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User testing accessibility

The alphabet of BSL fingerspelling via Cowplopmorris at en.wikipedia

My name is Joshua Marshall, and I’m a front-end developer and the Accessibility Lead for the team working on the beta of GOV.UK.

Most of my focus has been on making sure that both the public facing website and the internal tools we’re building to support the site are as accessible and usable as we can make them. Now that we’re well into the development of the GOV.UK project I wanted to give an update on the work we’ve been doing.

What have we been doing?

From the outset, we knew that the more expert help we could get, the better the final product we could deliver. To that end we asked Léonie Watson from Nomensa to help us. She is a recognised expert in the accessibility field, and we’ve been enormously lucky to have her expertise along the way.

We’ve been regularly developing both the administration tools we’ve created for our editorial teams and the public facing templates that visitors to the beta site will interact with.

Lots of my time has been spent using screen readers and a multitude of different browsers, platforms and tools to make sure that what we’re building isn’t excluding anyone from the content we’re providing. Constant iteration has been, well, a constant. I know my limits, as a sighted, able-bodied developer, and knew that getting people with a wide diversity of requirements was a necessity.

 User Testing

Testing our assumptions with actual users – both able-bodied and disabled – has focussed our efforts on not just whether our code validates or the colour contrast is good enough but that formats work for all users and don’t exclude anyone from taking part. Building this means more than just making sure we’re checking the boxes for WCAG AA compliance. It needs to work in the real world for real people too.

It’s great that a technically savvy user can use the site unaided, but knowing that an elderly person with limited computing experience or a user with Aspergers was able to do so means we’re much more confident that we’re presenting our information in a way that works for as many users as possible.

Early December saw us run a series of disability user testing sessions so we could observe and understand how visitors with different abilities interacted with the site.

Our respondents all had a variety of abilities and were chosen to try to represent as many as possible of the user-groups that will use the beta site. They included:

  • blind screen-reader users
  • screen magnification users
  • deaf British Sign Language users
  • keyboard-only users
  • speech-recognition software users
  • Dyslexic users
  • Aspergers or autistic users

Testing Results

The feedback we received was generally positive. Users responded well to the structure of the formats and the stripped-down content.

There was some work to do to clarify language and interactions around certain parts of the site that we, as a team of mostly able-bodied developers, wouldn’t necessarily consider during day to day use, but we were generally pleased that people were able to complete the tasks required without too many problems.

We have another round of testing in the coming months so it will be interesting to see how the formats test as we finalise the visual design and include all of the follow-up development tasks.

British Sign Language

Visiting the last eAccessibility Forum this summer it was clear that users whose first language is British Sign Language rather than English often felt left out in terms of the content they are provided with. The assumption being that because the content is presented in text and in English, that should be enough.

We think we can do better.

I’m currently working on having some of our content translated into British Sign Language and recorded as a video-based alternative to certain text-heavy guides.

It’s not always enough to show the exact translation of the text – sometimes roleplaying what might happen around the content is more appropriate, along with the literal translation of content pertaining to the laws of the land so there’s a fuller understanding of both what will happen and why.

 Future Work

There’s always work to do to make our tools more useful. Accessibility is like everything else on the beta of GOV.UK: a constantly evolving project. There will always be more work to do to deliver a truly world-class website for the citizens of the UK and to keep delivering on the promise to make it as open and usable to all as we can. We’re listening, we’ll be testing our assumptions over the upcoming months, and we’ll really value feedback from the community once the beta site is live.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great to hear that accessibility is still being taken seriously. Over at TfL we’ve just completed our latest round of accessible user testing on the Journey Planner service (we’re trying to improve the step-free access information for wheelchair users). As always it was an enlightening experience. It helps to be reminded occasionally of the huge gap between a product that’s ‘technically’ accessible (ie. WCAG2.0 ‘AA’) and one that’s actually usable and useful for people with access requirements.

    • Phil Day #

      Good to see accessibility being approached both in terms of following a standard, and also testing with consumers with different needs and abilities.

      Here at NCR we recently conducted user tests in partnership with the RNIB in the UK, and then in the US with the Center (sic) for the Visually Impaired & DisabilityLink.

