Category: Business Operations

Web Renewal: It’s not all about Users

You read that correctly: developing an effective web presence means it’s not all about users. My colleagues and clients who have heard my relentless ode to user-centric design might be spilling their lattes about now. Lest anyone think I’ve lost my senses, let me add a bit of context.

The discipline of user-centred design takes into account many aspects, including detailed knowledge of user tasks, user behaviours (accessing a site at particular times), conventions in interface design (having a search box available on every page), and a laundry list of known ways that humans interact with a product (we are attracted to images of the human face). Our approach to design thus attempts to grab all this knowledge up front, analyze it and then come up with a design approach that is defensible based on the inputs.

Yet this research-driven approach can overlook an important driver, and one that flies in the face of user-centricity. If we also care about success-driven design, then how do we define success? We could define it by users who complete tasks. We could define it by the clarity of our navigation labels. That is common practitioner thinking and I’m guilty of it as well.

The person who cares most about success is the head of the organization, i.e. CEO, Deputy Minister, or Senior Department Official. They deeply care about success and make sure their managers care about it too. Government departments’ Program Activity Architectures (PAAs) and Business Plans codify the measures of success for their organizations. So why don’t we consider these measures of success?

The answer is fairly simple: senior management has yet to frame success in terms that meaningfully translate to the web. By the time the PAA comes out, perhaps with an associated performance measurement framework, success is defined as page views. These might have been interesting metrics ten years ago, but organizations with mature web performance strategies have abandoned that as a viable measure of success. Visiting a web page no longer cuts it (the user might have come, saw, and left in 5 seconds). So as Web practitioners and strategists, we have to start demonstrating how success should be measured against departmental priorities and communicating that up the chain, for example, as the percentage of users who do or do not:

  • Repeatedly visit a site and/or consume a minimum amount of content or a specific set of pages related to a departmental priority;
  • Are willing to share our priority site content with their personal networks;
  • Begin an RSS subscription to get content updates about a new initiative;
  • Participate in online consultations.

So how do we communicate up? The successful Web teams I’ve seen in government have created open lines of communication all the way to the DG of Communications, and that person, who cares about success, becomes the lead evangelist at the senior management table. Among his or her peers, their understanding of how the web can move the organization forward on its objectives carries weight. So we inform, we educate and we demonstrate to the DG through a series of small successes how the right kind of measurement can demonstrate bigger success for the department. We showcase, we pilot and we test, test, and test our designs to give evidence of improvement. We build research plans and performance frameworks and we share our progress with the DG on a regular basis.

And we never give up.

Denise Eisner is a Senior Consultant in the Government Service Excellence practice.

Web Accessibility from PDFs and Apps to Project Planning: A conversation with Derek Featherstone

On November 20, Systemscope co-hosted a talk with Simply Accessible’s Derek Featherstone about accessibility and usability in light of the fast-approaching July 2013 TBS Web Standards on accessibility and usability compliance deadlines.  Shortly after the talk, I met with Derek to go over some pressing topics our attendees had that we didn’t have time cover at the event:

  1. PDFs and Accessibility
  2. Meeting GC Web Standards Deadlines
  3. The Best of All Possible Worlds
  4. Testing for Accessibility

1. PDFs and Accessibility

What’s your take on making PDFs accessible?

PDFs are often published in that format because it is convenient for the publisher more so than the person getting the information.  The first question to ask is whether the content should be published in a PDF format or not?

If the decision to publish in a PDF format has been made already and it’s a standard operating procedure, what can be done to make the PDF accessible?

For a report, a strategy for dealing with publishing to PDF is to publish the report from pieces that are initially accessible, instead of trying to convert a PDF to its HTML equivalent. An accessible PDF can be just as accessible as HTML.

Some things to consider for building accessible PDFs:

  • Build the report using an accessible Word template
  • Make sure the reading order is right and that all the image assets have alternative text
  • When creating big reports that are built in Word and merged with Excel tables, make sure there’s an accessible baseline or template that exists.

Is it possible to retrofit PDFs and make them accessible after they’ve been produced?

You can take the PDF that’s produced and fix it, which can be very time consuming if you’re not a PDF accessibility expert.

To retrofit PDF format documents you can go back to the source document and once you make the source document accessible, you can regenerate the PDF as an accessible PDF. This can be efficient because it then becomes reusable. You can also employ a service from PDF accessibility experts to fix up your PDFs.

