6 Steps for Improving the Accessibility of Local Government Services
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven an increased reliance on local government websites for information and online services. But not all of these websites were developed to be the first point of contact for residents, let alone the primary way of sharing information.
So, it’s vital that they are now assessed to check that the information they contain is easily accessible to all members of the public.
What can local governments do to ensure their services and information are accessible
1 - Get to know your users
Making a website available to all is about more than simply meeting the minimum requirements in an accessibility checklist. It should be tailored to the specific needs of your audience. To offer the most effective solution to every website user, it’s crucial to understand them better. The more information you have about your council’s website users the better, as this will help you understand what kind of information and outcomes they are seeking.
Ultimately, most users are not visiting council websites to browse, they are there to get a job done. So, the relevance and accessibility of all information is key to ensuring they leave satisfied. Whether they are using the website to better understand something about the local area, or take a very
specific action using an online service, even small changes to the way the content and actions are delivered, can make a big difference.
Here's what you need to find out:
- Which pages do users navigate to most?
- When are users visiting the website?
- What are users searching for?
- What devices do people use to visit the website?
Google Analytics will shed light on all of these questions (among others), and provide a good sense of what your users need from your website. Of course, if you want to take your understanding to the next level, nothing beats gathering real-world user insights through testing.
2 - Assess the accessibility of colours and graphics
Be mindful of colour choices for text, graphics, and charts. Colours like yellows, light blues, and light greens can be tricky, especially when used with white. These colours can still be used if they form part of your council’s brand palette, but use them primarily as accents, and ensure text, graphics, and charts always contrast strongly with any background colour.
With 1.3bn people, globally, living with visual impairments it’s highly likely that you have visually impaired visitors to your site. One of the most important things to consider in your colour choice is contrast; how strong is the contrast between my text colour and the text background.
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) stipulate that you should have a contrast ratio of 7:1 for small text and 4.5:1 for large text.
To perform an audit on the visual accessibility of your council’s website, you can use free tools like:
3 - Ensure your content and layout are accessible
The most obvious point to consider is whether each webpage presents well. Ask yourself, “does the content seem too wordy, dense, or intimidating?” Also look at whether the information renders well on a computer screen, tablet, and mobile device. Ensure that you select a commonly used font, one that is usually installed on every device (like Tahoma or Times New Roman) at a minimum size of 16px (even on mobile) to make sure your content is easily read by all users.
Examine calls to action. Would they still make sense if they did not have the support of the visual elements around them? If not, you need to simplify your language and, as recommended by The Nielsen Norman Group, use calls to action that are specific, sincere, substantial and succinct.
4 - Write readable content
People typically don't read webpages, they scan them. Jackob Nielsen’s eye-tracking study from 2008 indicated that only 20-28% of the content is read on the average webpage. OK, it’s an old study, but still relevant today and perhaps more so, when we consider that the attention
spans for millennials and Gen Z are 12 and 8 seconds, respectively, further demonstrating the need for our content to be simple and concise.
But it’s not just attention spans that we have to keep in mind; we need to consider reading ability, visual impairments and more.
- To allow equal access to content and information, accessibility guidelines advise that we
write for audiences with a reading age of Grade 8 or 9.
- Take the approach of the inverted pyramid model when it comes to copywriting - lead
with the essential information at the top, and work down to secondary message.
- Clear headings and bullet points can be used to make web pages easier to digest and the proper use of H1 – H6 headings will ensure people using screen readers can make sense of
the information, too.
- Importantly, avoid the use of jargon, policy speak, and legal language in the website content. If jargon or acronyms are widely used in your services, you might like to add a glossary of terms on your site, but you should still avoid the jargon in your main website
5 - Review the structure of the information on the website
The information architecture (IA) is the backbone of the website. IA is simply the website’s structure; how information (pages, documents etc.) are organized on the site. This needs to be done in the most simple and logical way so that most, if not all, users can find what they’re looking for.
A good IA promotes stronger SEO; if Google knows that your site is simple to navigate, it is going to recommend it to search users over any others. One of the most common mistakes when it comes to the IA is continuously adding pages to a website’s navigation without giving the flow of information much thought, which is why content governance is so important. This doesn’t have to be a daunting process.
Many content management systems allow users to export a website’s IA into a spreadsheet for easy review. Here you want to look for duplication and any language that may confuse users (like internal jargon).
I’d recommend workshopping your IA at regular intervals. To do this, you can take the data you have gathered in Google Analytics and identify the types of users that visit your site and the typical journey they take (i.e. the tasks they are trying to complete). Walkthrough each journey logically and identify the pages that they will need to navigate to, the page links that to be used and how easily they can navigate back to the beginning once they are four or five clicks deep. Your IA doesn’t need to be complicated but it does need to fit the needs of all of your website visitors. You may need to duplicate some content on your site so that it is accessible for each user. If you need to do this, just make sure you use canonical tagging to show Google that your pages are linked.
6 - Consistency is key - fight fragmentation
In large organisations, it is common for content to be created by people from different departments. This can lead to the website being fragmented - with the tone of voice, look, and feel being inconsistent as a result.
To check for this, perform a quick audit. Take screenshots of recent and popular documents or posts, and paste them into an online whiteboard, such as the free version of Miro or Google Slides. Examine whether the pages appear consistent.
Once this is completed, consider the tone of voice of these pages. Ideally, they need to match your corporate style guidelines.
When it comes to ensuring a local government website offers accessible information and services, it is important to remember that you do not need to wait for an entire website overhaul before improvements can be made. Instead, council staff who are responsible for website management and content updates can make incremental improvements. By following the steps covered above, small but meaningful adjustments can offer substantial results.
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