      There is no substitute for evaluating with consumers.

      • “There is no substitute for evaluating with consumers.”

        Couldn’t agree more Phil! I’m really looking forward to seeing how our next group of test participants find the site and how the results differ from the last round of testing we carried out.

  2. Interesting article. Especially interested in the part about BSL and your comment about using video to enhance the service. Surely in it’s current form this isn’t a very sustainable solution – any consideration being given to using computer animation (a la Xbox) combined with BSL to give a more automated (and therefore more achieveable) route to provide additional support?

    • Thanks the for comment Pete.

      Personally I’m not sure that animating the content would be more sustainable over the long run. We can hire professionals to translate, shoot and package the content for us as video, and the turnaround time isn’t particularly onerous. I’m sure we could commission someone to animate that content in much the same way but I’m not sure it’d necessarily save time or money.

      Obviously there would be production costs either way, but I’d be really interested in seeing any research that an animated clip vs video of a native-speaking signer provided as much or even more clarity or understanding for the viewer.

    • There are systems out that that will generate animated signing automatically for you – no need to get someone to manually create it. Here’s an example:

  3. Charlotte Daly #

    Well done Josh and Naomi, this will make a big difference to a lot of people with a variety of accessibility needs. I look forward to hearing more on the alternative video facility as a University friend of mine has accessbility problems accessing lecture handouts etc. Once Beta is launched, it hopefully will inspire other institutions to improve their accessibilty services.

  4. mrflicks #

    Alt Tags

    I personally feel that nobody really writes all encompassing Alt tags either using short descriptions with a long description link or better short descriptions that bear in mind not just say “the deaf” like the alt tag hear might but also those who may not know the meaning of acronyms (most especially industry specific ones), as well as other aspects to.

    Now let us take the description of the hand signing alphabet. On the surface to those not visually impaired this looks the bees knees and most admirable. However if the description is not equally as admirable the essence of accessibility is lost in many translations


    But then I have and have designed cartoons and am having to think of such things

  5. mrflicks #

    here even (excuse typo)

  6. As the COI website has been decommissioned, do you know if there will be any replacement for their “Delivering inclusive websites” guidance (perhaps on GOV.UK)?
    I only ask because public sector websites used to be held to a minimum accessibility standard of WCAG1.0 AA – see .
    As a web developer for a local government website, I always used to refer to this as our benchmark when building new web services or writing our requirements when tendering for third-party services. However, with this guidance dying with the COI website, does it mean that public sector sites need only to reach single-A on WCAG2.0 to scrape by the Equality Act 2010? (I really hope not – we need the bar to be higher considering our target audience!)

    • Hi Dale

      Yes, we absolutely should be publishing a replacement for the COI guidance.

      Not sure who would officially “own” it but as the Accessibility Lead on GOV.UK I’m happy to take the lead in making sure we have some current documentation to share.

      I’d guess we’d publish something as part of our Design Principles and style guides later on this year. At the very least I should add something to our Github styleguide repository (, so thanks for the reminder.

      On GOV.UK we’ve been aiming for WCAG 2.0 AA where we can pragmatically reach it. We’ve put a lot of effort into making it work for all, so we should definitely share the knowledge we’ve gained along the way.

      Thanks for the comment, hope that helps!

      • Craig #

        What testing tool do you recommend for developers to ensure we meet a minimum of Single A for Double A WCAG rating?
        Many sites claim to be A or AA compliant, but when I’ve tested them with free online tools, they usally fail.
        Is there a standard software install we should all be using?

        (Sorry for joining in so late)

  7. jellybelly123 #

    Hi Joshua,

    Really amazed with this type of effort for the people having certain disability.

    I am an Aspergers expert in Ireland, and i feel that this type of efforts are not just the need of UK, Ireland or any other specific country, but need for the whole world..

    It’s great that you have initiated it, and people like me are really looking forward for the best results.

    All the best to you, as my Aspergers patients are waiting for easy accessibility.



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  1. Hosting the beta of GOV.UK | Government Digital Service
  2. Engaging With The Hard To Reach | Government Digital Service

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