Government agencies, now more than ever, must prioritize creating digital products and services that are accessible to all citizens, including those with disabilities. The 2023 Digital.gov Government UX Summit shed light on the central role of user testing in building accessibility and user-centered design into government digital offerings. We explore the key takeaways from the summit, emphasizing the significance of iterative processes, user-centered design, and the pursuit of a better user experience.

Why user testing is so important for accessibility

Accessibility, in essence, is about ensuring that people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with digital content. Meeting accessibility standards is a starting point, but it doesn’t guarantee a positive user experience. User testing, as discussed at the summit, is crucial for identifying barriers and improving the usability of digital government services.

User testing involves individuals with disabilities, such as those who use screen readers, voice commands, or assistive technologies, actively engaging with the digital product. These real-world users provide invaluable insights into the practical challenges they face when interacting with government websites, apps, and online services.

Iterative design and accessibility

One recurring theme at the summit was the importance of considering accessibility early and throughout the design process. Iterative design, which involves making small changes and testing them with real users, was emphasized as a cornerstone of accessible design.

Designers and developers need to move beyond compliance with accessibility standards and start to think about how users with disabilities will interact with their creations. By involving users with disabilities in the design process from the outset, teams can identify and address accessibility issues proactively. This iterative approach ensures that accessibility improvements are integrated continuously, rather than being tacked on as an afterthought.

Case study – VA’s health and benefits mobile app

Elizabeth Straghalis, representing the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), presented a compelling case study at the summit. The VA’s Health and Benefits mobile app has undergone a significant transformation, thanks to user testing and iterative design.

One of the key moments in improving the app’s accessibility was feedback sessions with visually impaired veterans who rely on screen-reader technologies. Through these sessions, the VA gained critical insights into the challenges users faced when navigating the app. These insights led to practical improvements, such as optimizing screen reader compatibility, enhancing navigation pathways, and ensuring that all features were keyboard accessible.

This case study highlighted the tangible benefits of user testing, demonstrating that it’s more than a regulatory requirement, but a path to creating more inclusive and user-friendly digital government products.

Strategies for effective accessibility

Martha Wilkes, an accessibility strategist, urged summit attendees to adopt a mindset of progress over perfection when it comes to accessibility. She emphasized that achieving perfect accessibility is a lofty goal that can be counterproductive. Instead, Wilkes advocated for continuous improvement—a commitment to making digital products more accessible over time, even if they are not initially flawless.

Wilkes’s message resonated with the idea that the digital landscape is ever-changing. What may be accessible today could become obsolete or problematic tomorrow. Therefore, striving for continuous progress aligns with the dynamic nature of the digital realm.

The summit highlighted the role of small teams in driving accessibility improvements. Contrary to the misconception that accessibility is a task solely for specialized teams, the reality is that even a single designer, developer, or content creator can make a significant impact. Empowering individuals within teams to champion accessibility fosters a culture of inclusion and innovation.

User experience and usability testing

The summit also underscored the importance of user experience (UX) and usability testing in creating accessible government digital services. Mercedita Andrew from the General Services Administration (GSA) shared insights into the development of a scam reporting tool for USAGov.

The process involved conversational interviews with users, an essential component of usability testing. By engaging users in conversations about their experiences, Andrew and her team gained a deeper understanding of user needs and pain points. This feedback loop allowed for iterative improvements, ensuring that the tool was not only accessible but also user-friendly.

Joanne McGovern, a UX researcher, emphasized the iterative improvement process in accessibility. She described how web content can be transformed to accommodate voice interaction capabilities. In her session, McGovern stressed that usability testing is not a one-time event but an ongoing process that evolves with the changing needs and technologies of users.

Conclusion

Discussions at the 2023 Digital.gov Government UX Summit underscored the critical role of user-centered design, iterative testing, and the contributions of small teams in creating accessible and user-friendly digital services.

Accessibility is more than regulatory compliance, it’s a commitment to serving all citizens, regardless of their abilities. By leveraging iterative design, focusing on progress over perfection, and engaging users with disabilities in the design process, government agencies can build a more inclusive digital future.

The key takeaway from the summit is clear: Design, test, and repeat. Continuously seeking feedback, making iterative improvements, and putting users at the center of design decisions help government agencies truly fulfill their mission of serving all citizens in the digital age.

Tim Boesen

January 9, 2024

4 Min read