COVID-19 forced the government to operate much faster than usual. New benefits were designed and developed in record time, to support people during the pandemic.

Across government, it was clear that we need to work together so that everyone who needs these new programs can find, understand, and use them. That includes people with physical or cognitive disabilities.

Usability testing with assistive technology users

To support this work, the Digital Transformation Office (DTO) conducted dozens of usability tests. Usability testing can help find problems that might affect many people. They are a key part of our toolkit in improving digital services.

One of the studies the DTO ran assessed the accessibility of some new Canada.ca designs that are being used for certain key COVID-19 pages and programs. The study focused on people who use screen readers or magnifiers to navigate the web. We wanted to make sure people could use these technologies to get to and understand specific content. In this study, we focused on the following pages, as they used the design patterns we wanted to test:

Just like testing on both mobile devices and desktop, it’s important to know how people using assistive technology use a website. Screen readers convert a web page to spoken text or braille. A screen magnifier lets you zoom in close to text to make it easier to read. Both technologies require different ways of navigating websites from what many content designers and authors are familiar with.

Watch some participants navigate Canada.ca using assistive technology:

Transcript: Navigation strategies of assistive technology users

Title: Some assistive technology navigation strategies on Canada.ca - May 2020

Sub-title: Participant ARCA-03 - JAWS user - Financial support from the Canada.ca homepage

(A screen capture of the Canada.ca homepage. We zoom in to see a window open above the page with the title "Links List". A list of links appears in the window, each link being highlighted as the participant says out loud what they are.)

Participant 1: Now I can't use "Skip to main content", Idon't really quite know what's therefirst so we'll have to have a look and see.

(Caption: Navigating by exploring the list of links on the page)

Okay let's see, I see "Public pensions","Get a passport"... Ah! Okay

("Coronavirus (COVID-19)" is highlighted)

Coronavirus - now there might besomething there. You're talking aboutsomeone who's been laid off, so theremight be something there. We'll come backto that in a minute.

("Get the support you need" is highlighted.)

So I'm going to start with "Get thesupport you need" and see if it hasanything that looks like at least a goodplace to start. So I'll go there.

Moderator: OK

(Zooms out to show the page change to the Economic Response Plan.)

Sub-title: Participant ARCA-02 - JAWS user - Financial support from the Economic Response Plan

(Screen shot of a page entitled, "Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan". A box moves down the page, highlighting different elements while a robotic voice (the screen reader) reads what's there.)

Screen reader: Get the support you need. Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan dash Canada.ca. Language selection, heading level -

(The box highlights the page title, then continues down the page).

Canada's COVID-19 Economic Response Plan - Heading level 1. The Government of Canada is taking immediate,significant, decisive action to supportCanadians and businesses facinghardship as a result of the globalCOVID-19 outbreak.

Caption: Navigating by page element

Heading level 2 - On this pageList with 3 itemsBullet, same page link - Support for individuals. Bullet, same page link - Support for businesses. Bullet, same page link - Support for sectors. List end. Participant 2: I'm going to go to individuals,Support for individuals.

It shouldn't be going too fast,I'm an actual slow JAWS reader, compared to some.

(The selection box moves back up to the "Support for individuals" heading to the "Support for individuals" link)

Screen reader: Heading level 2 - Support for individuals. Heading level 3 - Individuals and families. List with 5 items. Temporary wage top-up for low-income essential workers

Participant 2: Low-income essential… he's not anessential worker is he? Didn't say in the instructions.

Screen reader: (Unintelligible).

(Selection moves down the other items in the list - Increasing the Canada Child Benefit, Special Goods and Services Tax credit payment, Extra time to file income tax returns, Mortgage payment deferral, then moves to a heading "People facing loss of income").

Heading level 3 - People facing loss of incomeParticipant 2: Ah!

Screen reader: List with 1 item. Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) - button collapsed. Heading level 3 - Indigenous peoples.

(Selection moves from the "Indigenous peoples" ).

Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) - button expanded.

Participant 2: It's a collapsed link so itactually expanded which is good - it worked. Because they don't always work.

Screen reader: We will provide a taxable benefit of $2000 every 4 weeks...

Sub-title: Participant ARCA-05 - Windows Magnifier user - When to re-apply for CERB.

Participant 3: OK I just go to re-apply and see whatthe instructions say if I go from there.

It's right underneath thereanyway "If your situation continues youshould apply for the...

(Pointer moves around the screen, looking for more detail).

So I'm not sure because it's not sayingright here where I'd expect it to be whenI should apply for May 10th. It's justsaying that I should re-apply every 4weeks. Unless I missed it I don't see it here.

Caption: Uses the side menu to orient himself.

(Pointer moves to the Section menu at the right of the screen).

Yeah: "Who can apply," "How to apply…" Shows methat I'm actually on, "Keep getting mypayments." So I feel likeI'm in the right spot. Oh! There it is!

(Pointer moves to below the "Determine when to apply" link).

Sub-title: Participant ARCA-04 - NVDA user - Contact about CERB.

(Screen capture of a page entitled "Applying for CERB with CRA: How to Apply". The page has a menu on the right labeled "Sections". A selection box moves around the elements on the page. Screen reader is audible throughout the video, but is unintelligible)

Participant 4: Ah! Contact us about CERB. Hey! Let's try that!

(New page loads entitled "Contact us about CERB", Different elements of the page get highlighted while a robotic voice reads through items too quickly to understand.)

Screen reader: (Unintelligible)

Participant 4: You've got to contact the department you applied with, that's good.

(The selection box moves down to "If you applied for CERB with the CRA". That expands, revealing 3 sub-items. The selection moves to the first, which is "Ask about the status of your CERB payment". That opens to reveal "Contact the CRA at 1-800-959-8281".)

1-800-959-8281. Oh, that's the normal CRA number.


Overall, the testing showed that the new templates and patterns performed well for assistive technologies. Participants commented on how the clear link text, subway navigation pattern, larger fonts and simple design helped them understand the content.

We did find some areas that need improvement. For example:

  • some pages had repeated duplicate links, which can be confusing if you navigate by listening to a list of links on the page
  • one page had a button that didn’t appear to have any effect when clicked, because there was no cue that the page had changed
  • verbal descriptions on how to use menu controls were too wordy

We’re now working to make the necessary changes to further increase the effectiveness of these designs. Moving forward, we will continue to do more testing with people who have different types of disabilities.

Well designed content helps everyone

Regardless of the audience we test with, the evidence comes back each time showing how basic design techniques make content work better for everyone. Our research with screen readers showed once again the importance of clear headings, links, and language in navigating Canada.ca.

Learn more about writing in plain language and how to create effective headings and link text in the Canada.ca Content Style guide:

Designing digital government services with accessibility in mind is key to ensuring that everyone can get the services they need quickly and easily.

Learn more

Connect with the Digital Transformation Office at TBS