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Cabinet Office

An inclusive platform to support all candidates and assessors in the Fast Stream Assessment Centre

The Cabinet Office’s Fast Stream and Early Talent programme aims to identify leadership potential and drive diversity in Civil Service candidates. Cyber-Duck was originally engaged to craft a paperless system for the Fast Stream Assessment Centre exercises – but it became so much more. Informed by research and empathy, we designed and developed an award-winning, inclusive digital experience which helps the operations and assessment teams to manage the process with ease and drives positive outcomes for candidates.

Awards won

  • Target Jobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards - Shortlisted for "Best Innovation in Student Recruitment"

Key stats


increased success for disabled candidates


find the platform engaging and enjoyable

FSAC 01 v2

What was this project about?

The Cabinet Office’s Fast Stream and Early Talent (FSET) programme aims to equip some of the brightest graduates and career changers of all backgrounds with the knowledge, skills and experience they need to be future civil service leaders. The goals are to identify leadership potential and improve diversity in the service; according to an independent report published in 2016, FSET had made good progress with these aims. Now, the Cabinet Office wanted to take this even further through user-centred digital tools that will enable the automated delivery and administration of exercises via tablet devices in the Fast Stream Assessment Centres (FSAC).

Civil Service candidates are referred to the FSAC after a successful online application, video interview, eligibility sift and numerical assessment (if applicable). FSAC involves a half day assessment; during this, 30-40 candidates are given leadership, analysis and group exercises via tablets, with assessors granting access. Applicants can interact with a timetable and preparation content, and have the ability to digitally highlight and make notes.

Following a competitive tender process, Cyber-Duck was chosen to ensure the new FSAC digital platform meets the needs of candidates, regardless of background or technical competence, by providing an inclusive, intuitive user experience.


  1. Guide candidates through the processes/exercises, enabling them to flag content and make notes.
  2. Create a user-friendly CMS that’s appropriate for both the current and future requirements of the website.
  3. Help improve results for under-represented candidates by designing a reassuring, confidence-boosting experience.
  4. Support the Operations team by simplifying content dissemination and registration.

Creating a quality experience for assessors and candidates

Initially, the brief focused on the idea of going 'paperless'. Early on, Cyber-Duck and the Cabinet Office team realised that without a carefully planned transition, this could impact accessibility for both candidates and administrators. We agreed that we would use this opportunity to create an encouraging, reassuring digital experience for candidates. 

Alongside this, we could support the Operations team running the assessment days by giving them greater control and simplifying the dissemination and registration of content.

This was surprisingly complex. For example, with group exercises, the day could start with a group of 6 that’s reduced to 4; operational administrators needed to be able to change the assignment, on the fly, in a live environment.  

Cyber-Duck helped the Cabinet Office by designing and developing a responsive, accessible, and secure web application that delivers the 3 core FSAC exercise types (group, analysis, and leadership) in a range of formats, making the content more inclusive and engaging.  

By applying Agile project management principles, we worked collaboratively with FSET’s stakeholder team through a series of two-week-long sprints. We co-located at key periods, such as during early discovery, and during alpha and beta testing. 

Cyber-Duck’s evidence-based design ensured that the needs of FSAC’s candidates and assessors were at the heart of each decision. We focused on providing a better user experience across user journeys, with a clearer, more intuitive navigation system, that’s validated with real users and meets the GDS service standard.

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Planning and designing a welcoming, human-centred digital experience

To improve the success rates of candidates applying from all walks of life, FS wanted to understand its users better and identify the reasons why some candidate segments are more or less likely to succeed. We kicked off with a discovery phase to build our understanding of how the FSAC works, and what the candidates needed from the service.

Working together with key FS stakeholders, we built empathy/journey maps drawing from their knowledge and experiences with candidates.

We also carried out ethnographic research by observing a cohort’s complete end-to-end experience, from the moment they walked in, through to the final exercise. We did this over two days, with the second day focussed more specifically on under-represented candidates recruited through the FS’ Early Diversity Internship Program.  

We conducted in-depth user interviews with a broad range of past and current candidates from different socioeconomic groups, ethnicities, and disabilities.

This helped us to understand their need, pain points, and mental models (as in, how their individual worldview and experiences shape their perception, behaviour, and performance within FS).

We found that candidates from under-represented backgrounds often felt intimidated by the environment and process, which negatively impacted their confidence and ultimately, their performance. 

Working from our research, we created personas encompassing candidates at higher and lower levels of confidence, alongside the internal CMS users. We designed new service blueprints that explored opportunities to improve the experience for under-represented candidates, and encompassed intuitive user journeys for the different user groups: candidates, admins, and assessors. 

The final personas and user journey maps were referred to throughout the entire design and development process, as we moved from initial user flow and wireframes, through to art direction and a functional alpha prototype which would eventually be developed into the final platform. 

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Helping users to feel reassured

By design, we wanted to provide an informative yet welcoming atmosphere that could reduce stress and help every candidate to feel welcomed, comfortable, and included.

