Chris Bush of digital agency Sigma worries that we've got a bit too complacent when it comes to website accessibity in the public sector
There are 11 million people in the UK living with an impairment or disability, which range from cognitive (learning) to physical (motor), to visual and auditory.
As a result, there is likely to be a lot of users visiting public sector websites that are, in some way, either temporarily or permanently impaired - something that needs to taken into consideration when ensuring a site is as user-friendly as possible.
The good news is that the UK is leading the way in transforming public sector services with its digital by default plans – meaning it’s time for public sector websites to start incorporating some changes.
For public sector websites it can be difficult to build a picture of a typical user – as often the aim is to address a multitude of audience needs through a single service.
Investing the time to really understand users will gives an organisation the best tools to make what appears to be a complex design process much simpler. And user research can help ensure members of the public aren’t marginalised. In our experience, working with public sector clients trying to do just this, the following strategies will help users to navigate a website a lot more accessible.
A website that is accessible means that those with impairments or disabilities can navigate it without any major issues. And there are guidelines in place for websites to ensure that those who have disabilities aren’t left out. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines is a source that should be borne in mind throughout a website's design process, to build a website that can be used with ease by those that have a disability.
There are also a number of design approaches that are useful when creating an accessible site. All too often, for example, project teams lose sight of the bigger picture once they become engrossed in their daily tasks, and sometimes forget about the end user when making decisions. But it’s crucial that user needs are fully understood, and the reasons why they have landed on a website and how they are going to use it is taken into consideration.
If a user’s end goal is to gather information on something, then content needs to be concise and easy to find. But if a user is there to renew a driving license, for example, then the process needs to be simple - here users won’t necessarily need all of the copy on the website, but they do need to navigate the ordering process with ease.
Content should be restructured around user goals as well. Taking time to investigate and understand a site’s ‘Top-tasks’ will ensure the most used content in each section will be the easiest to find.
A responsive design is ideal for mobile as it alters to whatever screen size it is on, and fast, making it a good choice for websites that are content-rich like public sector websites often are. The earlier-mentioned digital by default criteria was created, in part, in response to key challenges such as a lack of government websites being readily available across different mobile devices.
One of the most effective ways of ensuring a website is fully accessible is to test it with the right people. Reaching out to local specialist user groups and offering incentives to them for helping to test a website is a good idea. This kind of user testing might require more time, however, and a carer might need to be present – which should be taken into consideration in the planning stages.
When we worked on the Sport England website, for example, in the testing process we contacted local sports clubs with impaired members, coaches, and their respected bodies to help us. Building a stable relationship with these support groups is great, as it allowed us to form a group of people happy to help us out with testing in the future.
The foundations of any digital approach should be to build in user experience and accessibility from the outset. But in order to create something that is easily navigated by all, and doesn’t marginalise a portion of users due to a design that isn’t accessible, thought really needs to go into building an inclusive design from the outset.
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