Canadian Food Inspection Agency

Aerial view of a container cargo ship in the ocean.


With the volume of e-commerce exploding, government agencies are working with DFFRNT to simplify online tools for importers to reduce the volume of calls/emails to contact centres.

About five years ago, the Auditor General challenged the federal government’s border-related departments and agencies to simplify their policies and programs. DFFRNT’s Scott Smith designed a multi-faceted research program with the Government of Canada’s border-related agencies. These included the Canada Border Services Agency, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Department of Finance.

CFIA is tightly integrated with nine other agencies of the Government of Canada, and its programs and policies affect many other government organizations. It administers 90 Acts and regulations.

With regard to importing, CFIA implements control measures at strategic points along the import supply chain to verify compliance with import requirements. Two of its client-facing tools are:

The Challenge

 Two men in safety gear surrounded by cargo containers consult a tablet computer. DFFRNT’s work with CFIA intends to make its processes more user-friendly. Improvements to the website and in-person service delivery aim to:
  • Reduce contact centre costs for the Government of Canada
  • Improve efficiency for import businesses and individuals
  • Reduce incidents of non-compliance
  • Improve the accuracy of import documentation
With the volume of e-commerce exploding in recent years and the growing maturity of the e-commerce sector, CFIA and other border protection agencies are under strain. Currently, CFIA is working to adapt its import control programs to meet the challenges of an increasingly global marketplace. Last year, imports to Canada totalled $739.8 billion, according to Industry Canada.   The inspection agency must constantly adapt to changing industry requirements, modern tools and technology, expanding global markets, diversification of consumer demands and evolving partner relationships.  In 2017, the Auditor General found that 20% of shipments were incorrectly coded. Importers point to the system’s complexity, inaccurate tariff descriptors and poor coordination between government departments as reasons for accidental non-compliance. 

The Solution

Through various projects over a multi-year period, DFFRNT’s work with CFIA has included analysis, research, design recommendations and mock-ups. Smith managed usability testing on the import requirements system. He designed and tested a decision tree interface to simplify border-related permissions. He managed interviews with importers and customs brokers to understand their workflow, needs, and pain points.

Testing of performance on frequent tasks was a critical early step related directly to contact centre costs.

“People using the website or online services get confused and frustrated when they don’t know the right terms to search. You need to know the correct product terminology to navigate CFIA’s AIRS application. So, users give up and call or send an irate email to the contact centre. They get an email back, which might go back and forth again. There’s a cost to each of those interactions, and it is not sustainable. That’s what justified our research on improving website task performance.”
Scott Smith, principal, DFFRNT

In 2021, Smith managed a team conducting usability testing of AIRS. The study identified complexities that cause significant delays and failures. Smith made design recommendations for short-term impacts and long-term interaction models. 

Then through 2021 and 2022, Smith managed iterative design and testing for CFIA of a new information architecture for permits and approvals. Smith interviewed various contact centre leads within CFIA. These client-facing staff provided input on the information architecture of permissions tasks. A small group was already engaged in meetings to unify responses to clients. 

Iterative design models were validated and tested at key decision points.  

This multi-stage research and architecture project conceptualized an interactive question-and-answer format called field flow for this area of CFIA’s operations.  

DFFRNT measured progress based on testing of how well users could perform the most frequent tasks reported to contact centres.  

DFFRNT refined tasks for various testing with users, with benchmark data that can be used to measure future usability performance against these findings. 

For a decision tree tool related to the importation of pets, Smith prioritized content and layout based on top tasks identified through interviews with contact centres. This work reduced complexity by shortening the information resulting from the question-and-answer format. 

Refinements to the website design are expected to reduce the load on the contact centres and enable CFIA to continue a cycle of collaborative improvements that can save further time in contact centres. 

The Outcome

The Auditor General of Canada has previously denounced the Government of Canada’s importation infrastructure, saying it’s too complex and leads to too many errors.

DFFRNT’s work is part of the efforts to address the complexity and introduce more plain language.

“From our work with CFIA staff, it’s evident the people handling direct contact with customers are committed to making sure information is accurate and described in plain language that humans can understand and relate to their situation.”
Scott Smith, principal, DFFRNT

CFIA now has a methodology to replace outdated applications and a more coordinated approach to enquiries, complaints, and questions. There is momentum within the agency toward being more user-centred and implementing plain language communications. 

DFFRNT was also involved with various projects at the Canada Border Services Agency. Read about our unique leveraging of research, foresight and data in the latest innovation project with CBSA. Guiding organizations through the innovation process has become a rewarding part of our business. 

AI Tools for Importers

DFFRNT Inc. and V75 have produced a limited prototype to use in experimenting with user experience issues in generative AI. We are seeking partners in the Government of Canada, whose mandate is in the area of imported goods. We propose that artificial intelligence tools related to import regulations could save time, ensure compliance, and reduce the load on front-line staff. 

There are nine government agencies that interact with imported goods; we have worked with seven of them. We have interviewed border-related federal employees, import brokers, importers, and travellers. Our research indicates Harmonized System (HS) Codes could provide a “crosswalk” between the servers and systems of these agencies, regardless of language. HS codes are a global standardized method for the classification of relevant data about goods. 

The synthetic customs agent can communicate by text or speech, in English or French.

New foreign importers and e-commerce are stressing the capacity of government employees to provide support.  

The Auditor General says it is too difficult to classify or describe goods accurately within the current framework. This leads to wasted time, risk of unintentional non-compliance, and inaccurate charges. 

The Auditor General has recommended that the agencies make it easier to find and interpret import guidelines. We believe HS codes could be the crosswalk, bringing diverse data right to where the user is working rather than where the data is stored. We are seeking partners in the Government of Canada to join us in this early-phase experiment. It could improve the use of any system using HS codes. 

Are you interested? If you or your colleagues are familiar with these challenges, contact us: [email protected] 

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