Creating a Boston.gov that works for everyone


Unlike the private sector, where companies serve specific audiences and customers, the City’s website needs to serve everyone. For that reason, from the start of our work on Boston.gov we’ve been focused on accessibility.

BEFORE THE LAUNCH

What does accessibility mean, exactly? Well, first off, we want you to be able to read and understand our content. That means using plain language. Information should also be available wherever you are, so our layouts are mobile friendly. We’re also working to reduce the size of our pages so they use less of your data plan to download our content.

That said, a big part of accessibility means making sure people who use assistive technology — like screen reader programs that read the text on a webpage out loud — can easily find information and get things done on Boston.gov. While building the new Boston.gov, we conducted accessibility tests (with tools like this) and also met with members of the City’s Disabilities Commission to discuss their needs for the website. Some of the early issues we found and fixed included:

  • Contrast issues: The text on early versions of the website was really hard to read against our white background. We made the text a darker color.
  • Menu updates: During development, we realized that our menu wasn’t keyboard accessible, making it impossible to use for people who rely on screen readers. We made this fix even before we launched our pilot in January.
  • Making certain fields mandatory: In Drupal, the system we use to manage the content on the website, we found out that the specific content input fields needed for screen readers were not required. Screen readers rely on these fields, like alt text, as a text-based alternative to an image. We decided to make them mandatory for anyone entering content on the site.

AFTER THE LAUNCH

We learned a lot from our pilot, but we still weren’t perfect at launch, as a number of our blind users, including Bruce Howell of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, noted. Since accessibility has been a priority of ours, we took the early feedback seriously and chose to improve accessibility before anything else after our launch.

Based on user feedback on our pilot site, we darkened the body copy to make it easier to read. Users still felt it wasn’t dark enough when we launched in July, so we made it even darker to create more contrast.

We also needed to improve our search. As the most voted for item on our roadmap after our pilot launch in January, we knew how important it was to allow users to navigate to our search using their keyboards. When we launched, there was no way for you to get to the search bar using the keyboard. After our recent update, people using screen readers or keyboards for navigation now have the ability to search the site.

WE STILL MADE MISTAKES

In the interest of transparency, the first version of this post had another paragraph about how we added descriptive title tags to certain “Send an email” buttons. We assumed that these title tags would make the information clearer for people using screen readers. It turns out, we were wrong.

As we revised and checked our work, we saw this article about how title tags seem helpful for screen readers, but most of the time aren’t even read by them. We dove into the details and decided to create invisible text and aria labels to fix our mistake. We’re hoping that this small but significant change will save residents who use screen readers a lot of frustration.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

We’re working to meet AA compliance (which includes A compliance) based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines from the organization that sets web standards. By meeting that AA compliance, we’re putting ourselves leaps and bounds ahead of where we were on the old City of Boston website. It also puts us in the top tier for accessibility among government websites. Where we can, we’re striving to meet AAA compliance, which would make us one of the most accessible websites on the Internet.

The work we’ve done so far on accessibility doesn’t end here. We’ll be pushing updates and changes as we continue to build out Boston.gov to make sure we’re creating a website for everyone.

If you are struggling to access information on our site, or have ideas on how we could improve, please email us at feedback@boston.gov. You can also just click the Feedback button in the top right corner of every webpage.

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