
Summary of the Wayfinding research DTO conducted to examine how people navigate different parts of the Government of Canada web presence

A transitional approach

These are complex changes to a site that people depend on every day. To minimize disruption for users, we’re using a transitional approach to make these design improvements to our navigation. Some of the work has already been done and more is in progress. This is our roll-out plan.

1. Updates to the homepage


Analysis of footer usage patterns on the home page vs all other pages showed that some footer links were used a lot from the homepage, but very little from elsewhere in the site. We’ve moved these links out of the footer and into the content section of the homepage. This makes them more visible where people actually use them and frees up space in the footer for more appropriate links. homepage homepage with the updated footer and content area

2. Contextual Sign in button

Available to use

The global header now includes the contextual Sign in button. It’s an optional element to be used on pages where people are likely looking to sign in to an account. We saw that a lot of people used the global menu to access a sign in page. When signing in is a top task, presenting a Sign in button in the top right of the content area makes signing in more obvious and easy to find. As people become accustomed to seeing and using the sign in button in a relevant and consistent spot below the header, they will depend less on the menu to find and sign in to their account(s).

Introducing the contextual Sign in button
Blog post that introduces the addition of the Sign in button to the global header

Contextual Sign in button design system pattern that directs people to government accounts

Global header design system pattern for the top of web pages from the Government of Canada

3. Footer updates

Available to use

To further reduce dependency on the theme and topic menu, we’ve made some adjustments to the Global footer. The new Global footer will be made up of three content bands.

Contextual-footer band

The contextual band is optional and configurable. Institutions can provide up to three contextual support links that are relevant to the content within a group of pages. For example, departments who had a contextualized contact link in the old footer can now configure this contextual band to include a direct contact link.

Bear in mind that footer links are mostly used as rescue links. They are often a last resort for frustrated people who can’t find what they’re looking for.

Main-footer band

We’ve added the links to all theme and audience pages into the main footer band. This band is mandatory on standard pages to provide a consistent base to the majority of the web presence. It’s optional on transactional and campaign pages where people are focused on a very specific task and you want to reduce distractions as much as possible. Institutions will not be able to change this band.

Sub-footer band

The sub-footer band is mandatory on all pages. It contains the Canada wordmark and corporate links for “Social media,” “Mobile applications,” “About,” “Terms and conditions,” and “Privacy”. Institutions can contextualize both the Terms and conditions link and the Privacy link. The other links are optional on transactional and campaign pages where you want to reduce distractions as much as possible.

Global footer design system pattern for the bottom of web pages from the Government of Canada

4. Retire the theme and topic menu

Available in the near future.

Yes, you read that right. Our research shows that the theme and topic menu isn’t essential to successful navigation. We can move things out of the menu without disrupting people’s task success. In some cases, we can make it easier to find key tasks, like Sign in.

As departments implement other changes, like the updated footer and contextual Sign in buttons where needed, we expect they'll see a decline in menu use. When web analytics show that people are using the menu less than 1% of the time within a certain set of pages, departments can remove it. This is a staged approach aimed at gently encouraging users to shift their navigating habits.

5. Simplified theme page design

Available in the future.

Theme pages still play a vital organizing function in our information architecture, but we can simplify the layout. We’re working toward updating the theme page template to provide more straightforward access to top tasks. Our research will test a navigation bar to help people navigate across themes and a Most requested band. We’re considering removing the features section and social media links because analytics show that people rarely use them.

Final thoughts

Stay tuned! This is a transition process that will take some time to complete. We’re monitoring each step of the rollout to see if we need to make adjustments to the plan.

We’re continuing to conduct research and analysis to improve navigation and brand trust. There are always areas that can be improved, and new challenges will arise as we transition to these new patterns. Share your experience with us. Ask us how you can participate in research.