Overall, spending money to retrofit PDFs after they have been published is one-time money spending.  Creating PDFs from accessible templates that have been built before publishing to PDF gives you a multi-use accessible production baseline.  The money invested upfront to create those templates can be more effectively spent than spending time and money retrofitting PDF documents. Of course, this really does vary depending on how complex your PDFs are. In some cases it might be just as cost effective to have them converted to accessible PDFs by a 3rd party.


2. Meeting GC Web Standards Deadlines

With the compliance deadlines looming, are there any other pragmatic takeaways you can offer Government of Canada web professionals who are now racing against the clock to meet the standards?

Any takeaway depends on the types of work you’re dealing with.

For document-centric accessibility work:

  • Start by checking the overall structure and making sure there is a page structure that exists. Whether it’s in PDF or HTML format, there should be properly tagged headings, lists, paragraphs and alternative text for images.
  • If your documents are not interactive, i.e. forms, and your accessibility compliance tasks centre around content, check image assets that are included to make they are located in the right place on the page.   For example, check that an image at the top of the page is not related to a paragraph at the bottom of the document.

For web applications-centric accessibility work:

  • Deal with your most important assets first by asking if this is a mission-critical application that has to be made accessible.  For example, at the Canada Revenue Agency, a payroll calculator is an employment-related application that everybody needs and that is central to the CRA’s service offerings.
  • If your application is a map, try to understand who is using the map and for what purpose.  Too often, web accessibility is reduced to blind people who need to ‘hear’ the application to use it.  If, however, the mapping tool is one that requires the user to draw a map to then calculate the area, accessibility moves beyond blind people using the application to people who might need a keyboard accessible way to ‘draw’ the map.  Other people might be using voice recognition software to use the application.  The understanding around web accessibility has to move beyond blind people to understanding different interfaces for different users.

In many cases, when attempting to retrofit applications, it becomes obvious that the wrong tool was purchased to accomplish the task. That’s when usability testing and understanding user needs and tasks is critical to accessibility.


3. The Best of All Possible Worlds

What would be an ideal Government of Canada scenario in terms of web accessibility for you?

When we work on large-scale accessibility projects, we try to cover off five pillars:

  1. Planning
  2. Procurement
  3. Professional development
  4. Process
  5. Policies

These pillars are not sequential, but they have to exist.  From a process sense, you need to make sure your entire software development lifecycle takes into account the needs of people with disabilities from design to testing to roll-out.

From a procurement standpoint, we would ideally have the proper tools that are accessible in the first place.  For service procurement, requirements have to have accessibility built into the final deliverable.  Sometimes, vendors will say that a tool or piece of software is accessible, only for clients to find out that it hasn’t been tested appropriately or evaluated properly for all dimensions of accessibility. Other times, vendors will understand document-centric accessibility but not web application accessibility.

We often get called in to evaluate third party work to assess whether the tools or applications that have been delivered meet people’s accessibility needs and standards.  We work as an advocate for the client since they might not know or have the time to understand all the dimensions of web accessibility.


4. Testing for Accessibility

Is it possible to do accessibility tests in-house rather than post-purchase or pre-launch?

A good place to start is with the WCAG checklist and being to understand how to interpret it.  The expertise to interpret the checklist takes years to develop, but there are W3C resources on WCAG out there with techniques on how to test accessibility and usability and why it’s important.  Often for clients though, it’s easier to get somebody else to come in and assess the work for you.

How is that important to an enterprise-level project?

If you’re not making professional development and continuous improvement part of an overall program to achieve accessibility and treating it as a one-time project, the work won’t be sustainable.  Training on accessibility, whether from a technical, compliance or user experience dimension gives you a base that goes beyond a one-time project.

When we give training sessions to various clients, whether they are designers, quality assurance staff or testers, we offer an initial assessment of their project and how to fix it.  More importantly, we help them fix it and teach them how to avoid the issue in the future.  Knowing how to avoid issues and fix problems takes accessibility out of project mode into a built-in process that’s part of a bigger program.

Embarking on a redesign takes years to accomplish instead of fixing other more basic problems on a day-to-day basis.  Compliance to these new standards should be a starting point, not an end point.  Executing these compliance standards is the beginning, not the end.  Accessibility and usability should be part of a continuous, iterative process, not a one-time annual project.

