We worked with the Parliamentary Digital Service to improve accessibility and user experience on the Parliamentary research services websites.
About the client
The Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) works with the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Parliament staff on their IT and digital needs. It is important that everyone can access and understand what’s going on in Parliament. Their goal is to bring together the public, Members of Parliament, and Parliamentary staff to inform, engage, support, and communicate through one, unified digital core – PDS.
About the project
The UK Parliament research services websites publish politically impartial research, from topical articles and in-depth briefings to interactive data dashboards and podcasts. They comprise three websites:
- House of Commons Library
- House of Lords Library
- POST (the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology)
With the move to working at home since the pandemic, the sites have become essential for MPs, Members of the Lords and their staff to carry out their business and access briefings for topics being debated in the House of Commons and House of Lords, as well as topical briefings on current issues and scientific research.
PDS wanted to update each Research Briefing website as follows:
- Rebuild the front-end to meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 AA standards.
- Update the design to bring it in line with the Parliament Digital Design System, while retaining the brand identity of each research service.
- Improve the site Information Architecture (IA) to help users find the articles they need quickly and easily.
- Make the site easier to maintain.
On 23rd September 2020, there was a change to the law regarding accessibility for public sector websites (read our blog post for further information). It was imperative that the research services websites met the new accessibility standards on time. The WordPress theme being used by PDS could not be adapted to make it accessible.
- We built a new theme using best practices for accessibility and delivered it in early September 2020, in time for the change to the law.
- We had several rounds of accessibility assessments and iterations during the user acceptance testing phase, using Parliament’s automated testing tool. By doing this we were able to address issues incrementally.
- We worked closely with the client to advise them on content changes needed to improve their accessibility score.
The websites had to achieve a minimum score for accessibility, set in line with Parliament’s standards and measured by an automated accessibility tool procured by Parliament. The websites now achieve the required scores, often exceeding them.
Updating the design
The Parliamentary Digital Design System provided the basic elements. We had to build on these basic elements by designing new elements in keeping with the current system. Within the overall design system, we also had to give each site a unique identity. An additional challenge was to bring users’ attention to the availability of downloads for Research Briefings, so they can take content away to read or share at leisure. We had to do all this within a very tight budget.
- We created designs for key pages only. These were reviewed by the Digital Design System owner, site owners, and brand guardians.
- We designed all the components required as separate elements and tested how they worked together in-browser.
- We created a pattern library of templates and components for the front-end which could be integrated into the Content Management System (CMS) as required. It also allowed us to do early browser and device testing using the pattern library, rather than having to wait for a fully complete site.
- We improved the prominence of research briefing downloads in the design, and this resulted in a significant increase since the redesign.
Improving Information Architecture (IA)
The sites are used by a range of people from specialist researchers to the general public. Most visitors to the site are new and do not enter the site via the home page. As there is a wide range of topics that can be browsed, we needed to find a way to allow both power users and new visitors to find relevant content. Changes to site search were outside the scope of the project, so we needed to make the IA spot-on to help users to find content.
- We recommended a simple, flat navigation structure to lead users through site topics. All traffic is directed to the Research Landing Page so users can browse topics and publication types.
- All information pages are cross-linked to other relevant content to allow users to continue their journey. The ‘related content’ component was coded to allow site editors to have maximum control over what appears – it can be dynamic content related by topic or publication type, or content can be pinned.
- We brought the newsletter signup into the main navigation to give it more prominence.
- We turned the footer navigation into an area for power users, directing them straight to listing pages for topics.
- We redesigned the ‘download’ section on briefings to give it more prominence.
Since launch, feedback from power users is that the new IA has been much easier for them to navigate content and find information quickly.
Easier site maintenance
To make the research services sites easier to maintain and keep secure, while cutting support costs.
- Improving the site performance has reduced the strain on the server, which has made the site more resilient to higher traffic.
- By reducing reliance on plugins, there is less regular work required to keep the site up to date with the latest version of WordPress and Plugins.
- By rebuilding the sites as a multi-site, it has enabled us to streamline maintenance of the three sites. Previously each site was managed as a separate WordPress install. Now we manage one WordPress install with three microsites, each sharing the same parent design theme. This resulted in faster development time and cheaper long-term maintenance costs.