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Design, Test, Repeat: Building Accessibility in Digital Government

As experts discussed during the 2023 Government UX Summit, the work of designing accessible digital products is an iterative process that requires planning, user research and improvements.

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During the 2023 Government UX Summit this week, experts drove home the importance of user testing in creating accessible digital products and services.

Data suggests that government agencies are not doing enough to achieve accessibility in services. For government to have accessible digital services and products, efforts must go beyond mere compliance.

This was a topic of discussion during a session titled “Accessibility Research in Action: VA’s Health and Benefits Mobile App,” when Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Contractor and Staff Researcher Elizabeth Straghalis was explaining how teams need to think about accessibility early and often when designing digital products.

“In fact, we have an accessibility-beyond-compliance approach to our work,” Straghalis said, arguing that compliance alone does not guarantee a positive digital experience for users.

A major part of improving the user experience of the VA app relied on conducting feedback sessions to understand how people with vision impairments use assistive technologies, Straghalis explained.

Online feedback sessions were conducted with veterans that use screen-reader technologies and a cross-functional team from the VA to observe. Accessibility issues identified during the session were then addressed by the team. For example, screen readers were skipping an alert box, so engineers were assigned to fix the issue.

“We recommend that you take on a mindset of progress over perfection,” said Martha Wilkes, accessibility strategist for the VA Office of the Chief Technology Officer during the session.

Wilkes also underlined that a small team — even one made up of one designer — can do this type of work to make digital government products accessible.

During another session, “Simplifying User Experiences for Complex Content at USAGov,” GSA UX Researcher and Contractor Mercedita Andrew underlined the important role usability testing has played in the creation of a scam reporting tool.

For her team, Andrew said it involved a 30-minute, remote, conversational interview in which the user could test navigating the previous USAGov and the protoptype of the new tool. These sessions helped the team collect usage data to understand where user tensions existed and make iterative improvements to create a more positive and intuitive experience.

“These conversations help our team design an efficient, user friendly and simple tool with our web content,” Andrew said.

Joanne McGovern, UX researcher for USAGov with GSA, further detailed that usability testing was central to the team’s iterative improvement process.

Regarding the transformation of the tool’s web content to develop voice interaction capabilities, she underlined that the content would not be considered final until quality assurance testing was completed using an actual voice assistant. After that, the product will go into beta testing and usability testing to acquire further feedback, “and we’ll adjust and improve as we go along.”
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.