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Exceeding Accessibility Compliance in Local Government

Case Study: Northamptonshire County Council

The Challenge

Making your web content accessible to all and meeting EU Accessibility Guidelines


All organisations, small and large, are under a moral and legal obligation to make their website content accessible to all. Accessibility is a wide-ranging topic that affects far more users than you might initially expect. Northamptonshire County Council, as a public organisation, is under the microscope more than most when it comes to web accessibility. With the EU Accessibility Directive currently coming into force in stages, NCC took the initiative and set improving the accessibility of their websites as a prime objective.

Background

Fuse have worked with NCC as developers of its website platform for over 10 years. The current web platform is built on Microsoft SharePoint and includes a suite of custom features and components which Fuse have built, enabling NCC to build out its public-facing website portfolio.

During that time, accessibility regulations have become ever more stringent. Despite being accessibility-aware when first developing the website, there was a clear need to learn more and put that learning into practice.

Council websites are continuously monitored by various third-party services that publish reports and council league tables, thus each council’s performance is in the public domain. When we started down the road of accessibility improvement, in mid-2018, NCC had a SiteImprove score of below 60 (out of 100), where the industry average was hovering around the 70 mark. NCC also scored less than favourably on other similar reports. These scores were deemed unacceptable and plans were put in motion to improve things.

Let's do this

Fuse met with NCC early on to review and discuss the various accessibility reports, the relevant issues and how we could go about tackling and resolving each one. With an overall goal of meeting the EU Accessibility Directive, a first objective was set to achieve a SiteImprove score of 80, well above the industry average.

We knew we could not achieve this overnight, and that not all issues could be fixed with code changes. This was going to be a long road of continuous improvement across all facets of the website, from code to content.

During those first few months, we tackled issues that were relatively easy to resolve. Examples of some of the changes we made were:

  • Page structure improvements - ensuring that parts of the page are structured and labelled appropriately. This was achieved by using both standard HTML 5 elements and/or WAI-ARIA landmarks and roles.
  • Improved tabbed navigation, allowing keyboard users to logically navigate the page, and skip to the main page content quickly
  • Ensuring all form fields are correctly labelled and gain focus (visually) in an expected manner
  • Ensuring all images can be assigned relevant "alt" text
  • Adding assistive JavaScript to ensure document icons are marked as decorative
  • Removing redundant duplicate hyperlinks for screen-readers

While we were making the above code changes, NCC's web team were also tackling content issues where possible, including improving the accessibility of PDFs which were heavily used across the site.

By the end of 2018, NCC's SiteImprove score had increased to 67/100: a certain improvement but by no means was our work done. We had momentum now though and set about tackling the next set of issues to get us closer to the 80 mark.

At this stage NCC enlisted the help of a visually-impaired user to get more insightful feedback on the usability of the website. This was a revelatory experience. We were no longer just talking about ticking boxes on an issues list. We could see at first hand the problems a user might have on the website, and the lengths someone might go to, to work around those issues. Having empathy for your users is key to providing a great experience.

One problem highlighted, ironically, was that the Browsealoud tool (a feature added to the website that will read the content out to the user) was positioned on the page in a way that left it unreachable. This highlighted the need for real user feedback, and also the need to include an element of screen-reader and keyboard-only testing in our processes. We still used the reports as a gauge of improvement, but we also knew that we needed to expand our testing regime to catch these real-world issues.

In early 2019, we tackled the Browsealoud issue along with a few others:

  • Improving heading structure options in the custom components (to ensure pages have the correct heading structures overall)
  • Reduced occurrences of HTML being used to format content
  • Fixing various web component issues, ensuring valid HTML
  • Adjusting hyperlink colours to achieve the required levels of contrast
  • Removed Duplicate HTML IDs and extraneous HTML syntax

These changes (and others) all went live in March 2019. At this point NCC's SiteImprove score increased again, reaching a respectable 73. We were still short of our first objective, but the website was now at least exceeding the industry average of 71.

Throughout 2019 we continued to apply incremental improvements, resolving issues raised both by monitoring tools, and our real-world users. SharePoint itself caused some of the issues along the way, and it is not always easy (or even possible) to fix these issues. Luckily, given our strong background in SharePoint itself, together with the underlying ASP.Net framework, we were able to intervene in a number of ways and bend SharePoint to our needs.

We did it!

By the end of 2019, NCC had met and exceeded that first objective with a SiteImprove score of 85. This exceeded the industry average by 10: an undoubted achievement and NCC was rightly proud of its efforts. They did not stand still though and as of this point (May 2020) the SiteImprove score sits on 89.3. There is still work to be done, and all efforts continue to ensure NCC’s website is fully compliant and providing a great experience for all of its citizens.

Working with Fuse’s development team is always an enjoyable experience. They understand our needs and those of our customers and they always focus on providing the best long-term solution for our requirements, even if it means a lot of exploratory work is needed before we start a project.

Lots has been learned on both sides during our work to improve the accessibility of the NCC website, and this is continuing on an ongoing basis.

There have been many occasions when we didn’t fully understand a particular accessibility requirement and Fuse have translated the need so we knew exactly what was failing and our options to get issues resolved.
We’re very grateful for the support Fuse offer us, often going above and beyond to ensure our customer experience is always improving.

Accessibility is a case of continuous improvement and we have plenty of work still to do, but Fuse’s hard work and diligence has helped to put us in a much better position for the future.

David Bevan, Digital Engagement Officer, Northamptonshire County Council

In summary

Accessibility is such an important consideration on all web-based projects. This project, working alongside NCC, was a real eye-opener and a privilege, getting to see first-hand how users cope with and overcome the challenges they face daily. We try to carry this experience into all projects now, ensuring all of our users can access all of the content and functionality we deliver.

If you have any accessibility challenges, with SharePoint or otherwise, feel free to get in touch.

Lets talk.

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