My name is Joshua Marshall, and I'm a front-end developer and the Accessibility Lead for the team working on the beta of GOV.UK.
Most of my focus has been on making sure that both the public facing website and the internal tools we're building to support the site are as accessible and usable as we can make them. Now that we're well into the development of the GOV.UK project I wanted to give an update on the work we've been doing.
What have we been doing?
From the outset, we knew that the more expert help we could get, the better the final product we could deliver. To that end we asked Léonie Watson from Nomensa to help us. She is a recognised expert in the accessibility field, and we've been enormously lucky to have her expertise along the way.
We've been regularly developing both the administration tools we've created for our editorial teams and the public facing templates that visitors to the beta site will interact with.
Lots of my time has been spent using screen readers and a multitude of different browsers, platforms and tools to make sure that what we're building isn't excluding anyone from the content we're providing. Constant iteration has been, well, a constant. I know my limits, as a sighted, able-bodied developer, and knew that getting people with a wide diversity of requirements was a necessity.
Testing our assumptions with actual users – both able-bodied and disabled – has focussed our efforts on not just whether our code validates or the colour contrast is good enough but that formats work for all users and don't exclude anyone from taking part. Building this means more than just making sure we’re checking the boxes for WCAG AA compliance. It needs to work in the real world for real people too.
It's great that a technically savvy user can use the site unaided, but knowing that an elderly person with limited computing experience or a user with Aspergers was able to do so means we're much more confident that we're presenting our information in a way that works for as many users as possible.
Early December saw us run a series of disability user testing sessions so we could observe and understand how visitors with different abilities interacted with the site.
Our respondents all had a variety of abilities and were chosen to try to represent as many as possible of the user-groups that will use the beta site. They included:
- blind screen-reader users
- screen magnification users
- deaf British Sign Language users
- keyboard-only users
- speech-recognition software users
- Dyslexic users
- Aspergers or autistic users
The feedback we received was generally positive. Users responded well to the structure of the formats and the stripped-down content.
There was some work to do to clarify language and interactions around certain parts of the site that we, as a team of mostly able-bodied developers, wouldn't necessarily consider during day to day use, but we were generally pleased that people were able to complete the tasks required without too many problems.
We have another round of testing in the coming months so it will be interesting to see how the formats test as we finalise the visual design and include all of the follow-up development tasks.
British Sign Language
Visiting the last eAccessibility Forum this summer it was clear that users whose first language is British Sign Language rather than English often felt left out in terms of the content they are provided with. The assumption being that because the content is presented in text and in English, that should be enough.
We think we can do better.
I'm currently working on having some of our content translated into British Sign Language and recorded as a video-based alternative to certain text-heavy guides.
It's not always enough to show the exact translation of the text - sometimes roleplaying what might happen around the content is more appropriate, along with the literal translation of content pertaining to the laws of the land so there’s a fuller understanding of both what will happen and why.
There's always work to do to make our tools more useful. Accessibility is like everything else on the beta of GOV.UK: a constantly evolving project. There will always be more work to do to deliver a truly world-class website for the citizens of the UK and to keep delivering on the promise to make it as open and usable to all as we can. We’re listening, we’ll be testing our assumptions over the upcoming months, and we’ll really value feedback from the community once the beta site is live.