Access all areas – inside GDS’s accessibility empathy lab

The digital agency is aiming to raise awareness of the issues faced by many citizens and ensure that their physical or cognitive conditions are no barrier to using government’s online services. PublicTechnology went along to find out more.


Credit for all pictures: Crown Copyright/Open Government Licence

There can be few more frequent users of the government’s online services than Claudia, Ashleigh, Ron, Chris, Pawel, Simone, and Saleem. 

But, although they all share an enthusiasm for GOV.UK, this septet appear to have little else in common. 

Pawel is a 24-year-old chemistry graduate, while retired Ron is in his 80s. Saleem, aged 22, is currently unemployed, and 54-year-old Claudia is a social worker.

The seven are united by one key similarity: none of them really exist.

They were created as example user “personas” by the Government Digital Service’s accessibility team. 

The team was founded in 2016 to ensure that the services, tools and reusable components developed by the agency can be easily used by as many people as possible – regardless of any physical or cognitive conditions by which they are affected. 

“That website you created that looks beautiful, and is really funky and flashy – that’s great, but that might not work for everyone”

This involves testing functionality with a range of assistive technologies. The work of the accessibility team was boosted by GDS’s 2017 move to the White Chapel Building in east London. The new digs prompted the creation of a dedicated “accessibility empathy lab”.

Where once the team – led by head of accessibility Richard Morton – had to manage with just “a couple of Windows laptops”, the new facility now offers a wide range of computing platforms and all the most commonly used pieces of assistive tech. This includes screen readers and magnification devices, voice-recognition and activation tools, and 10 different pairs of glasses designed to simulate varying conditions and degrees of sight loss. Also on hand are sound-blocking headphones and switch devices for keyboard-only access, as well as a range of laptops, tablets, and phones running on Windows, Android, Chrome, MacOS and iOS.

Users of the accessibility empathy lab can also log in as one of the seven personas – each of whom suffers from one or more conditions, the effect of which is simulated by the appearance and functionality of services.

The facility is available for developers from GDS and the rest of government to conduct testing. 

But, more than this, Morton says that its remit is to raise awareness of accessibility issues

“I want people to see that we need to consider the whole range of human capability,” he says. “Not everyone has good vision; not everyone has good hearing; not everyone has good fine motor control. It’s a whole range. And it isn’t just about disabilities – it can be temporary, it can be situational. It can be someone working on a train and trying to access a website. So, it’s about making people think about that website you created that looks beautiful, and is really funky and flashy – that’s great, but that might not work for everyone.”

‘The right thing to do’
There are, according to Morton, three main reasons why government should make its services accessible – the first of which is that, since the introduction of new regulations in 2018, newly built public sector websites are legally required to adhere to international accessibility standards. Sites created before the law was brought in have until September 2020 to become compliant.

The second, and more important reason, is that it is “the right thing to do”.

The international standard with which public sector websites must now comply

The shade of very dark grey used on GOV.UK. Black – #000000 – is not used as it creates too high a level of contrast

23 September 2020
Date by which existing websites must achieve compliance – new websites are already required to comply

Proportion of local government websites that are not fully accessible, according to a 2018 survey from Socitm

“Also, from just a purely business point of view, it makes sense to make things work for people as independently as possible,” Morton says. “If someone struggles to access your information, they are going to end up ringing up a support centre, or having to go to a face-to-face meeting at a Jobcentre or Citizens Advice Bureau. All of which are really important services, but you want to minimise the amount you have to spend on those – you want to provide those for the people who really need them; there are some people who can’t use digital services at all. But what we’re trying to do is to make sure that, for those who can, it’s possible to do so.”

To help promote better understanding of accessibility issues and requirements, Morton leads training sessions for public sector workers, and government departments and others can also book themselves in for an introductory session at the accessibility empathy lab.

Since September 2018, about 400 people have undertaken the training run by Morton, and more than 500 civil servants and representatives from the wider public sector have visited the testing facility and been shown its workings.

But, given the thousands of people employed across government in service design and development roles, “it does still feel like we’re just scratching the surface”, Morton says.

Particularly when misconceptions about disability and accessibility remain prevalent.

“It surprises me that many people aren’t aware that a completely blind person can use a phone without seeing it or without having a keyboard on it – they can do it all by touch, voice, and listening,” he says. “Sometimes it’s that level of understanding [that we help with]. But, more often, it’s more nuanced than that. If you look at, say, a zoomed-in page and you can only see a small area of the screen – a few words, maybe – it’s about understanding that maybe this information is too complex, and maybe there’s too much space between items and it’s difficult to find things… it can be very difficult to cognitively understand what you’re filling in on a form if you can’t see it all in one place.”

