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Framing a design problem: An inside look at the citizenship application process

It’s an exciting time at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) as we start rolling up our sleeves and digging into our first service delivery projects, while we are working hard on choosing our next partnership opportunities. One of our partners in these early projects is Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

This collaboration is a natural fit for a few reasons. IRCC provides direct services to people who are at various stages in their journey of visiting, studying, working, and living in Canada. It is through IRCC that millions of people from around the world interact with Canada for the very first time. Last year, before CDS was officially launched, a few of us had the privilege to participate in some of IRCC’s early forays into using human-centered design as a creative approach to review client service. We experienced first-hand the power of insights gained from engaging with real users going through the immigration process.

Immigration is also a topic that is deeply personal for many Canadians, and the CDS team is no exception. Many of us are immigrants, whether we identify as first generation Canadians, or are one or two – or more – generations removed from family who took the leap of faith to start a new life here in Canada. So, with the prospect to work with IRCC on opportunities to make the immigration system work better, we were excited to dive in.

The challenge at hand

One of the first projects we are undertaking with IRCC aims at improving the experience of applying for Canadian citizenship. The department recently ran a “Citizenship Design Challenge” focused on the citizenship application process. One of the key pain points identified by users was around the scheduling of the citizenship appointments, namely the citizenship test and oath ceremony.

Currently, citizenship applicants are provided with an appointment notice for their citizenship testing or ceremony only a few weeks in advance. Until recently, these event notices were only provided by postal mail. However, in recent months, IRCC offices have started transitioning to notification by email, an initiative led by the IRCC Vancouver Office who was one of the pioneering offices for this approach.

For a variety of genuine reasons, applicants may need to reschedule an appointment. IRCC’s goal in this specific project is to make the rescheduling process as convenient and as stress-free as possible.

Before jumping to digital

As we started our work with IRCC, we soon realized that there were many factors we needed to understand better, both from the perspective of applicants interacting with the government as well as the IRCC service staff who run the service operations supporting the process.

To better understand the problems we were tackling, we decided, in collaboration with our IRCC clients, to explicitly acknowledge the assumptions at the start of this process. We spent a day at IRCC’s Ottawa Office, looking at the scheduling process behind the scenes. It then became clear, however, that we needed to devote more time at one of IRCC’s higher volume offices to conduct a thorough service analysis and begin mapping the entire service ecosystem of scheduling appointments. IRCC’s Office in Vancouver provided an ideal location for this purpose, given the large volume of citizenship applications that are processed on a regular basis and their recent pilot project towards electronic notifications of appointments by email.

Embarking on our field research

To familiarize ourselves with IRCC’s operational environment and conduct in-depth field research interacting with applicants going through their citizenship appointments we undertook field research. Some highlights included being a fly-on-the-wall and observing citizenship testing and a ceremony, conducting intercept interviews with clients who completed their appointments, and shadowing immigration officers to understand their daily routines and contexts. These quick yet immersive methods gave us a deeper sense of the needs, hopes, and concerns from the perspective of the users which will inform the rest of our design and development process.

This, of course, is but the first step in our journey forward to better understand the various aspects of IRCC’s operations and the people it serves. Through our collaboration with IRCC, we are laying the foundation for deeper service redesign by building knowledge about service processes and user groups.