Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in everyday activities. Whether it’s organizing lunch at a cafe, or planning or opening a new business, it’s essential that people, businesses, and public offices know their federal civil rights law and responsibilities under the ADA—and above all, are able to easily access that information in real time.
ADA.gov is the federal Civil Rights Division’s most visited website with 3.5 million annual visitors and 8 million page views. Given that, the Department of Justice (DOJ) contracted Nava and 18F to redesign ADA.gov with a vital design practice in mind: how can we help make ADA information and regulations easier to find, understand, and share in order to empower diverse groups of people across the nation? Informed by the Disability Rights Section’s (DRS) vision, we learned how to effectively translate goals into action, use modern web design, craft plain language guidelines, and practice inclusive user research in order to create the best and most accessible final product for those who need this resource most.
ADA.gov in real life
Imagine a person with a disability goes to a restaurant with their service dog—a poodle—and they’re told by the restaurant manager that the dog can’t enter because pets aren’t allowed. Even though the person knows their rights under the ADA, the restaurant manager doesn’t believe a poodle can be a service animal and that service animals are only for people who are blind.
The answer to this question wasn’t easy to find on the previous iteration of ADA.gov. “If I’m dealing with an access challenge in the moment, no one is reading an FAQ,” one user told us, “Especially if you’re in a stressful situation.” That’s why ADA.gov empowers users to quickly access and understand their rights/the rights of others in easy to understand language, without the hassle of navigating complex materials.
Launching ADA.gov in Beta
Working with 18F, DOJ released a soft launch of the beta.ADA.gov in June 2021, and initiated a more widespread launch the following month. The initial rollout was discrete, with the purpose of getting user feedback and avoiding overexposure. It was only navigable from specific pages on the site, and wasn’t searchable on search engines.
Goals for the future state of ADA.gov:
Make ADA.gov a highly accessible, user-friendly, and modern website
Empower site visitors to understand their rights and responsibilities under the ADA law
Help make it easier for people to file a complaint with the DOJ if they believe their disability rights have been violated
Focusing on the needs of users, not just technical requirements
DOJ and 18F examined the existing ADA.gov for areas that could be more user-friendly and easier to navigate. The next step was to migrate the existing site as it was over to a new server, and create a product vision with a defined audience and human-centered design principles.
We started by prototyping the most commonly used topic on the site: service animals. The team kicked off a robust process for gathering user feedback by interviewing internal and public stakeholders/users and conducting usability and accessibility testing to figure out how to best serve the primary users.
The primary users of ADA.gov fall into one or more of these groups:
People with disabilities, their family and friends
Business employees, business owners, ADA coordinators, trade organizations
State and local governments, including ADA coordinators, staff-level employees, and program and service managers
Advocates, disability rights attorneys, advocacy groups
Based on the project goals, we wanted to improve the experience for people with disabilities and the business employees and owners who need to create accommodations. We also learned through our research that non-experts sometimes struggle when they use the site to answer questions or solve problems.
Weave in accessibility and representation from the start
Prioritizing accessibility, 18F piloted a program to recruit people with disabilities to test the site. This paved the way for more diverse, accessible, and equitable testing practices. This included text-to-speech (TTS) tests, which ensures that web text can be converted to audio for people with vision impairments, as well as automated and manual accessibility tests. We took great care in making sure the audience was being represented correctly in testing imagery and language, and focused on diversity and accuracy.
For the service animals prototype, we wanted to design content that aligned neatly with the product vision, but we also knew that we couldn’t answer every question. With that in mind, we attempted to write clear and actionable content that would communicate information about the ADA as directly and concretely as possible by using these guidelines:
Plain language guide for common scenarios and topics
Consistent template that can be used across the site to help translate the law to people who need answers
Scannable, clear headlines and a side navigation to jump to a particular section
Accessible icon indicators to help outline definitions, and clear, concrete examples
Building and testing for accessibility
DOJ, 18F, and Nava worked together throughout the accessibility testing process, making sure we prioritized accommodating people with disabilities. The team set up tests so that another person could assist the tester, for example, and offered to do run-throughs ahead of time. We made sure each round included a mix of people, which taught us that some forms of testing don’t work for everyone. We learned that testing visual designs through design software is not inclusive or accessible for people who are blind. So we used methods such as verbally describing the features and functionality to people with visual impairments where participants described to us common issues they encountered with features like dropdown menus. Receiving continuous feedback was a must, so we created multiple feedback channels to collect data and compare over time.
Representation and authenticity matter—especially when it comes to testing. We aimed to use images and language that reflected real diversity in race, ethnicity, age, gender expression, and disability, and illustrate real experiences.
With a keen eye towards accessibility, representation, authenticity, and usability, the team was able to make ADA.gov the reliable resource that so many have hoped for. As one user put it: “This beta site is a vast improvement over the current site. I can actually find what I need and go to it quickly and easily.”
This Insights article is based on a Code for America Summit 2022 presentation produced alongside The Department of Justice and 18F.
Design Lead, Senior Designer/Researcher