With that, our conversation came to a close.  In sum, with a fast approaching compliance deadline, well-planned, prioritized efforts to meet accessibility will enhance usability while also realizing operational efficiency and improving overall user experience.


If you are interested in attending future Systemscope Lounge talks about the Government of Canada web presence, please contact Denise Eisner ( to be included on the mailing list. We appreciate all inquiries, but preference is given to Government of Canada professionals.

If Sun Tzu Were Consulting for Government, He Might Say…

Know your enemy, know yourself, and opportunities multiply as they are seized.  Wise words for those about to live through one of the most significant transformations the Government of Canada has undergone in a generation.

For over 9 years, Systemscope has been a proud GTEC sponsor and offers presentations that showcase Systemscope’s collective approach to helping federal government departments and agencies find efficiencies and deliver better outcomes.  As part of 2012’s presentations, Innovations from the Systemscope Lounge was a journey though each of Systemscope’s different practice areas united by a theme of “Thinking in Threes”.

Think in Threes

In my introduction to this unique presentation format, I discussed how GTEC’s theme this year – innovation and collaboration to make a difference for Canadians –  is part of the message that we who work in or with federal government receive.  Innovation and collaboration, however, are ideals that have to be translated into the current context of our actual working environment.  We all form perceptions of the current environment through newspaper headlines announcing job cuts, through the Administrative Services Review or the Deficit Reduction Action Plan.  How then, can we, as stated in the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee Report, “Get used to a new world”?

The habitual response is to rely on theoretical approaches and survey best practices or conduct environmental scans.  The useful response is to bring and share with you insights founded in lived experience.  If you’ve lived through major government or departmental changes and been part of transformation at all levels, you might agree that the useful response trumps the habitual one.  Our first seminar aimed to highlight the multi-faceted experiences from our various transformation architects and equip you with practical and applicable information.

I was proud to see each of our Systemscope presenters provide our audience with knowledge, whether from Denis’ personal experience with brain surgery and transformation to Kathy’s outlining of how to harness all efforts to enable change or Linda Daniels-Lewis’ Blinding Flashes of the Obvious about Electronic Data Records Management Systems (EDRMS) and Denise’s view on the new Treasury Board Web Standards.

Seemingly disparate in topic areas, each of the eight presentations were views into how many different components of any organization are involved in transformation.  My conclusion, and one I hope the audience walked away with, was a call to action to understand the true message and opportunity that innovation and collaboration bring as concepts for all of us.

I framed this call to action with three guiding Sun Tzu principles:

  1. Know yourself: Understand your own limitations, your organizational culture and capabilities and how you deal with the personalities around you.  Also know your strengths and use these effectively to build and maintain momentum.
  2. Know your enemy: Consider the enemy within – your fears, not just of failure but of success; mistrust; inertial attitude, e.g. “it’s not my job”; understanding real vs perceived barriers.
  3. Opportunities multiply as they are seized: Each of the presentations offered opportunities to innovate and collaborate.  By seizing those opportunities, you will be able to demonstrate value and success, which in turn will bring you more opportunities.  You never know what’s around the corner unless you journey to the corner.
Ultimately, what all of us have to decide is whether the glass is half-empty or half-full (yes, I know, not a Sun Tzu quote, but I’m sure he would agree).

I would like to extend a sincere thank you to our GTEC audience.  GTEC is a meaningful and significant event at Systemscope as it offers us the opportunity to collaborate and celebrate our long-standing relationships with our federal government clients.  We appreciate your support and look forward to our continued innovation and collaboration together.

By Stephen Karam, Partner and Practice Lead, Government Service Excellence (

GTEC 2012: Presentations Available

Systemscope returned to GTEC this year on Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Thanks to all who joined us for our two informative sessions focusing on collaboration and innovation in an environment of constant change.


Session 1: Innovations from the Systemscope Lounge

During a single session, through a set of fast-paced presentations, Systemscope consultants presented a series of provocative principles that challenged assumptions while providing practical gems to spark your imagination, stir your curiosity and inspire the innovator within.  Download individual presentations by title, or download all presentations in one pdf.

