An independent report by the Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances has urged the energy sector to better identify people in need of support, and to improve the support given to them.
The report claims that the current performance of the sector is “inadequate and inconsistent”, adding that the Citizens Advice Extra Help Unit, which investigates complaints linked to vulnerability, has had to double its number of caseworkers in the last five years due to the volume of issues affecting customers.
The Commission has made a number of recommendations as to what companies should be doing offline to improve outcomes for customers in vulnerable circumstances, but what should companies be doing digitally?
Inclusive digital experiences
Vulnerability comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be temporary, permanent, or sporadic. It can be mental, physical or financial.
Last year 43,232 people were assisted by Citizens Advice in dealing with energy debt problems – a 12 per cent increase compared with the year previously.
Nearly half of these people (48 per cent) had long-term health conditions or disabilities.
Customers don’t tend to engage with their energy supplier unless they have a problem - whether that’s an interruption to their supply, or account-related – and digital is a key channel to help when issues do arise. But companies often fail to consider the additional challenges that customers might be dealing with.
In the UK there are:
- 12 million people living with a mental or physical disability
- 7 million people who are colour blind
- 1.87 million people with sight loss
The experience provided to such segments is rarely prioritised, because they typically represent a small portion of a companies’ overall customer base.
But by designing experiences for someone with a permanent disability, someone with a situational limitation can also benefit.
Being mindful of the continuum from permanent disabilities to situational impairments helps us rethink how our digital experiences can scale to more people in new ways – making them more accessible to everyone.
Planning for inclusivity
To create inclusive experiences, there’s five things we need to consider:
Focus on the purpose of your product, and the target audiences for it - their needs, restrictions, and technology preferences. Focus on facilitating the customer to achieve their goal, and strip back anything that doesn’t help.
Cluttering journeys with vanity content will negatively impact the experience and potentially make it impossible to comprehend for people with cognitive impairments.
Early and regular evaluations
Evaluate accessibility early and regularly throughout the design and development process - particularly at key milestones and sprints to avoid problems and significant rework.
Personas and user stories can also be reviewed to include accessibility considerations; to assess the experience your product should provide for each combination of user group and user goal.
How design can improve comprehension
Evaluate key web pages, processes, and stand-alone components as they become available. Ensure the structure of components allows the user to interpret the information in the most efficient way. And that the colour of buttons, layout of forms, or placement of components on a page, is designed around usability and not aesthetics.
Relevant photos on the page can be very useful for comprehension for people with dementia, allowing them to understand content without disorientation.
The different routes to interaction
Think about the many different ways people may interact. Are they using low-strength Wi-Fi on a train to access your site? Are they using assistive technology like a screen reader?
People will be using a variety of platforms and channels. Don’t assume someone is on a laptop at home. Think about the different ways people will access it and plan for those.
Map potential experiences and include input from users with a range of different disabilities and impairments as part of your evaluations.
Whilst there are a number of automated tools that can help to assess the accessibility of your experience, they don’t always test every WCAG criterion, and it can be difficult to determine the quality of accessibility.
By keeping accessibility front of mind when designing digital experiences, we can make everyone’s lives that little bit easier.
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