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https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2021/07/06/making-all-forms-on-gov-uk-accessible-easy-to-use-and-quick-to-process/

Making all forms on GOV.UK accessible, easy to use and quick to process

A GOV.UK search page showing 5,624 services matching the term ‘form’

We want every form on GOV.UK to be accessible, easy to use and quick to process. To make this possible, we’re helping operations teams that run public-facing services with fewer than 10,000 transactions per year to quickly create affordable online forms using a common form-building platform for government.

What problems are we trying to solve?

The GDS strategy has set the ambition to tackle the long tail of inaccessible forms on GOV.UK. Almost all forms on GOV.UK solely use PDFs or other document-based forms, and the number of these forms is growing by roughly 6% every year. These forms are usually inaccessible, hard to use and, on average, 8 minutes slower to process compared to online forms.

Currently, PDFs and other document types are easier to create than online HTML forms, especially for teams without any digital specialists. However, this comes with significant drawbacks.

In particular, PDFs can behave inconsistently with assistive technologies, such as screen readers and magnifiers. They can also be difficult to use on smaller screens. For those interested in more detail around this, we've written previously about why GOV.UK content should be published in HTML and not PDF.

We’ve identified 3 key constraints which will affect our solution to this problem.

Firstly, the majority of these forms are created by small operations teams without dedicated Digital, Data and Technology (DDaT) capability - these teams don’t have the budget to develop HTML forms themselves.

Secondly, the scale of the problem means that the current pace isn’t fast enough - we estimate that it would take the 11 existing form-building service teams around 70 years just to convert existing PDF forms into HTML forms, let alone deal with the 6% annual growth.

Finally, the content designers who manage the specialist guidance and publishing on GOV.UK are already dealing with high workloads - increasing the pace of the current form building process would potentially overwhelm these teams.

For our solution to work within these constraints, it will have to be:

  • affordable to operations teams, so that they can justify using it
  • easy to use, so that operations teams can build forms themselves without needing assistance from DDaT teams
  • closely integrated with GOV.UK publishing workflows, to reduce the impact on publishing teams

What has been done before?

Teams across government have been developing form-building platforms, and the cross-government form-building community was founded to coordinate these teams and avoid duplicating work. This process resulted in the creation of browser-based editors like XGov Digital Form Builder and MOJ Forms, and code-based editors like the GOV.UK Design System Form Builder created by DfE Digital.

These are very capable solutions, and we hope we'll be able to make some use of them. However, they're currently aimed at digital specialists rather than generalist users; we’re aiming our service at teams that don’t necessarily have any specialist digital skills.

There are also some commercial form-builders on the market, but we aren't currently convinced that these are suitable: we want to provide a solution that's accessible for all users, and not prohibitively expensive for small operations teams.

What are we doing now?

Currently, we're building a team - we're in the process of recruiting an interaction designer, a service designer, technical architect, developer and content designer.

We're conducting user research with participants from across government so that we can further investigate how document-based forms come to be published on GOV.UK and where the problems are for users.

We've been reviewing the existing government form builders for accessibility to see what they do well and how we might make use of them.

We're also working out how much time and effort the platform can save service teams, in preparation for the next spending review.

Alongside all of this, we’re working with the cross-government form-building community to define what a good lower-volume form looks like and how we can embed the principles of the Service Standard into our product.

What are we doing next?

Our intention is to start the alpha phase in the coming months. We’re interested in partnering with other government organisations - if you think this platform would be useful in your organisation, we want to speak to you. Similarly, if you work in operations or know someone that does, we’d love you to help test our platform - please email us.

If you want to get involved in defining what a good lower-volume form looks like, you can join the cross-government form-building community - again, you can email us (on a different address!) or if you’re in the public sector, visit the #form-builders channel in the cross-government Slack to find out more.

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9 comments

  1. Comment by Heather Lockley posted on

    Exciting piece of work and so necessary. I'd be interested to know if this work might explore creating a product/tool that allows operational/front-line/non-technical teams to build accessible and secure forms themselves? Operational folk often need to do this, at short notice and can't always get support of digital teams to do so. Rather than the form not getting delivered, what actually happens is people use the tools they have at their disposal (word docs, excel etc) which results in inaccessible products. Google Forms is good for this stuff but not always on the allow-list of departments. Similar potential for increasing delivery through 'no dev effort' forms and flows that BAs can develop too.

    Look forwards to seeing how the work progresses!

    Reply
    • Replies to Heather Lockley>

      Comment by David Biddle - Frontend Developer, GDS posted on

      Thanks for getting in touch. We agree entirely on the need for operations teams to be able to build these forms themselves, so exploring how to achieve this is a priority for us. We’ll be working with operations teams throughout the process to make sure our solution is tailored to their needs.

      Reply
  2. Comment by Huw Pritchard posted on

    Thanks David - I didn't know about Design Third Sector, so I've signed up to their newsletter. I'll also keep an eye out for updates on this post. Huw

    Reply
  3. Comment by Duncan Bayne posted on

    Hi,

    A large majority of the forms that are in PDF format are created and maintained in Microsoft Word, and then saved as PDF prior to being published online.

    Because Word is so commonly used within government and business, most professionals are familiar with, and prefer to use Word for creating form documents.

    You might consider looking at our forms creation software - VF Creator for Word - this extends Microsoft Word, enabling new and existing Word documents to be turned into smart, accessible, HTML forms, that can be presented in a fixed layout matching the word document, or in an accessible, responsive webform layout that can reproduce appearance and behaviour of GDS forms.

    You could eliminate the growing "long-tail" of PDF forms without too much effort, and without numerous admin teams having to change how they work.

    Thanks

    Victoria Forms

    Reply
    • Replies to Duncan Bayne>

      Comment by David Biddle - Frontend Developer, GDS posted on

      Thanks for getting in touch. We’re always looking for useful products to help solve these problems. Once we’ve learnt a bit more about how operations teams create and manage their forms, we should know more about where existing products might help solve these problems.

      Reply
  4. Comment by Kate Upcraft posted on

    Hi I'm the chair of a pan professional group of payroll software developers, accountancy rep bodies, agents and employers. We support millions of interactions with forms across .gov by taxpayers, pensioners and employers. If there is anything we could assist with in terms of input to the project we'd be delighted to invite you to a meeting. We're next together (by zoom) on 7th September
    Best wishes
    Kate

    Reply
  5. Comment by Huw Pritchard posted on

    Although I don't work in government, I'm really interested in this

    I volunteer for a small local charity and volunteers have to complete a couple of forms so they can register with us

    Historically, we've done this with Word docs, I'm sure there's a better way of doing this. One major obstacle is that the form asks for a signature, so for this to happen, there has to be a hard copy, or sticking something in the post, or leaving it for someone to pick up or returning the form to be signed later, or something

    I know there must be a better way , so will be really interested to see how what you write above pans out

    If you have any quick fixes for me (could Google forms help?) please let me know, or suggest a community which might. In the meantime, I'll follow this with interest

    Love your work!

    Reply
    • Replies to Huw Pritchard>

      Comment by David Biddle - Frontend Developer, GDS posted on

      Hi!

      Really good questions, and nice to hear that you’re looking to improve the registration process for your local charity.

      As you mentioned, there are certainly things you could test out with existing forms platforms. There are ways around requiring signatures, such as asking people to confirm they have read a declaration on the last page of the form. You may need to seek advice from a lawyer about this. If the registration process requires a signature, there are also forms platforms that can do online signatures.

      I wonder if any of the folks at Design Third Sector have any interesting case studies from small local charities?

      I hope that helps!

      Reply

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