Everyone hates CLF

My Wimpy Rant
Since everyone hates Common Look & Feel guidelines (CLF) so much, why don’t we do something about it? Personally, I think it was worse before we had any guidelines, but maybe we’ve matured since then.

I agree it breaks some obvious UX and IA best practices, so I’m going to take up the charge to gather and document these gaps, with your help.

Call to Action
I invite you to submit your comments below about how exactly CLF guidelines contradict research-based usability guidelines.

Please provide supporting links or documentation with your comment, whether that be your own usability testing, client research or those of an expert.

Y’all have shared enough opinions. This time it’s gotta be fact based. Let’s see if we can influence CLF guidelines for the better.

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About Laura

As a Business Analyst working for the Canadian federal government in Web usability, I have the opportunity to be a part of a growing movement of professionals implementing user-centered design principles.
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29 Responses to Everyone hates CLF

  1. I don’t have any facts to back this up, but as a user it would be fantastic to have CLF be common to all GC sites.

    What I mean is that it would have global attributes shared between sites, more social.

    Say I go to one GC site and am looking for something… I can’t find it… but there is a search.
    I type in a couple keywords and am shown results from the current department AND all other departments because maybe to start with I was at the wrong web-site.

    Now what if those results were socialised: “125 Canadians liked this page” or something along those lines. It would allow us to find the RELEVANT information without all the other clutter provided by the GC sites.

    Instead of CLF being just a set of downloadable templates it could instead be a national information system shared by all government bodies. (Of course it would still be important to maintain a set of standards that site must adhere to)

  2. Mike Gifford says:

    First, not everyone hates the CLF. Heck, the CLF 2.0 is so much better than it’s predecessor. The common branding is useful for knowing you’re on a Government of Canada site. The common navigation is useful to get around easily, particularly for visually challenged folks. The biggest advantage of the CLF 2.0 however is that it sets a measure of accessibility which sites need to meet (most still have problems mind you).

    For Thomas’ note above we’d really need to move the public service from static web pages to dynamic database driven sites. That’s only going to come with a huge cultural change and big advances in how departments manage security, privacy & data integration.

    I’d really like to see the Government of Canada put some $$ into developing open source validation tools that they can use to measure CLF compliance so that there can be automated testing measures for accessibility & security of all government websites. There are lots of evaluation tools out there, one of my favourites for accessibility -> http://wave.webaim.org/

    I quite liked this approach of the Netherland’s government – http://www.webrichtlijnen.nl/english/

    More than anything it should be understandable and expressed in human terms. It should use WCAG 2.0 as a standard for accessibility encouraging sites to move from A to AAA over time.

    The CLF should also be considered to be evolving. We should anticipate a CLF 3.1 after the new CLF standard is adopted. When new best practices become evident they should be evaluated and add to the government’s community of practice.

    CLF efforts should also be open, involving not only the government, but also external consultants, website developers & accessibility experts on an ongoing basis. Forums & blogs for open, honest discussion are key – http://commonlookandfeel.ca/clf/

    Efforts should be made to explicitly re-use templates, customizations & software between government departments and furthermore to share these enhancements with a free software license to others who can benefit. We’ve tried to lead a process for that here -> http://clf.openconcept.ca/

  3. Rachel says:

    Maybe it should just be renamed to better reflect the focus of accessibility? E.g. Government Website Accessibility Standard

    Perhaps people would knock it less?

    E.g. wheelchair ramps outside buildings are clunky. Architects might even say ugly. But do we need them? You bet we do.

  4. Laura says:

    Well those are all good suggestions – and it’s nice to hear that not everyone hates CLF – (Thanks Mike!) Still hope to get some more suggestions that I can present to TBS. Keep ‘em coming.

  5. Rural says:

    Off topic but… As an individual or group promoting better web tools and /or access to government information you may wish to view our latest posting at http://democracyunderfire.blogspot.com/2009/10/infrastructure-funding-lists.html . I have provided a link to your web site / blog in the text of the article. Keep up the good work. Rural.

  6. Laura says:

    Thanks for the support Rural! Keep on blogging for and about democracy…it’ll take all of us working together!

