Parks Canada

The World's First Backcountry Skiing Permit System Web App

“The Web team from the National office was impressed by your UX [research] - congrats. They loved your work. You did a great job for us and it has been a pleasure to work with you.”

Markus Siivola, Project Manager, Parks Canada Government Agency


The Problem

Glacier National Park (GNP) in British Colombia, Canada provides public access to complex and dangerous winter backcountry terrain. Avalanche control is performed in GNP primarily by using artillery fire to actively trigger avalanches. To avoid areas that are closed for avalanche control program activities that day, backcountry skiers are meant to check the status of the Winter Permit System (WPS) areas via the WPS Website (see image below) and receive a permit at the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre (RPDC) before entering GNP.

It is estimated that on average 40 people fail to comply with the WPS every year resulting in unnecessary road closures and increases the risk of unplanned avalanches and clean up, while distrupting strategically important highways and railways. Violations also delay avalanche control activities targeting the restricted area where skiers are committing a violation. This costs Canada’s economy approximately CAD $65,000 per hour, and additional for GNP avalanche forecaster staff time and court proceedings for the offenders.

Parks Canada Winter Permit System Website Home page

“The offenders are often from a day’s drive away (e.g. Okanogan, Vancouver, Calgary, and Washington) generally are getting their information from Websites that I am not familiar with, old guidebooks, outdated information. There is not really a current system to get the information.”

Sharon Woods, GNP Park Warden
Parks Canada's Proposed Solution

Parks Canada believed that WPS Website users were struggling to understand how to abide by the WPS because of the poor Website user experience. Their proposed solution was to replace the existing WPS Website with an HTML5 map-based, GPS tracking Winter Information System (WIS) Web app, much like a Trail Information Management System (TIMS) Web app they had created. Parks Canada's goals for this new WIS Web app were:

  • to ensure all skiers check and understand the winter restrictions;
  • decrease minor violations and eliminating major violations of the WPS; and
  • reduce assistance required by skiers from RPDC staff and the WPS Website help page.
  • Parks Canada Trail Information Management System Website Home page

    Research Approach


    Though an in-depth discovery consultation process, we identified that Parks Canada were proposing to create this new WIS Web app knowing little about the motivations, goals and behaviours of WPS Website users and that it was a strategic necessity to conduct generative user experience research to inform the design phase of the WIS Web app.

    We decided to test Parks Canada’s assumptions about users’ experience of the current WPS Website and the TIMS Web App. First, we recorded baseline metrics so we could understand what improvement looked like. This gave the client confidence to make informed decisions in design and development investment. The assumptions we tested were that:

  • the WPS user segments as defined by the Avalanche Risk Review (2003) were valid;
  • skiers had awareness of WPS and would check the WPS Website before going skiing; and
  • a map-based HMTL5 Web app with all the decided features (as defined by Parks Canada) would best meet users needs and understanding, as opposed to other features or a native app.
  • Methodology

    Time was a critical factor for this project, so our methodolgy was limited to secondary analysis, stakeholder interviews, a comprehensive UX / UI audit, and moderated user interviews (screened for two unique user groups) with usability testing for the following tasks:

    1. Google Search
    2. WSP Website ski trip planning
    3. TIMS app hiking trip planning
    4. Trailforks app trail planning

    Research Findings

    User Segments

    Our research identified four user segments that were most likely to violate the WPS, based on their winter backcountry experience and their awareness of the GNP WPS (see graph images below). Both the ‘Experienced’ and ‘Inexperienced’ winter backcountry user were aware that there was a lot to learn in regards to backcountry ski terrain. Surprisingly, the ‘Experienced’ user was more modest when self-rating their level of backcountry terrain knowledge and had an increased perception of risk of backcountry skiing in GNP.

    Parks Canada WIS Web app user segments most likely to violate the winter permit system and risk perception

    Within the four user segments most likely to violate the WPS we identified two distinct users groups that most differed in their approach to planning a backcountry ski trip in GNP. The key differentitor between these user groups was winter backcountry skiing experience. After thematically analysing the qualitative data we created primary and secondary user personas.

    Cronometer personas and user journeys snapshot

    User Journey: Planning a Backcountry Ski Trip in GNP

    Google Search

    Users were directed to use Google search to plan a backcountry ski trip to GNP. The task was complete when the user found the ‘Ski Touring with the Winter Permit System’ Website. Eight users completed the task, but the results were poor. Users were distracted by other Websites and were frustrated with the puzzle of content they needed to search for in order to find relevant information. This is primarily because the WPS Website has poor Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) page ranking.