The treasure trove of Systemscope gems covered the following topics:

Session 2: Preparing for GCDOCS

Systemscope’s Enterprise Information Management professionals gave a rousing presentation to a packed audience on preparing for GCDOCS. Owing to the Directive on Recordkeeping and its 2015 compliance date, departments are hurtling towards EDRMS adoption at a rapid rate without a coherent plan, without being adequately prepared and without knowing what adequate preparation would involve.  Is EDRMS a technical tool? An RM tool? or is it the new electronic working environment for the entire enterprise?

The “Info-Lins” of Systemscope explored various EDRMS visions and strategies, what organizations need to know before beginning an EDRMS implementation, common challenges of EDRMS implementation and more. Download Preparing for GCDOCS.


Mobile media trends and Government of Canada online service delivery

The growth of mobile media consumption and use via mobile devices is exponential. There are three major trends:  amplified convergence; data tracking; and, the multi-screen universe.  All three trends not only enhance device mobility and user expectations and experience, but also exemplify how web management practices within the Government of Canada should evolve to meet growing citizen expectations for online government service delivery.

  1. Amplified convergence: Convergence on digital platforms usually refers to the intersection of various types of content enabled on different devices, from smartphones to tablets to laptops.An example of amplified convergence is the mobile wallet. Transactions of all sorts will take place via the mobile wallet, not just between consumers and retail businesses but also between citizens and government services. An eventual 5G network will further enable the ‘internet of things’ (see this helpful infographic for more details) and allow for a seamless convergence of content between all devices.As a result, content creation, usability and development will rely on various groups sharing their skills and resources to provide a cross-platform user experience. Having a solid organizational governance structure in place with clear roles and responsibilities outlined for each group becomes a critical success factor for efficient delivery.
  2. Data tracking: From body weight to geo-location indicators, mobile devices enable real-time data tracking. Never before has so much data been collected at such customized levels.The upside of collecting all this data is that the way in which we receive information can be tailored to our specific needs, based, if warranted, on our exact location.In two years, we no longer will seek apps, they will be pushed to us based on where we are and what we’re doing. The downside to tracking and collecting all this data is to what ends it could be used for.With the amount of data being tracked and how quickly it can be adapted to meet user needs, organizational information management standards and processes will be important to maintaining the balance between privacy and usability.As Linda Daniels-Lewis at Systemscope points out in Is your information really an asset?: “We have to transform the concept of information management from “filing” information to “using” information”.
  3. The multi-screen universe: Content will no longer be restricted to a set screen size since screens can be enabled or enhanced via mobile devices. Screens will display location-based information tailored to individual users.Augmented reality plays a role in creating screens seemingly out of thin air through applications such as Wallit or Blippar. Adding to the multi-screen universe and additional reality layers can be viewed on this video for the Google Glasses Project.Content therefore should be scale-able for various screens and appropriately labelled to enable customized access. Content lifecycle guidelines and regular ROT exercises should be planned as website content management becomes an ongoing process.To quote another Systemscope blogger, Denise Eisner, finding ROT is only the beginning.

For success in the mobile space, David Armano states in a Harvard Business Review article that organizations should “learn from past lessons in Web, digital and social”. Given that mobile media is still a growing market in Canada, there is time within the Government of Canada context to revisit organizational governance structures, IT applications and website content and incorporate citizens’ experiences and expectations about online service delivery and mobility to Government of Canada websites and web applications.

Systemscope Now On THS

Systemscope has qualified under the Government of Canada’s Temporary Help Services (THS) procurement vehicles for Supply Arrangement and Standing Offer.

THS allows clients to procure professional services up to $400,000 or 48 consecutive weeks, whichever comes first. A call-up/contract can be extended by an additional 24 consecutive weeks but must have the prior approval of PWGSC.

For the THS Standing offer, Systemscope is qualified under these two streams:

  1. Human Resources Management (Sub-Stream 5e)
  2. Policy and Advisory Services (Sub-Stream 5f)

THS is one of four options available to departments for contracting.

Our New Space: Introducing The Systemscope Lounge – Our Creative Commons

The new Systemscope office space will provide a panoply of collaboration opportunities for Systemscope, the centre-piece of which will be the new “Systemscope Lounge”. The idea emerged after last year’s GTEC conference, where the new conference centre offered a space that, while functional, left us feeling more disengaged from our peers and clients.Systemscope Lounge

With the new space, the “Systemscope Lounge” idea suddenly became a permanent reality. The “Systemscope Lounge” has been designated as both a physical space and a branded source for creative ideas and products, where new, creative and provocative thinking could emerge out of the professional practice of the firm. This will allow the firm to maintain its reliable and recognized “brand” but engage with the more “out-there” thinking.

