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Creating accessible consultations

Katherine Rooney -

Accessibility has always been important to us at Delib. 

Accessibility in this context is about ensuring that accessing information on the web works for all people, whatever their hardware, software, language, location, or ability. 

The World Wide Web Consortium (WC3) says the following:

"Accessibility is essential for developers and organizations that want to create high quality websites and web tools, and not exclude people from using their products and services"; and

"The Web must be accessible to provide equal access and equal opportunity to people with diverse abilities."

This short film from WC3 is a really good non-technical introduction to web accessibility, and we encourage you to watch it.

Every Citizen Space has a permanent link to the Accessibility Policy page, which gives a useful breakdown of how to approach accessibility on your Citizen Space. It says:

"This website is made up of:

  • Software that is designed and controlled by Delib, for example the overall structure and the look and feel of the pages.
  • Content that has been added by [customer name], for example most of the information, including words, pictures and documents."

So, Delib does the hard work to ensure that the software, (your Citizen Space site), meets the WCAG 2.1 AA standards. The content added to the site, (e.g. questions and supporting information), and the quality and accessibility of that content, is where you come in.

This article runs through some of the things that you should think about when creating a consultation. Some of this content is taken from the excellent NHS Digital Service Manual in addition to accessibility guidance and blogs on gov.uk. That content is available under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

 

Use clear, simple language 

This is a vital part of any consultation activity, so it is very likely that you are thinking about this anyway. 

NHS Digital suggest that those creating surveys should think of the form as a conversation, and to 'use familiar words in familiar ways'. They also suggest that you read your questions aloud to a colleague, as this will help you check whether it flows like a conversation, how formal it sounds, and how easy the questions are to answer.

Ideally you are aiming to write in plain language, even if the subject matter is complex or technical in nature.

 

Keep the structure simple too

Your survey should follow a clear and logical path. Consider limiting the number of questions per page. The .gov.uk service manual on structuring forms recommends that you start with one thing per page.

 

Use the more complex answer components with care, and only when necessary

Matrix questions can save space and provide flexibility, but it can become difficult for some users to understand and fill in if the grid of questions becomes too large. Radio buttons or checkboxes are preferable in many scenarios. If in doubt, we recommend that you create both options, and test them with real users.

Drop down questions are another component to use with care, because they can be tricky for users with reduced dexterity, or those using a keyboard to navigate the page. Drop downs are good to use if you have a multiple choice question with a lot of options. If not, it is likely that radio buttons will be a better option.

 

The problem with PDFs...

PDFs are a very common file type, and they do have benefits. However, from an accessibility perspective, there are a number of issues with them.

Many users with accessibility needs might choose to format their browser or use assistive technology to access information in a different way (for example by changing the colours or by using a screen reader). By design, PDFs exist to enable the presentation of information in a format that isn't editable or amendable, meaning that a lot of that information in a PDF can be 'locked away' from users who you want and need to access it.

With the above in mind, the advice is to present information on the Citizen Space page itself, using the CKEditor to format the text and add lists, links, images and tables. 

Gov.uk has guidance on publishing accessible documents.

The NHS Digital Service Manual has a section on PDFs, which contains a good list of reasons why PDFs can be a problem, even for users with no specific access needs. 

 

Add 'Alt text' to all images

Images are a great way to make your consultations look more engaging, but don't forget that images are only useful for those that can see them. As with PDFs, any information in an image is locked within it. For this reason we advise against presenting vital information within an image - or, if you do, providing that information in text too. 

This article explains how to add alt text in Citizen Space.

 

Provide clear instructions to links

When adding a link, you have two main options:

  • to 'link out' of the page you are on, or
  • to set the link to open in a new window or tab.

It is best to decide based on your specific situation, but WC3 state that links should be set to open in a new window or tab 'only when necessary' and you can read their full guidance here

"In general, it is better not to open new windows and tabs since they can be disorienting for people, especially people who have difficulty perceiving visual content. However there are some situations where it is preferable from an accessibility perspective to open a new window or tab." 

One of such situations WC3 refer to is on an online form, (such as a consultation or survey), where there is a link within the form to take users to helpful context or further information. In that instance, it is recommended to set the link to open in a new window or tab, so as to not send them away from the questions and answers section of your consultation.

However, if you do set the link to open in a new window or tab, ensure that you let users know, by including information in the link text, for example: Click here to see the draft proposals, (link opens in new window). 

Specifically in Citizen Space we advise:

  • If you are on a consultation overview page  link out.
  • If you are within the online survey  link to open in a new window, and include the information in the link.

 

Test your consultation with real users wherever possible

If a consultation is targeted at a specific group and you can test it with them before you go live, all the better.

Gov.uk has a section within their service manual on user research as well as an article on additional guidance on running user tests with people who have disabilities.

You can use preview mode or preview links to send out a test link to your target audience. We have guidance on how to use preview mode in Citizen Space, as well as an article that explains how you can test your consultation.

 

In summary 

Do as much as you can to keep the structure and content simple, reduce your reliance on PDFs, add 'alt text' to your images, provide instructions to links where necessary, and test with real people wherever possible. Your respondents will all thank you for that!