    Parks Canada WPS Website user research Google mobile
    WPS Website Experience

    Users were asked to plan a backcountry skiing trip starting at Grizzly Shoulder. The task was complete if the user understood the current restricted areas, that they needed to go to the RPDC to get a permit and they felt ready to go skiing. Only three users completed the task. Users were distracted by other Websites and were frustrated by the puzzle of dense, text-heavy content they sifted through to find relevant information. At the end of the task, only one user had found the 'Winter Resticted Area Status' page and the remaining users were unaware of the WPS and the revelant permit they needed to go skiing. Users generally trusted and believed the Website had all the informaton needed, but struggled to find what they were looking for.

    Parks Canada WPS Website user research grab desktop

    “There is a lot going on and it's not well organised. More complicated than it needs to be, but all the information is there.”

    Elliot, Infrequent Experienced User
    Parks Canada WPS Website user research grab desktop

    “A very confusing site. I still don’t truly understand what the permit system is or what permit I need.”

    Kathryn, Unaware Inexperienced User

    User Journey: Planning a Hiking Trip in Banff

    Parks Canada TIMS Web app user journey
    TIMS App

    Users were directed to use the TIMS Web App to plan a hiking trip in Banff National Park at the Johnston Canyon trail. The task was complete if the user found the trail and felt ready to go hiking there. The task was incomplete if the user could not find the trail and/or did not feel they had adequate information to hike.

    Eight users completed the task. They liked the familiar Google map API used and found the trail quickly following a simple and clear user journey. Users were frustrated that there was insufficient information, together with strange interactions and glitches.

    Parks Canada TIMS Web app user research desktop

    “I don’t really know what this Web app is trying to tell me. I would like to see more information so I would probably go back to Google.”

    Kathryn, Unaware Inexperienced (desktop)
    Parks Canada TIMS Web app user research mobile

    “Cool, I like this. It’s like Trailforks [app] but for hiking trails. It has ratings for how hard it is, and it’s difficult to zoom."

    Peter, Unaware Inexperienced User (mobile)

    Similar User Journey: Planning a Biking Trip

    Trailforks App

    Trailforks is a map based native mobile app and Web app that informs mountain bikers of bike trails around the world. It offers information about bike trails, communicated with well designed visuals and simple user flows. We realised early on in our research that this app would be very helpful to inform the design of the WIS Web app, so we decided to test it with a small subset of users to see if it was worth analysing further. All users completed the task of planning a biking trip. Trailforks elicited a positive response as users who found the interface simple, yet comprehensive enough to be very helpful in planning their trip.

    Trailforks Website user research desktop

    “[Trailforks] does an amazing job of understanding where to go, making it very easy for people to access information.”

    John, Unaware Experienced User (desktop)
    Trailforks Website user research mobile

    “Trailforks for biking is awesome. It is my favourite outdoor app in terms of well done, well executed, accessibility to information, on and offline tracking where you are. I wish there was something like this for skiing.”

    Jenise, Unaware Inexperienced User (mobile)

    The Vision: The Ultimate GNP Backcountry Trip Planner.

    Recommended Approach

    Broad to Specific, Step-by-step Process

    Design a step-by-step, ‘plan your trip’ process that offers a quick and broad visual overview, followed by comprehensive detail as required.

    Accommodating Multiple User Experiences

    Design unique experiences that align with users' domain experience and skills (e.g. primary, secondary and possibly tertiary users).

    Design Features

    Parks Canada WIS Web app user research maps
    Interactive Map

    Familiar Google API that is geo-referenced, with options for different overlays (e.g. satellite, topographic, detailed hand-drawn map, slope angle, and heat map) and modes (e.g. Google Earth 3D/oblique mode).

    Educational Onboarding & Feedback

    A tailored, first time tour to educate users about the WIS Web app. Provide feedback so users understand how far into the process they are and positive reinforcement when completing each step.

    Routes & Trip Reports

    Users desired user generated content/stories of recent and relevant backcountry ski trips in the area. The WIS Web app could also be a fully integrated with Doug Sproul’s Rogers Pass Backcountry Guidebook and Map.

    Online Permit Application

    Users wanted to be able to apply for a Daily Winter Permit online. Once complete the user would either receive their permit or a confirmation number that allows them to get their permit from the GNP RPDC staff.

    Non-Native app Workarounds

    Users desired an accessible native mobile app. However, Parks Canada requires digital products to be accessible on any device. Users can be taught to bookmark the HTML5 Web app as an icon on their smartphone home screen.

    Subscription to Notifications

    Users said they would like the option to enable or disable notifications via e-mail, text or push (native app only) for updates of the closure status, forecasted avalanche control, and weather system.

    The Result

    Follow-up Usability Testing

    This project was delivered on time, on budget and within scope. The client was very pleased with the the entire process of working together and the final deliverable, which included a final research presentation and snapshot report. We supported them further through follow-up evaluative usability testing project for the WIS Web app prototype.

    “The Web team from the National office was impressed by your UX [research] - congrats. They loved your work. You did a great job for us and it has been a pleasure to work with you.”

    Markus Siivola, Project Manager, Parks Canada Government Agency
    Parks Canada WIS Web app

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