UX Lead at Keen Public
Every government organization is keen to ensure that its products and services closely match users’ wants and needs. But how do you do that? Should you focus on digital accessibility or on inclusion? Digital accessibility is the driver of many projects, but once they’re completed it turns out that what the client actually meant was inclusion. In this article, we show the differences and the connections between the terms, so that you can make the right decisions for future projects in good time.
Rapid technological developments are constantly accelerating the pace of digitization, not just in the private sector but increasingly in the public and semi-public sectors. Although digitization brings many services closer to citizens, it also poses new challenges. You’re probably familiar with long checklists that ensure your organization’s websites, mobile applications and other digital services meet accessibility requirements. But where do they come from? And do they matter?
Why are these terms important?
The common goal of digital accessibility and inclusion is to provide the best possible services to all citizens. These services are generally digital and are created to make existing processes run more smoothly. For instance, communication with government bodies. A key consideration is that everyone in society can make use of these services and that no groups are excluded. Take functional illiteracy: in the Netherlands, 2.5 million adults (1 in 5 of the population) have never reached a sufficient level in reading, writing and/or arithmetic to cope with everyday life under equal conditions.
See these figures on lezenenschrijven.nl (in Dutch only)
So a large group of people face challenges, for example when using the Internet. When creating online services you must take this substantial group into account.
Fortunately, technology is keeping up with these trends and there are more and more tools – both hardware and software – available to support groups with a language deficiency or a disability. For example, much hardware is already equipped with screen readers: this software that reads websites out loud is useful for people with low literacy levels and for people with dyslexia or a visual impairment. However, to help these groups use the tools it is important to optimize the digital products for this purpose.
For this reason, a European directive came into force on 22 December 2016 with the aim of improving the accessibility of the digital services of public bodies.
In the Netherlands, this directive has been transposed into the ‘Temporary Decree on Digital Accessibility by the Government’ (in Dutch only). As a result, as of 1 July 2018, government bodies are legally obliged to take this diversity of target groups into account.
What is accessibility?
Accessibility is about every citizen being able to participate in society. In the broadest sense of the word. It’s about the physical accessibility of buildings, so that wheelchair users can get in and out. But also about digital accessibility, so that visually impaired citizens can get around online. Ultimately, accessibility is about everyone being able to use the same services.
What is digital accessibility?
When we narrow the focus further to digital products, we arrive at the term digital accessibility: what we mean here is optimizing the accessibility of digital products. With the emphasis on technical optimization to ensure that people can use the support software mentioned earlier.
The visually impaired are the biggest target user group for this support software. In the Netherlands, the requirements are set out in the ‘Temporary Decree on Digital Accessibility by the Government’. They cover such things as agreements on contrast, how to navigate a website with a keyboard, and the so-called alt text function that describes what is shown on a picture. Digital accessibility is easy to measure. An extensive technical checklist is available to test digital products. When a website meets these requirements, it is awarded an ‘easy access’ quality standard known as the ‘Waarmerk Drempelvrij’.
Figure Waarmerk Drempelvrij
What is inclusion?
Inclusion goes one step further than digital accessibility. What inclusion means is: taking account of the diversity of target groups when designing a service. The result could be a service consisting of different channels that serve all groups in society.
Because even if a digital product is considered accessible according to the guidelines, that doesn’t automatically make it inclusive for all other target groups as well. When an organization chooses to provide a digital product, is excludes some parts of society from the outset: namely the group of citizens with less-developed digital skills. For a service to be inclusive, it must be provided through various channels.
For three and a half years I was responsible for the User Experience (UX) of the Dutch government website, MijnOverheid.nl. In this period I had the opportunity to deploy the many facets of my field of expertise, including making the website accessible. Once the MijnOverheid product was accessible, it became clear that the service‘ communication with the government’ had not been thought through from an inclusion perspective.
MijnOverheid contains a digital Message Box where citizens receive ‘post’ from the government digitally; it’s a great service alongside the physical post the government sends. When the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration indicated that it would stop sending information by post in its trademark ‘blue envelopes’ and would only communicate digitally via the Message Box, it had quite an impact. In a critical report the Dutch National Ombudsman wrote that the Tax and Customs Administration “… has not taken account of the interests of people who are digitally illiterate.” Read more about the report ‘Het verdwijnen van de blauwe envelop’ of the National Ombudsman. (in Dutch only)
What happened here is that the Tax and Customs Administration’s decision to use the Message Box digital product exclusively to replace communication by post left a large group of people out in the cold. Seniors are usually the first group that springs to mind, since their generation wasn’t brought up in the digital era. But this issue goes far beyond the older generation: in the Netherlands, no less than 6% (almost 886,000) of people over the age of 12 indicate that they have never used Internet.
View the Statistics Netherlands (CBS) figures.
In other words, while the Message Box product was accessible, it excluded some groups in society. As a result, the service ‘communication with the government’ was not inclusive.
Why design for inclusion?
Designing for inclusion means a different mindset. When you put diversity at the heart of your design process, your solution will ultimately serve a larger group of people. Designing for inclusion helps you focus on the right things. So instead of automatically opting for a digital solution, you can devise many other solutions to the same problem early in the process. A combination of physical and digital solutions will ensure more inclusive service provision.
The great thing about designing for inclusion is that this often improves the quality of the service. For example, shorter sentences, B1 language and use of pictures can help make texts more understandable for people with functional illiteracy. If this target group understands the text, other target groups will also benefit. The less effort it takes to understand something, the better the experience. This applies to everyone.
Designing for inclusion does not necessarily take longer, provided you incorporate it into the design process at an early stage. It really is a different mindset.
Which concept of digital accessibility is relevant to your organization?
In order for services to closely match the needs of society as a whole, it is important to focus on more than just digital accessibility. It saves a lot of time and money if you design for inclusion from the outset. You then serve a broader target group with better solutions.
If you are only going to be working on a digital product, it’s fine to focus on digital accessibility. But if you are developing a service, or if your product is part of a service, then your organization would do well to incorporate inclusion in the design process.
Keep in mind that a digital solution is not necessarily the best solution for the problems you want to address. No matter how accessible a digital service may be, by definition it is not inclusive, because it excludes people who are digitally illiterate.
For more information on inclusion or how to design for inclusion take a look at our services on Keen Public.