The lounge’s physical presence boasts elegant and timeless leather couches, cowhides stools and rugs reminiscent of the mid-century modern aesthetic that inspires so much design creativity in this age. This informal and creative space will be used by Systemscope staffers and clients alike to surface ideas and truths that are outside-the-box of past and current traditional thinking; ideas that may, or may not, move to the “Systemscope Lab” for their formalization into architectures, models or methodologies.

This approach is also getting another space in virtual reality. With the redesign of the Systemscope Website, the “Ideas Lab” will serve as a virtual platform for any and all good thinking to emerge from communal Systemscope efforts. We’re not just talking current blog posts here. Content ranges from “freshest” thinking to “preserved” classics, and is topped off with the ThoughtMix section, where single images or quick ideas are brought together in a primordial soup of creative thinking.

“It is amazing to think that a physical space could come to embody a theoretical ideal, but this is what we see the new Systemscope Lounge embodying,” says Denis Barbeau, Systemscope Partner and Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting. “The Systemscope Lounge is a physical environment in which we and our clients can think aloud, unfettered by the daily reality of what we see and are told are constraints, allowing us to push the boundaries of conventional wisdom to find strategies and tactics that will allow our clients to thrive in these times of transformation.”

Our New Space: Designed for Collaboration to Help Our Clients Transform

Mash-ups. The world seems to love them. Everything from Web content to songs and videos are being mashed to create new energy, ideas and outcomes. Why not clichés? If we take the ideals of “Location, location, location” and “Timing is everything” and mash them up, they pretty much form a foundational piece of Systemscope’s announcement that we have moved into a new, larger office space in Ottawa’s Byward Market.

Systemscope is one of Ottawa’s leading strategic consulting firms, specializing in business and service transformation. “Transformation doesn’t happen in a box, or simply through a tool … it requires a collective conscience around a business challenge, where collaboration can produce a clear path forward,” argues Systemscope Partner and Government Service Excellence Practice Lead, Stephen Karam.

With this in mind, “Location, location, location” embodies not only the physical address of the new Systemscope offices, but the layout as well. Systemscope chose the former Shopify offices as its new home primarily because the footprint of the office space makes it ideal to foster collaboration, creativity, and innovation, which are essential in the transformation process for the company’s clients.

The new offices are anything but typical. The new Systemscope environment boasts a variety of creative office spaces including:

  • communal offices for the company’s three Practice Areas (Government Service Excellence, Enterprise Information Architecture, and Strategic Business Consulting)
  • an expansive boardroom for hosting clients in more formal, facilitated workshop settings and for firm-wide strategic planning;
  • the “Systemscope lab” – a glass enclosed central room where multiple practice teams can work together to cross-fertilize ideas among different project and practice areas, and formally develop architectures, models, methodologies and more; and
  • finally, and perhaps most significant to our quest for optimized collaboration, there will be the “Systemscope Lounge” where employees and clients can meet in a central and casual environment to stimulate the creative and out-of-the-box thinking for which Systemscope is known.

This collaborative approach is the key to Systemscope’s successful service offerings, and is entirely reflected in the design choices for the new space. A significant portion of the new office is dedicated to casual common spaces including the lounge, a kitchen, a library, a shower facility (for those who wish to bike or run to work), and even a yoga ball. Even the senior partners of the firm, Denis Barbeau and Stephen Karam, insist on maintaining a shared office in order not to lose touch with the ethos of the firm.

In a further attempt to enable the nature of Systemscope’s collaborative practices, Systemscope will introduce the practice of having monitors showcasing the range of Systemscope’s work and client successes to date. “We are so busy and so focused on current projects that it is easy to lose sight of the excellent work we have already completed. This showcase is a constant reminder for us, and our clients, of the successes of the past and the full range of Systemscope capabilities.” says Kellen Greenberg, Director of Strategic Business Consulting.

“Collaboration doesn’t happen in isolation, and it must respect the systems of human and organizational behaviour” maintains Denis Barbeau, Partner and Practice Lead for Strategic Business Consulting. “Systemscope has picked a time in government where collaboration is needed more than ever and our new location is built just for this purpose.”