  7. Tariq says:

    1.2.11  On the Welcome Page of a bilingual site, links to “Important Notices” and “Avis importants” must be displayed under and aligned with the left edge of the corresponding language choice links.

    The GoC’s definition of “Important Notices” is not what a non-GoC person would think. This should be labelled appropriate to correctly represent the content of the page it points to. “Disclaimers and Legal Mumbojumbo.”

    2.2.1  Three-column layout – The institution’s primary menu page and all sub site menu pages must apply a three-column layout…

    What is happening with the third column on most sites? Banners. Studies by Jakob Nielsen find that “Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement, whether or not it’s actually an ad.”

    1.3 Institutional message space – The institution must add either:
    1.an image measuring 600 pixels wide by 130 pixels high. The background image must be positioned directly above a rectangular field measuring 600 pixels wide by 120 pixels high with an introductory text in the foreground.; or
    2.a background image measuring 600 pixels wide by 250 pixels high with introductory text in both official languages.

    People skip intro messages unless they are short and descriptive. Instead they move directly to actionable content or something else that attracts the eye like bulleted lists and links. If we MUST have an institutional message, let’s give a guideline that limits the length and prescribes that it be useful, concise and clear.

    3.  “Canada” wordmark and institutional signature – All Web sites under the responsibility of the institution are identified in strict accordance with the Federal Identity Program. The Canada wordmark must appear in the upper right position on all content pages. The Government of Canada signature or the institution’s signature must appear in the upper left position. Under no circumstances may the official symbols of the Government of Canada be hyperlinked.

    Pretty much all sites on the web (commercial, personal, institutional, even blogs) use their company logo or heading as hyperlinks to bring the user back to the main page. The Canada word mark should be hyperlinked to canada.gc.ca and the departmental FIP should be hyperlinked to the departmental main page. It is what users expect and there are no reasons that I’m aware of that illustrate that this rule is sensible or worth keeping.

    That’s my first glance at the guidelines… :)

  8. Mike Gifford says:

    Ok, there are definitely things I hate about the CLF too. Tariq’s post reminded me of a couple of them.

    Splash screens are a stupid waste of effort and resources. There are several ways to predict what would be the appropriate language to serve up first (browser language settings or IP address come to mind).

    I’d love to see all GoC sites adopt a Creative Commons license like is used on Whitehouse.gov.

    The screen widths are just silly. Neither do they account for the larger resolution of today’s monitors, nor the need to support mobile technology.

    I’d like to have regulations that are flexible enough so that when the ATAG 2.0 guidelines are finally settled that these standards can be adopted as the new standard.

    So many new tools have been introduced in the last few years that haven’t been accounted for in CLF 2.0 regulations. AJAX applications, open data, social networking….. All we know for sure is that we will need to change the standards for the GoC to keep up with the Net.

  9. Tariq says:

    Oh, and one more thing: Proactive disclosure. It’s not proactive. If it were proactive, we’d be going out to Canadians to inform them what they need to know about government spending. Instead, the only way that they would know that this content exists is if THEY come to our web site, and scroll down near the bottom of the page and feel so inclined to click on the button that says “Proactive Disclosure”. That’s not proactive. Let’s be clear and let’s be correct. Don’t label something so meaningless that no-one who is looking for it would bother clicking on it. All our web content should be clear, descriptive and correct. This is not.

  10. CLF is a big problem and continues to hold GoC websites back in the middle ages. Compare the GoC’s best websites with the US, UK, etc. gov’s best websites and tell me that CLF isn’t the problem here.

    I should clarify that I am specifically talking about the “look and feel” parts of the spec. They should be abolished altogether. I’m very happy to have guidelines that would create some FIP consistency and to ensure accessibility and language laws are complied with. The main problem is the *template*. It wrongfully assumes that all GoC websites will have similar types of content and similar needs. Form should fit content, not the other way around. If I’m designing an advocacy site that is single-use and very task specific, it makes no sense to have a three-column layout.

