User research findings from the Canada Energy Regulator fellowship project

Gillian Wu

Gillian Wu

June 10, 2021

Feature image

Hi there! My name is Gillian, and I am the UX Design Fellow that is part of the 5th cohort working at Code for Canada to improve digital governance. Alongside my teammates Malik Jumani (Product Manager Fellow) and Ian Cappellani (Developer Fellow), we are working with the Canada Energy Regulator (CER) to improve the tools that Canadians use to participate in hearings regarding energy projects regulated by the CER.

To learn more about us, click here.

In the previous article, I went over the high-level discovery process for my team’s project within Canada Energy Regulator (CER). We are excited to share some of the insights we gathered from our user research sessions.

Contextual and Industry Research

At the start of our fellowship, my team reviewed all the technical and business requirements, along with any existing research.

We also looked at other government regulatory bodies and registries related to public participation. For example, we took inspiration from the Ontario Energy Board and the Ontario Environmental Registry to see how different organizations solved similar challenges the CER has. This later influenced part of our decision-making in the redesign.

Key Insights

  1. Make it simple and straightforward.
  2. Do not force the users to create an account when possible.
  3. Utilize visuals such as maps to aid understanding.
The Ontario Energy Boards comment form

Heuristic Evaluation

My team and I reviewed the existing tools to understand the challenges that first-time users might run into. It allowed us to empathize with those going through the participation process.

Key Insights

1. Complex language, lots of text and information hierarchy issues causes the process to feel intimidating.

The legal and policy jargon makes the participation tools difficult to understand. It is also content-heavy, which means there is a risk of information overload.

CER application form

2. Lengthy process, redundant steps, and a confusing workflow leads to more time spent on participating.

The process of sharing concerns is long and daunting, which might create friction for those interested in participating.

3. Different button options take away from the intended goal.

Reviewing the form is a crucial step in the process, but it is nestled between the ‘previous’ and ‘submit’ buttons. The three buttons compete for the user’s attention when the intention is for the participant to check over their information. This might cause the user to accidentally hit submit.

CER form buttons

4. Input field and textual inconsistencies can break existing mental models.

The input field for language selection is different in certain parts of the participation process. Moreover, the text in the progress bar is not always consistent.

CER form input fields

Internal Staff Interviews

Our team met with 14 CER employees to understand the larger vision of the participation tools, along with the challenges people face when using them. We learned about the desire to make things more inclusive, usable, and barrier-free for the average person. However, we also discovered the challenges of balancing the needs of participants, while also ensuring there is adherence to the quasi-judicial system.

Key Insights

  1. The legalese can be confusing and intimidating for people without lawyers.
  2. The searchability of the CER website and Regulatory Documents is an issue for internal staff and hearing participants.
  3. Technology literacy and access to the internet and financial resources impact the overall experience.
  4. There is a need to cater the experience to those with unique styles of communication on top of written language.
  5. People appreciate the human elements from the CER.

External Participant Interviews

Our team validated the qualitative data we uncovered in our initial research by talking to 11 people across Canada who have gone through the energy adjudication process. We talked to people of First Nations and Métis descent, landowners, regulatory specialists, biologists and concerned citizens.

We learned about the care they had for the land and the animals, as well as their desire for an equitable and sustainable process. We listened to them while they shared their frustrations, concerns, and fears over the existing process. We heard them when they told us about the bad industry practices occurring in their community and the cumulative environmental impact that goes unaddressed. Part of our research even led us to chase down a newspaper ad from a small rural town in Alberta.

Key Insights

  1. Barriers to participation go beyond the digital tools. Communication issues often arise early in the process and can cause cascading impacts down the road.
  2. A lot of people have limited time and money to participate, which can be a barrier to voicing their concerns.
  3. First-time participants were more likely to have difficulties using the existing tools and do not know where to go if they were looking for help.
  4. The participants with less standing in the hearing process preferred to comment by email. They did not want to create an account.
  5. There were varying desires on where a hearing should be held, but most people preferred to have it in their communities. For example, some individuals wanted to see more hearings hosted near them, while others wanted to participate through remote sessions.

Participant Feedback

“Writing an email with my comments would have been easier than going through the CER’s digital participation process.”

“I get the sense that there is no willingness to help, almost to the point where it seems like they don’t want people to participate.”

“There’s a lot of legal jargon throughout the process. The average person will not know what a lot of these terms mean and even know how to register to participate.”

Usability Testing

Our team also tested the existing participation tools with people who were unfamiliar with the energy adjudication process.

Key Insights

  1. 6/6 people thought the registration process was their application to participate when that was not the case.
  2. 6/6 people would sign in using their bank account over the government standard web form.
  3. 5/6 people felt confused when they went through the participation process and did not understand the different ways to participate.
  4. 4/6 people thought there were a lot of steps to go through.

Participant Feedback

“I want to understand the distinctions between the two types of participation before applying.”

“The overall experience was like a bad exercise. It was too long, there was no reward, and I was constantly lost and confused.”

Next up, I will be going over how my team identified the major themes from our research and turned them into priorities to be addressed project.