Canada Border Services Agency



Behavioural research illuminates why travellers make errors at the border

When a traveller goes through border security, all kinds of situations can lead them to make errors. We’ve all been in a customs line with the partier who just landed on a red-eye from Las Vegas with more alcohol than they are permitted or the family that forgets to declare vacation purchases.

These are examples of “inadvertent non-compliance” with Canada’s border regulations, and they are the type of incidents the Canada Border Services Agency wants to reduce.

The client

The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) manages Canada’s borders by enforcing Canadian laws governing trade and travel, as well as international agreements and conventions. CBSA is charged with stopping people and goods that pose a potential threat to Canada.

When the federal agency engaged DFFRNT to investigate the reasons for inadvertent non-compliance and suggest strategic solutions, Shaun Illingworth and Dominira Saul headed to airports and land crossings for some on-site research.

The challenge

There’s a common phenomenon that happens at international points of entry. Many travellers intend to comply with Canadian border regulations but end up doing something wrong. Maybe they are in a rush, maybe they did not understand instructions, maybe they are tired and made a mistake. Whatever the reason, they are pulled aside and subject to further scrutiny. To differentiate it from criminal or illicit behaviour, this unintentional breaking of the rules is called “inadvertent non-compliance.”

As part of a modernization initiative, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) invested in a persona research project.

CBSA asked DFFRNT to examine the occurrence of inadvertent non-compliance and apply their knowledge of user behaviour, human-centred design and strategic thinking to propose improvements to communications and digital content for travellers. As border crossings become busier, travellers or traders who require secondary screening because of errors are a drain on the time of border services officers and unnecessarily bog down the process.

CBSA wants to facilitate compliance by using targeted information to educate travellers and commercial traders better. Using behavioural personas in their communications and digital content design activities will support CBSA’s efforts to improve compliance.

“For an organization to be user-centred, it must fundamentally understand its target audiences. These personas represent CBSA’s users. Personas are business intelligence tools that can be leveraged when creating policies or strategies as well as for more tactical activities like designing kiosk interfaces or forms. These personas are based on research, rooted in science and can keep product, service and policy designers focused on the users and their needs.”

Shaun Illingworth
Co-founder, DFFRNT

The solution

Like any successful trip, this one began with research. DFFRNT principals Shaun Illingworth and Dominira Saul did interviews and field research targeting travellers and traders. They observed travellers at Pearson airport in Toronto, Macdonald-Cartier airport in Ottawa and border crossings between Quebec and Vermont and New Brunswick and Maine.

“The primary research included contextual inquiries at points of entry, talking to people who were inadvertently non-compliant in those contexts. We held workshops and interviewed border service officers and internal stakeholders, and performed cognitive walkthroughs of the software tools used by CBSA officers and travellers,” says Illingworth.

DFFRNT also performed an environmental scan to gather information on how other jurisdictions around the world were addressing this problem.

From there, DFFRNT developed a set of traveller behaviour personas. Using multiple research methods, DFFRNT and CBSA can be confident in the resulting personas and customer journeys. “Each research method has strengths and weaknesses. We want to ensure we overlap research methods, so there are no blind spots. We get a really good picture of what’s happening,” Dominira Saul explains.

The outcome

Based on their observations, DFFRNT identified four drivers of inadvertent non-compliance:

  • People make mistakes because they are either nervous or stressed.
  • People make mistakes because they don’t understand what they’re being asked, and they are either too intimidated or too pressed for time to seek clarification.
  • People make mistakes because of physical impairment (i.e., they get off an 18-hour flight and are exhausted, so they physically touch the wrong button on the screen or check the wrong box on the form).
  • People make cognitive errors (for example, a flight attendant with half a sandwich in their purse who doesn’t remember to declare it).

“The errors we saw were sandwiches, pets and sometimes money,” says Illingworth. “So, we need to make things easier for travellers, to remind people of the rules at appropriate times. We need to take some of that emotional pressure off travellers and fix those instances where we observed the information being unclear.”

Once the initial research was complete and the personas solidified, the emphasis shifted to solutions. DFFRNT led a series of innovation workshops within CBSA to generate ideas for possible solutions to various inadvertent non-compliance problems. They also developed a scoring evaluation matrix to help prioritize and evaluate the ideas. This matrix incorporated standard design thinking principles (desirability, feasibility, viability) and CBSA’s organizational priorities.

The results

One tangible result of DFFRNT’s work with CBSA is a better understanding of inadvertent non-compliance. The two organizations are now using DFFRNT’s research-based personas and journey maps to develop potential solutions, prototype ideas and test efficacy.

Once these solutions are implemented, the agency expects increased compliance with regulations, and that sources of inadvertent non-compliance will be addressed pre-border. Better compliance will allow border services officers to shift the focus from low-risk to high-risk secondary inspections. It should result in decreased wait times and increased client satisfaction with the border experience.

The persona research project has provided the CBSA with valuable insight into the causes of inadvertent non-compliance. The personas represent data gathered from real travellers and traders, reflecting their goals, frustrations and behaviours. These are useful artifacts that can be used to guide policy, communications and strategy.

  • Behavioral insights
  • User research
  • Personas
  • Customer journey
  • Strategic insights

More projects

DFFRNT's research for a major U.S. hospital network found that voice solutions and AI for healthcare can go far beyond basic charting tasks to support nurses in their work.
Looking for ways to minimize traveller errors, CBSA brought DFFRNT on board to lead their innovation process and find solutions.
DFFRNT helped Canada Revenue Agency formulate and scale up an innovation incubation program, leaving them with the knowledge and processes to continue the program in-house.