    With Connect2Canada.com, we used to have a highly functional, beautiful design, that was fully accessible and bilingual. CLF forced us into an expensive redesign process that reduced usability and resulted in a significant drop in pageviews.

    As well-intentioned as these guidelines may be, there is no way that such strict rules can keep up with technology and communications strategies. CLF 2.0 was outdated the minute it was rolled out.

  11. Tariq says:

    Well said, Eric.

  12. Laura says:

    Alright! Guys! Great ideas and analysis. I’m going to invite Treasury Board into the discussion so I hope you’ve got evidence or sources to back up your points.

    This is getting interesting!

  13. Wendy says:

    I think the following illustration sums it all up for me (at least so far since joining the federal government in July 2008).

    See my division’s website (portal): http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/industrial/

    Now, compare our website with that of our US counterparts: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/industry/index.html

    I almost cried when I saw their version. Their site design saves the user the guesswork of wondering what they’re getting into when they click on a link – it’s pretty evident. All main content is accessible from the main page. There are no buried surprises.

    I’m not saying CLF is the only culprit here but it certainly limits what we can do with navigation options and page layout.

    We have so much work to do to…and we’re starting by re-working the right nav of our primary sub-site: http://www.cipec.nrcan.gc.ca (feel free to check back in February to see the update).

    I would appreciate being kept in the loop on any discussions with TB on this subject.


  14. Laura says:

    A few people have asked what has come from the discussion with TBS. I sent the link to the people I understood to be working on this but it may have been caught in their spam filter. I’m going to have a look on GConnex and see if there is an appropriate space to link to the comments.

  15. Chuck Henry says:

    Pirth Singh in the IT Divsion of CIO Branch in TBS owns CLF, he reports to the Jeff Braybrook who reports to the CTO who reports to Corinne Charette the CIO of Canada. They are working on many of the suggestions above including defining an evolving (versus a static) CLF and in making navigation more a guideline then a set of rul and focusing much more on accessibility. There is a strong community in the GC, the Web Management community that is providing at lot of tools on GCPEDIA.

  16. This is encouraging, Chuck. It would be great if the GC web community could have a look at some of these ideas/proposals on GCPedia and provide feedback. It’s in everyone’s interest that we get a CLF 3.0 that we’re happy with.

  17. Laura says:

    Thanks for the update Chuck. I am really encouraged by the work the CCO and others are doing in this regard and use the GCpedia info (and platform) quite often. I look forward to seeing the new approach to CLF. I have definitely noticed a shift in the approach from Treasury Board from somewhat prescriptive to showcasing good examples and providing frameworks on a number of policy areas and that’s definitely making my job more enjoyable!

  18. Mike Gifford says:

    I do think that it is a real strength of the CLF that you can know very quickly that a site is a federal government site. There may be government sites in the USA that are flashier than those here in Canada, but there are certainly many that are worse as well.

    Looking at the USA as an example, I think the only way to know that a site is a government site is by the .gov extension on the domain:





    I have no idea how folks going between different government sites in the USA would have any sense of where to begin to find anything.

    On the topic of GCpedia & GConnex, as a consultant who works with government on implementing the CLF 2.0, I did want to remind folks here that these two sites are not available to those outside of the GoC’s firewalls. Restricting discussions about the CLF 2.0 to those with government email addresses or desks in the civil service sounds fine except that many people in those positions are not government staff.

    Let’s open up the discussion about how to improve our government’s web sites to ensure that the best ideas can be discussed, debated & collaboratively implemented.

  19. JG says:

    This may be too detailed, but there are certain requirements that contradict themselves. For example, Part 2, Standard 1.1 of CLF (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/clfs-nnsi/clfs-nnsi-2-eng.asp#cn_1_cww) requires that we comply with WCAG priority 1 and 2 checkpoints. One of those checkpoints is the following:

    WCAG Checkpoint 3.4 – Use relative rather than absolute units in markup language attribute values and style sheet property values.

    Later in the Part 3 standard 2.2 of the CLF document (http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/clfs-nnsi/clfs-nnsi-3-eng.asp#cn_2.2_pl), we are asked to establish a layout that does not meet this checkpoint by establishing absolute dimensions.

