Why local government needs to think beyond website accessibility 

By Jason Cooper, Head of Creative, Civica Digital

SOCITM’s latest assessment of the state of accessibility in UK councils’ online services provides a clear outline of progress towards more accessible services. However, it also highlights that there’s still room for improvement. It made me wonder: Is looking at accessibility alone going far enough?

The Better Connected survey assesses performance for all 416 UK councils. It looks at how usable their websites are from mobile devices, as well as how accessible they are for people with disabilities. With only 69% of sites making the grade, it suggests there’s certainly still a need for development and change.

Moving more people away from traditional channels

Assessing sites and services in this way is, of course, a valuable way of measuring how well councils are engaging with their users. However, with councils increasingly focused on making digital transformation a reality, successfully moving service users away from traditional channels will require a much broader view of accessibility.

Inclusive and effective for all citizens

Budgetary pressures and changing citizen expectations mean that councils need to support and encourage the broadest possible engagement across all digital channels. It will be an evolving challenge but it’s important to consider accessibility in the widest possible context in this process. Councils should be looking at whether sites are effective and inclusive for all types of citizens.

When it comes to digital engagement, the good news is that the Better Connected survey found that 89% of UK council sites now present a responsive or mobile version to smartphone users. However, embracing the delivery of better digital inclusion presents several challenges that go beyond just making services available on mobile devices and accessible to those with visual impairments.

Delivering better clarity for all

Viewing a website with a screen reader can be a great test of a site’s accessibility and is the basis for improving the site for those with visual impairments. The key is to use this experience to deliver clarity for all users, their confidence levels and their online experience. Conventions, wording and metaphors that are accepted by ‘digital natives’ don’t necessarily have a meaning (or the correct meaning) for older users, for example.

People who were raised with digital technology tend to have a level of comfort and fearlessness around it means that they are unafraid to engage with it. For those who aren’t so familiar with it, there can often be a sense of reluctance to engage via digital channels because they “don’t want to break it”. Naming, instructions, support and metaphors need to be clear and relatable and, wherever possible, use technology and data to support and improve their experience.

What does it mean in practice?

Some examples of how to design services and experiences for digital inclusion include avoiding ambiguous buttons and instructions. What does ‘Go’ mean at the end of a page or a form? It’s largely meaningless – for all users, not just those with visual impairments – so think about the actual instruction or the action that clicking a button will perform.

Look at your brand identity and logos. Have they been designed in an accessible way? The palette for accessible colours really isn’t limiting – it just requires attention to the level of contrast between the colours. Often it will be difficult to see the change in a logo redesigned to be accessible, but it makes a massive difference to those with a visual impairment.

Looking at the fundamental requirements of forms and data capture methods often reveals ways to make services more inclusive. Error handling can be an area of intense frustration for users – and it really shouldn’t be. It’s easy to build intelligence, labelling and instructions into processes to guide users, provide context and limit their input to acceptable choices. Asking for unnecessary information is another way that impacts the user experience negatively.

With councils continuing to focus on improving digital engagement with citizens, it’s important to acknowledge that accessibility and user experience are key to achieving digital inclusion and the take-up of digital channels.

To find out more about how Civica Digital is supporting digital inclusion, visit www.civica.com/digital.

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