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Joshua Marshall, Digital Services and Accessibility

I’m sharing notes from UX Scotland 2014, which took place in Edinburgh Thursday and Friday this week.

His twitter handle is @partiallyblind, so it’s no surprise that Joshua Marshall is a strong advocate for accessibility. Luckily, GDS takes this seriously. Taking on Tim Berners-Lee’s accessibility manifesto

The power of the web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.


Gov.uk is an initiative to help make government easier to connect with and understand. Started based off a 2010 report by Martha Lane Fox, it is focused on being ‘digital first’. While some in the audience did ask whether the group could be at risk were there a change in government, Marshall pointed out that the team is apolitical and reports to cabinet rather than a party…but that of course, anything could happen.

Start small but strong

Marshall was the start of a day that was all about baking in important initiatives right from the start. He stressed that he felt accessibility “should be a matter of quality”. Two of the ten “fluffy but helpful” GDS design guidelines focus on accessibility

4. Do the hard work to make it simple
6. Build for Inclusion

(Marshall admits that he wants to change number 6 to Berners-Lee’s Olympics tweet  “this (the web) is for everyone”).

What’s more, the team have a service manual to allow other teams to understand their responsibilities, metrics to track what’s going on, and also hold other units accountable to their standards: if a site doesn’t meet any of the requirements, it either won’t get a gov.uk subdomain, or means the minister involved has to potentially make an apology and a commitment to improve. Not surprisingly, the spectre of this means it hasn’t had to happen.

The team worked quickly to get a prototype ready, even using a developer’s AWS account (“which he forgot to renew after a while”), and using Twitter Bootstrap (“that was my fault”). As it turns out, there’s a plugin available that can make Bootstrap accessible, thankfully.

A focus on tone and content

Gov.uk deliberately “doesn’t want to sound like government”. A lot of jargon and other words have been ruled out, and due to the wide audience that could potentially use the site their language has to be at the level of a 9 year old (generally sites are supposed to aim at a 12-14 year old as far as I’m aware). Bringing in copywriters where needed and providing clear guidelines for other departments has meant that their win of 2013 Design of the Year award was because of their content (much to the consternation of The Daily Mail, but then again for some people, the consternation of the Daily Mail would be considered a bonus).

Their style guides are particularly comprehensive to cater to cognitive disabilities (e.g. don’t use italics as this is hard for those with dyslexia to read) as well as visual impairment (it turns out many of the finer details such as not using dashes or ampersands is based on Marshall’s own frustrations using a screen reader).

For anyone interested in Marshall’s work, there’s a great feature on him on FutureGov. I also quite like the GDS design principles as posters.