    Not a major issue, but it seems hypocritical.

  20. Cornelius R. says:

    Hi Laura,

    A conversation that could be perceived as a follow-up to this is now taking place on Twitter (@ampli2de, #CLF) and in the comments on my blog post: Thoughts on CLF 3.0 From Outside the Firewall http://bit.ly/9nuOEj . Would love to get your thoughts on it…

  21. Laura says:

    Awesome post Cornelius R. ! Tomorrow I’m putting links to the three places (here, yours & Mike’s posts) that now exist to comment on CLF3 for those outside of the firewall, all of which TB, and others drafting the new guidelines, know about.

    Most organizations have a place where they can work and develop ideas internally without risk and scrutiny of the public. That said, I’m soooooooo happy that you and others have taken the time to comment, tweet, blog and otherwise work on improving the government web presence as a whole. Everyone is welcome and everyone wins. Thanks again for your efforts!

  22. Janicka says:

    I think the term “CLF” should be used for all who wish to determine a certain GUI standard for their web-based interactive needs.

    One person or company’s CLF does not have to be the same as another person or company’s CLF.

    So long as the “look and feel” is consistent and meets all accessibility requirement standards, I don’t see why the term “CLF” should apply to Government websites alone.

  23. Laura says:

    I think your right Janicka – lots of people use the term “common look and feel” to describe the specific qualities, including font, colour, image treatment and spelling conventions that will be used on their site. Gov folks speak specifically about “Common Look and Feel” because it is currently the name of the policy that describes what is mandatory for federal government sites, both in terms of look and accessibility requirements. http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/index-eng.asp

  24. Laura says:

    CLF Update: The policy is now being updated: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/12msg-eng.asp

    The new approach is to describe mandatory elements which will be the policy and optional elements which will be described as guidelines. The guidelines are meant to support implementation by giving examples of how and why to build usable, accessible websites.

    I have shared all of the comments made above with the folks doing the drafting. Suggestions are now welcome for what it should be (rather than what’s wrong with it).

    The accessible code packets for the current policy/look are being developed and released as they become available: http://tbs-sct.ircan.gc.ca/projects/gcwwwtemplates Testers are welcome and you can submit feedback directly into the issue tracking tool.

    You can also follow @GCwebstandards on Twitter for frequent updates.

    @Rachel – I guess they heard you too because they’re renaming the parts of the policy as they come out. Stay tuned. :)

  25. Mike D. says:

    Well, I’ve been thrown into the fire with an Intranet conversion project (to TeamSite), so I’m glad I came upon this site !

    Reading through the the CLF 2.0 Part 3 and mapping out the requirements… I think it’s great ! No wonder all Federal sites look the same. Also, I don’t have to monitor the designers as much or explain the limitations–these have been decided and communicated already. We can just focus on contents … kind of like going to a school with uniforms, it makes getting dressed in the morning alot simpler.

    But I would recommend this for review: the two- and three- column layouts should have more flexibility. When there are three columns, the actual content in the centre columns inevitably gets ‘squished’, which make it less accessible – seemingly contrary to the intention of CLF. For an example, Wendy’s NRCan link above. Yikes ! And her right column is essentially advertising material. Good luck with that, Wendy.

    Thanks Laura for your work on this. I purchased a domain name but have been slow to get it rolling… your site has inspired me!

    -Mike D.

  26. Laura says:

    Hey Mike – your comment reminded me that another press release has come out with a little more detail about the CLF update: http://www.tbs-sct.gc.ca/clf2-nsi2/13msg-eng.asp

    (Also did a small edit for you.)

  27. Please be aware that IRCan typically accepts only account registrations from the gc.ca domain. If you wish to get a IRCan account to participate in the CLF discussions and groups, and do not have a *.gc.ca email address, please drop me a line after doing your registration request. I can be reached at patrickn at xelerance.com

  28. Laura says:

    Thanks Patrick. I’m writing a new blog post to update people on the CLF update that provides a link to IRCan.gc.ca so that’s helpful information.

  29. govsitemash says:

    Vote for your favorite CLF 2.0 site. A la facemash.


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