It is vital that the Government's live web sites are as accessible as possible for everyone. There can be no argument about that - their audience is everyone.
With a short, agile, project like Alpha.gov.uk (we've had just over 10 weeks build-time with the full team in place) it's all about setting direction, sketching out the product - even if all the bits don't get coloured in - and about trying to make the right compromises.
So, when it came to accessibility we set out to build the best product we could for everyone, or rather, to start sketching out what it could be. We have iterated and experimented, and used the sort of built-in good-practice (clean URLs, valid HTML with design separated from content, build with syndication to other platforms in mind) that have been the mainstay of commercial web development for several years now.
But we opted against full accessibility compliance from initial launch of the project. The reasoning? That there's no point being 'Triple A' accessibility certified if the underlying product is poor (as is often the case).
Accessibility should start with research and consideration, not with box-ticking or sprinkling a few standard accessibility features - especially in a government context where a user journey regularly extends into the real world (Booking a driving test? You'll probably want to know the facilities at the test-centre).
Making a half-hearted gesture towards accessibility (such as including text resizing or contrast options) or adding a badge to say we were certified, could have implied that we considered that box ticked, when we knew it to be untrue.
One example: we have a feature that lets people set their location by entering a postcode. This lets us do things like send them to the correct local council to pay their council tax with less faff, or display the correct bank-holidays for their part of the UK.
Was this the right approach? It has certainly allowed us to iterate faster and remain focused on making the product better as a whole. But we are very much open to opinions to the contrary.
For the duration of the project we will be actively seeking feedback and examples of how we can fix real world accessibility issues and identify and fix the mistakes we have inevitably made. We want to hear from as many people as possible.
Hopefully Alpha.gov.uk can be an example of the research and consideration needed to do accessibility right in the government context and help make future government sites more accessible for everyone.
Photo credit: Paul Downey
Richard Pope was Product Owner on the Alpha.gov.uk prototype. You should follow @richardjpope on Twitter