User testing with Darlington Borough Council

Darlington Borough Council logo

Darlington Borough Council had been working towards making its website as accessible as possible for the Public Sector Bodies Accessibility Regulations (PSBAR) standards deadline in September 2020, when it was selected to be part of the Cabinet Office accessibility pilot.

The Cabinet Office report flagged issues that had not previously been surfaced by the Council's automated accessibility testing. 

The Council was already aware of the limitations of automated accessibility testing and had started taking steps to bring in some support to carry out real user testing. Following a procurement exercise AbilityNet was commissioned to do this. 

The Council had been mainly using automated tools that would scan the entire Darlington Borough Council site for accessibility issues, and the results would mainly list technical issues with the site's coding, rather than issues that users may come across. 

"We decided that it would be a good idea to get some more manual testing done to see if there were any other issues we had missed," says Chris Smith, Web Manager, Darlington Borough Council.

"We had a very positive experience with AbilityNet, from the initial tendering stage through to the final report and sign-off."
Chris Smith
Web Manager, Darlington Borough Council

Working with AbilityNet on user testing

"What worked well for us as a small authority with a small budget was the tailored package we could put together. We knew our automated testing was already pretty good so we could focus on user testing," says Chris.

The tests themselves were split over two days and the Council team was able to watch the tests take place remotely.

"This was invaluable for our team to see how real people with disabilities interact with our site. It helped us understand how things we take for granted can be a real issue for others. It also helped to highlight that although we’d spent a lot of time already fixing the technical issues with the site, many of the problems that the testers found were with the content rather than the templates," explains Chris.

Identifying real-life issues to overcome

Darlington Town Centre Photo credit Peter Giroux

Watching the testers going through their tasks highlighted some of the issues our automated testing didn’t pick up. For example, alt text that had been used was sometimes not useful, and some addresses were only available via a layer on an integrated map.

"It also highlighted how screen reader users rely on consistent tabbing sequences to find their way around, so when they go to an external service that has been skinned to look like the main website it can be confusing as the core navigation is different," says Chris.

Conducting regular testing

Many of the issues on the Darlington Borough Council site were fairly straightforward to fix (as they involved minor mark-up and styling changes), and any issues with external systems have now been passed onto the providers to resolve.

"We still have a lot of work ahead of us but what we’ve learnt so far will certainly help us get to where we want to be. Accessibility is one of the key things we test for when we’re building new features," he continues.

The team also plans to take snippets from the recorded tests and integrate them into its training for the site's content editors, so that they can see the real impact their choices have.

"Accessibility is one of the key things we test for when we’re building new features."
Chris Smith
Web Manager, Darlington Borough Council.

Suggestions for others

The team decided to test the Council website's most popular four or five services first and found that a really helpful approach.

"Between them they covered a good mix of content, custom code and 3rd party applications. What we learnt from this would help us know what to look for across the rest of the site," says Chris. "We targeted issues that affected a lot of pages first as the prior automated testing had picked up most of the critical issues that could stop someone accessing a service. We added the issues to a Kanban board. It was quite motivating seeing them moving from ‘doing’ to ‘done’ to ‘deployed’," he concludes.

Speak to our experts

AbilityNet offers tailored accessibility and usability support to clients from all sectors, including further and higher education accessibility support packages.

Speak to our experts about your project and we will advise on a bespoke accessibility strategy to meet your specific requirements.

Photo credit: Peter Giroux