How GDS is making digital forms more accessible

It is estimated that there are almost 8500 document-based forms on GOV.UK, many of which are not fully accessible - but a new tool has been developed by the Government Digital Service (GDS) that will enable government organisations to streamline the creation of accessible digital forms.

Iain Boyd“All departments want help in creating better forms and more accessible forms; this is something that government really needs,” Iain Boyd, Engagement Lead at Government Digital Service, tells Government Transformation Magazine.

Inaccessibility arises either because users with certain disabilities are unable to fill out a form, or because of other access needs, e.g they don’t have certain software, access to a computer or the confidence to use one. This can also apply to form processors in departments, as well as form submitters. 

“Many of these document-based forms are seeing less than 10,000 users every year, and because of that low user rate they’re not getting the attention or the resources from the specialist DDaT teams in their department’s teams that they need in order to be improved,” explains Adam Robertson, Senior Product Manager at Government Digital Service.

In an effort to change the way government organisations collect and process information, the GDS has begun building GOV.UK Forms, an online tool that allows government teams to build and create their own digital forms in minutes.

Since 2020, GOV.UK Forms team has been working closely with colleagues across government departments in the development of the platform, which is expected to be open and available to all departments across central government sometime in 2023.

Addressing the accessibility challenge

Key to the success of GOV.UK Forms is ensuring that the service is used by the people it is intended for. One of the core strengths of the platform is that it allows anyone in the Civil Service to be able to build forms with ease - not just those with a technology or coding background. This is a key consideration for smaller government teams that may lack the capacity and capability to redesign digital services.

“It was clear that we needed to make a tool that can help people working in government to create digital forms that are accessible, and the tool itself also needs to be accessible. We also needed to provide a tool that can be used by people working in government teams who may themselves have a disability.” Boyd says.

GDS have carried out extensive user research to better understand and meet a variety of accessibility needs for different neurological conditions or visual impairments. This work is ongoing with the team conducting regular accessibility research.

Common components from the GOV.UK Design System that have been rigorously tested over the years to ensure that they are accessible to all users were also used to create the platform. “So far, pretty much everyone who we tested it out on has been able to create a form using the tool,” Robertson says.

It is important to note that the aim of the platform is not to make everything digital, but to improve user experience, Boyd explains: “Not everybody is online so having digital forms isn’t something that we’re aiming for in 100% of cases. Around 8% of people in the UK are either not online or don’t have access to email so we have to make sure that we are providing services that everybody can use.”

Pushing for best practice

One of the key obstacles that the GDS team is currently tackling is the lack of consistency in government when it comes to what a good form looks like. The team is currently exploring ways that they can give civil servants the tools they need to enable best practice and make it easy to create online, accessible forms. One area that GDS is currently looking to support best practice is autofill - a function that will allow the end user to move on to the next question as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

Boyd says that, although the team won’t be able to help with the design of every form that will be published, they’re discussing publishing examples of good form design or even video tutorials on the GOV.UK Forms product pages.

However, Boyd insists that the tool itself is going to be the most effective way of helping people to build better forms, “just by the way that it’s designed using standard patterns and components… for example, having a one question per page format and having buttons that help users to navigate through forms.”

Opening the platform to all

GOV.UK Forms is currently in private beta, where it is being tested by a handful of beta partners across government. This phase of the process is an important part of building a service to test that the features are working, that the platform is stable and to better understand user needs.

It is important that GDS doesn’t rush this stage, Boyd says. “We need to do it right and make sure we’ve got all the building blocks before we can move on to building more complex features.”Adam Robertson

The worst thing that can happen is for the platform to open too soon, Roberston adds. “If certain features for large amounts of forms are not available then users may not find the platform useful and our biggest chance to get these departments on board is gone. We’re trying to tread carefully with private beta and make sure that everything is ready.”

Positive progress with first form published

GOV.UK has already published its first digital form in partnership with the Redundancy Payments Service (RPS) team in the Insolvency Service.

The digital form was created in less than 30 minutes and is understood to help those who have made a redundancy claim to update their details about their holiday pay accrued. It will also allow the Insolvency Team to process the form faster and speed up payment to the claimant, GDS wrote in a blog, announcing the “major milestone” moment last year. 

Since then, the platform has received a “huge amount of interest” from government organisations in the UK and globally, including in the US, New Zealand and Chile, Boyd says.

The team is anticipating a surge of onboarding from different departments once the platform is this year. 

Going forward, there is potential for the platform to act as a gateway into digital services on GOV.UK, Robertson adds. “Smaller teams may see how valuable it is for certain processes to go online and for users to see it, which may then lead them working with their DDaT teams to expand the reach or the benefit for users."

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