How we approached designing a truly accessible service.
In 2018, Jerry Brown, then out-going governor of California, signed legislation that opened up CalFresh (food stamps) to over 500,000 low-income seniors and people with disabilities.
When the State of California asked us to provide the official online service for CalFresh enrollment, we wanted to ensure that our service, GetCalFresh, would be ready to receive the influx of newly eligible applicants. We knew our clients’ access to food depended on our ability to get it right.
The services don’t come to you. You gotta go to them.
- Sacramento resident
All too often, it’s easy to be caught up in “accessibility theater” — that is, meeting a general checklist of accessibility criteria without really understanding if it holds up for the people in real life. To ensure GetCalFresh was truly accessible, we took an approach that we think is key to doing anything well:
- Take time to develop true care and understanding
- Embed learnings in both your work and culture
- Never consider the work done
Taking time to develop true care and understanding
For a value as important as accessibility, we did not believe any single method could help us to develop a full understanding. We approached our learning through three separate efforts: learning for ourselves, learning from others, and early prototyping.
My biggest expense is rent. I pay $700 in rent. I get $950 in income.
- Culver City resident
Learning for ourselves
We approached this project as we do for all our projects at Code for America — start with your user and their needs. We sought to answer some basic questions. Who were the people we would be helping? What are their lives actually like? What would it mean for them to successfully apply for CalFresh?
We had a team of three talented user researchers and two data scientists who led a discovery research effort.
- Data analysis: We started with a review of demographic data to make sure we were addressing the right populations.
- User research: Based on that data, we conducted interviews with dozens of people living on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) across the state.
- Community engagement: We established regular communication with community and government partners so that we were plugged into the conversation.
Learning from others
It’s also important to recognize when to build on work of others. In addition to conducing primary research, we sought guidance from the established community of practice around accessibility.
- We conducted an accessibility audit with a non-profit organization called Knowbility. We picked them because of their mission alignment and because they had people with disabilities as part of their team.
- We reviewed accessibility guidelines from other well-respected organizations such as W3C, GDS, and 18F.
- We attended a local talks to learn from the best of Silicon Valley including Google and Lyft.
Accessibility wasn’t a new concept for many of us at Code for America. Even before we got deep into research, we already had many ideas of what we could do to improve our service.
As we conducted early research, we took that opportunity to understand their ability to use our application. We had ideation sessions early and brought prototypes out with us.
I help her financially. Shopping, heavy lifting, I cook for her… I started to help her at a young age. She’s my mom so…
- Los Angeles resident
Embedding learnings in both our work and culture
What we learned
By the end of our research phase, we felt like like we had a reasonable grasp what we were working with.
A lot of our work was catching up to speed with the larger community of practice. We learned the difference between situational, temporary, or permanent disabilities and how accessibility benefits everyone. We learned the well-understood norms of how to make a product that accessible to this with visual or physical impairments.
We also developed some insights that very few people talk about. For example, we saw first-hand the challenges that people with cognitive disabilities face — and how little we as a design community knew about how to help them. We also learned not to assume familiarity with basic mobile norms such as expanding accordions and scrolling, especially for older adults.
A simple yet valuable insight we had was that that seniors and people with disabilities do not exist in a vacuum. More often than not, you’ll find a wide network of helpers who assist them with their needs. This could be an adult child or sibling who cares for and represents them, an IHSS (In Home Supportive Services) worker who helps their perform daily activities, or the lobbyist at the senior home that connect them with services.
True accessibility means making services accessible to the people who care for them.
Making accessibility a part of our culture
We had clear improvements to make on GetCalFresh but we also wanted to make sure that our learnings were not lost to the broader organization. In additional to improvements to our product, we made sure to embed the learnings into our operations and culture so that future features and products could benefit from our work.
- We made sure everyone on the team had the opportunity to join in on research and usability testing to see the people we were helping first hand. There is no substitute for this.
- We created a set of accessibility standards that gave clear metrics for measurement as well as examples of why a particular standard was important for a real user.
- We incorporated broader changes into our design system so that any accessible visual or code changes would be embedded any time a pattern was used in the future.
- We installed browser plug-ins like WAVE and Sketch plug-ins like Stark Contrast Checker to make sure we were designing and developing to guidelines.
- We incorporated testing suites and practices during implementation and story acceptance to make sure that future development work met basic accessibility needs.
- We set up office installations and and presented research to the broader organization to help others understand the lived experiences of low-income seniors and adults with disabilities.
Never considering our work done.
On June 1st, 2019, CalFresh opened up to the 1.3 million people who lived on Supplementary Security Income in California. Our service experienced a five-fold increase in the number of applications coming in that week. As of August 2019, we have helped over 200,000 SSI recipients apply for CalFresh. Our rate of completion and satisfaction remain steady.
Over the last few months, we have developed a much deeper understanding of accessibility at Code for America. We have helped others in the organization understand why accessibility is important in the real world and made it easier incorporate accessibility into their work.
Of course, our work remains unfinished. The last key point to doing accessibility well is to remember that your work is never done. Even at this moment, we are continuing to evaluate the effectiveness of our work through surveys and continued usability testing. We have a long way to go to get our copywriting down to a 5th grade reading level. We plan on deepening our understanding of true accessibility by partnering with Lighthouse Labs and working directly with more people who are vision-impaired. Our understanding of how to better serve and collect feedback from people with cognitive disabilities is still painfully low.
As is often repeated, we must remember that design is a verb, not a noun. There will always be new additional challenges to tackle and biases to uncover. We are excited to keep our users at the center and push the envelope for what it means to be truly accessible.