Adopting a persona
The personas – all of which can be downloaded and installed from online coding repository GitHub – offer a snapshot of the challenges faced by users with accessibility issues. Each persona comes with two suggested tasks to complete, such as filling out a form or locating a certain piece of information. They also enable users to try out these scenarios on two different versions of a GOV.UK webpage: one that allows users to experience an approximation of the problems that persona might face and another in which fixes have been applied to help make things easier.

During our visit to the accessibility empathy lab, PublicTechnology logs in as Chris, a 53-year-old management accountant whose rheumatoid arthritis limits him to using only the keyboard – and not the trackpad or mouse – to navigate online.

The purpose of the personas swiftly becomes apparent when we realise we have no idea how to do this. 

Having been pointed towards the tab key – which, we now know, highlights and toggles through all the links on a webpage – the next thing we realise is just how much longer and more difficult this process is.

We then try out the persona of Ron, whose cataracts and arthritis cause difficulties in both reading text and navigation. The challenges resulting from Simone’s dyslexia, meanwhile, are simulated (pictured left) by letters that shift and jump around, making words much harder to decipher. Pawel’s Asperger’s syndrome and anxiety are represented by pop-ups that mimic stressful distractions and intrusive thoughts.

Morton acknowledges that the best way to ensure a service’s accessibility is for people with disabilities to be involved in its testing – or, better yet, its design.

But using the personas and tools like the visual-impairment glasses is “a good compromise” that allows the accessibility empathy lab to run as many as 10 introductory sessions each week.

“We’re not saying this is like the actual experience – but it will give you a bit of an idea of why services can be difficult to use,” he says.

Problem PDFs
The GDS accessibility team currently consists of about 10 people across a range of disciplines. But this number will grow as, from next year, the agency begins monitoring and reporting data on the accessibility of public-sector websites.

Morton identifies several ambitions for the coming months, one of which is to install “a mini-empathy lab” in the main reception of the GDS office. With many people arriving for meetings or interviews each day, encouraging them to spend a few minutes using a laptop to explore accessibility issues would be an easy way to spread awareness, he says.

Another key objective is to build on the success GDS has achieved in making citizen services more accessible and replicate this work for internal tools for civil servants.

“That comes down to making sure that all the services we procure are fully accessible, as far as possible, as well as the ones we build internally,” Morton says.  “And then the other aspect of that is document accessibility, which is a big issue. PDFs, in particular, are very prevalent across government, and particularly across the local authorities; thousands of new PDFs are produced each month, and there’s a whole mountain of existing PDFs. We need to try and tackle that.”

According to Morton, there is “a distinct lack of knowledge and awareness across the public sector” regarding why the use of PDFs poses an accessibility problem.

“It surprises me that many people aren’t aware that a completely blind person can use a phone without seeing it or without having a keyboard on it – they can do it all by touch, voice, and listening”

“Because they are designed as a print format, they don’t tend to have the built-in structure that can be understood by assistive technologies. You don’t have built-in headings, or bullet points,” he says. “There can also be issues with reading order; because it’s a graphical format, you can move things around on the page easily in Acrobat, and that’s great as a design thing. But that means, when you read it out using a screen reader, it can be in the wrong order. That might just be an inconvenience, but it might mean you don’t understand the content. They’re also a lot harder from an interactive point of view – particularly for PDFs with form controls.”

Foremost among Morton’s goals is to encourage other public sector entities to develop their own accessibility testing capability.

Some of the bigger government departments have already created their own accessibility teams. But, even for those that lack the resources to dedicate employees exclusively to this area, there are easy and inexpensive ways to establish a testing environment.

“You don’t need a big area, you don’t need half a dozen laptops and thousands of pounds worth of software,” Morton says. “Most people have a laptop lying around that they’re not using. They have built-in assistive technologies – there are free versions of most of that software, and you can use those.”

He adds: “We use Chromebooks, as they are not a particularly expensive technology – you can get one for £200-300. The software on it is all free, and the plug-ins and things we create are all free. We know some [other organisations] have done this and have made progress.”

The personas are all open source and available online, as are the posters that adorn the GDS accessibility empathy lab, outlining key considerations, guidance, and statistics.

“Through the accessibility blogs we’ve also given instructions on how you can set this sort of thing up,” Morton says. “It doesn’t require a great deal of technical knowledge. You might need someone who’s reasonably technically savvy, but it doesn’t need a developer.

“We’ve hopefully given people a bit of a kickstart – we try to make it as simple as possible.” 


To find out more about accessibility and what the new regulations mean for the public sector, click here to visit

Sam Trendall

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