For example, the FSAC exercise starts with a tutorial that introduces candidates to their device, schedule and notes. It instils confidence by reaffirming that the candidates are in the top 6% of applicants (so they absolutely deserve to be there!).

We consciously chose diverse imagery so candidates could see people who ‘look like them’.

We also included encouraging quotes from previous FSAC participants, so candidates could hear from peers of similar backgrounds who have been there and done it before.

We conducted several rounds of usability testing on the prototypes as we iteratively developed them. This included candidates with different disabilities as well as neurodiverse individuals, as we wanted to ensure the new service was as accessible and inclusive as possible. Feedback was positive, with 83% of candidates stating they found the walkthrough feature helpful and reassuring.


Developing the Drupal CMS with custom security

We developed a robust Drupal CMS, configured as a learning management system (LMS) platform. This would give the FSET team the flexibility to create and manage the assessment material. We chose Drupal because it would provide the most efficient customisable data structures and storage for dynamic pieces of content.

The platform required unique functionality; on most websites, a user would click to access different sections. Instead, the Ops team needed to be able to control each candidate’s experience from their own ‘master’ tablet device. We developed a dynamic timetable for candidates to check their personal schedule between or during exercises.

The Ops team would unlock an exercise for candidates; their tablets were refreshed with a password to access their next exercise, which they entered when they wished to start. Dynamic content was then delivered to the candidate. This password protection was important, as all exercises were strictly timeboxed.

Security and performance were paramount; we ensured access to the application was locked down to assessment centres only.

The frontend was developed using modern standards (based on HTML5 and CSS) and focused on achieving the WCAG AA guidelines; the entire frontend was designed for optimal accessibility.

The app needed to simulate real-world scenarios that Fast Stream candidates might find themselves in. Therefore, the frontend included flexible blocks and templates for content such as email threads, social media, or newspaper articles that candidates would need to review and respond to as if it were a real-world situation.

We also built functionality for highlighting and annotations. A user could highlight and make notes on passages of text, and view all their notes and highlights in one place if they needed to quickly refer to them.

fsac ops team v3

Testing for accessibility with diverse users

To ensure the new web application could meet FSET’s goal of increasing diversity and identifying leadership skill, it was critical to test for accessibility.

We began validation and iteration at the prototype stage with neurodivergent candidates, including people with dyslexia and autism. 

We ran tests that simulated a standard FSAC assessment day, with 20 candidates for alpha and beta versions of the tool. This allowed us to observe how candidates would naturally use the device during and in-between the exercises.

The days also tested the Ops team functionality, e.g. the activation of exercises.

We investigated the following areas:

  • Basic navigation – can users find their way around the features intuitively, without needing prompts?
  • Learnability and inclusivity – can users learn the features in an encouraging and positive way?
  • Content – is the tone of voice and content design accessible for all users?
  • Ops team functionality – was it easy for them to activate the exercises?

The app allowed the user to submit feedback at the end of each exercise. This was reinforced with a survey to collect further qualitative and quantitative insights. We summarised key themes and made iterative improvements to each version of the web application based on our user feedback. 

Passing GDS service assessments

Based on empirical research and testing, Cyber-Duck crafted a web application that could deliver the core FSAC exercises in an accessible, usable, and ultimately inclusive way.

Through a series of Agile sprints, we configured Drupal and HTML5 technologies to deliver the assessment exercises with high performance and security.

The Cabinet Office’s mission of identifying the leadership potential of applicants, regardless of their background, was important to us. We successfully passed both alpha and beta GDS service assessments, leading the preparation and presentation. GDS described it as “well-prepared and engaging”, demonstrating how through Cyber-Duck’s ISO-accredited (9241-910) user-centred and iterative design process, we clearly met the 14 service standards.


The app was launched by the Cabinet Office to coincide with the latest Fast Stream assessment cohort. Initial usability trials were highly encouraging in terms of positive user responses:

  • ‘I found the tutorial (before exercise) on the iPad helpful’: 83% positive.
  • ‘The iPad delivery would make me more likely to want to apply for a graduate role in a civil service/government department’: 71%

For example, in the leadership exercise:

  • ‘I found the iPad easy to use overall in the exercise’: 91% positive.
  • ‘I found navigation across pages straightforward on the iPad’: 94%
  • ‘I found the iPad App engaging/enjoyable’: 94%
  • ‘I preferred doing the exercise on the iPad compared to paper version’: 82%

Crucially, overall diversity outcomes exceed those from previous years’ data. Most significantly, there was a 27% increase in success rates for disabled candidates – from 11% to 14% of the intake. 

The platform won Target Jobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards "Best Innovation in Student Recruitment" award in 2020, and Personnel Today’s Diversity & Inclusion Award in 2021. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we worked with the Cabinet Office to pivot the assessment experience to a fully remote, accessible process, which opened up the experience to an even wider range of candidates. Read about how we did this in our client story.

Key stats


increased success for disabled candidates


find the platform engaging and enjoyable


fast stream logo

The site design is incredibly innovative and modern which is really refreshing to see... It's been a real pleasure working with the Cyber-Duck team on all elements of the project.

Cabinet Office

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