Web accessibility and customer service for people with "specialist" needs

By Hilary Stephenson | 01/09/2017

An event at the weekend made me reflect on customer experience, the push and pull of content between brands and customers and whose responsibility is it to grasp specific procedures.

Molly Watt is a friend I've worked with a few times over the last couple of years. Disclaimer: we've worked together in the field of inclusive design and Molly has worked for us as an accessibility and usability consultant. We work together with companies who want to make their customer experience more inclusive, helping them to design better products and services, and ways of engaging their own audience.

Anyway, on Saturday night Molly tweeted: 

As a friend, I asked what had happened, as did many others as a way of expressing their dismay and offering kindness and support. I also sent her a private message to say I was sorry to hear what had happened. Others were more damning of the airline and airport but I don't really do incensed (unless it relates to Brexit or undeserving Eurovision winners). I also try to avoid social media pile-ons and I'm a bit of a boring rule stickler so I was genuinely interested in the procedural point that had led to such a miserable situation. On traveling between Heathrow and Berlin, she was given conflicting advice over tapeworm tablets for her dog Bella and there was confusion over whose responsibility it was to document the treatment in the pet passport. Molly will no doubt share the full details but it's important to note that this wasn't something she'd been instructed to do when traveling on many occasions with her previous dog, Unis.

Something about the way Molly described her experience, the inconsistent advice she was given while waiting and the subsequent accusations of irresponsibility she received really wound me up. Customer service shouldn't be this hard to deliver and it's not solely the responsibility of the customer to know the rules.  I was surprised that a few people started to challenge Molly on whether she had done her research, pointing out that the DEFRA pet travel rules are quite clear. My background is in content and I appreciate that well-structured, concise, unambiguous information is central to all good service provision. Gov.uk does it well but in Molly's case, she didn't feel she needed to look, having travelled with her previous guide dog over many years. Content didn't appear to be the problem here but I then saw a totally unrelated tweet about an hour later from Chris Compston:

I was reminded of a project I worked on about 12 years ago where we attempted to re-structure and re-write the airport services procedures for a major airline, to re-purpose the content for online use. At the first content workshop, 14 suitcases were wheeled in containing multiple binders packed with the existing procedures; printed documents on everything from Baggage Handling rules to Meal Provision, with a healthy smattering of clipart and an explosion of fonts. It was a Painting the Forth Bridge task and I've no idea if the project ever completed. We certainly didn't finish our bit as the suppliers changed when they decided a new content management system was the answer… So, I have a degree of sympathy for those trying to manage it all in a dynamic, highly regulated environment but surely by now we should be covering the basics and stop treating people as "those with specialist needs"? A good service can hinge on great content design and Chris' tweet highlights how we still see really poor examples but in Molly's case, good content wouldn’t have been enough. Customer experience is just as much about reassuring, offline guidance as well as online information provision. Sadly, it all appeared to be woefully disjointed, as Molly was bounced between Border Control, Heathrow Airport, British Airways and DEFRA guidelines. 

So whose responsibility is it?

Does it always fall to customers, particularly disabled people, to research and prepare for their experience or should we expect decent customer service to kick in? As Molly has those "specialist needs", is the onus always on her to keep up with all regulatory changes or could that information be pushed to her in a friendly and accessible way? She is a frequent flyer, so imagine a more customer friendly email, say 48 hours before her flight: 

"Hi Molly, great that you're traveling with us again. You and your dog will be looked after by our staff before, during and after your flight but here is a useful reminder of the things you need to do when traveling <insert checklist>"

Molly, to give them the right to respond, I'd love to know if you received anything like this before flying?

Sadly, some people responded to say it was entirely Molly's mistake, gloat-tweeting her links to the "clear rules" long after the horse had bolted. Not only did this seem unkind and unhelpful at a time of confusion and distress, it raised an important question of responsibility when understanding a given service. The content is indeed clear if you click the correct links (it's better on the Gov.uk pages than on the British Airways website) and the rules are apparently fixed, to the distress of Molly and Bella. However, this ignores the importance of context. Travel is stressful, people get anxious and Molly is already disabled by poor service provision in many aspects of her life, so there is an added level of anxiety. Add to the mix that this is a new working partnership, Bella is recently trained, Molly's specific condition makes it quite hard at times to digest information and it's entirely understandable that she didn't know the precise requirements for Bella's travel. Expert staff should have been on hand to give clear, helpful advice.

I also recalled Brian Suda's NUX4 talk (https://2015.nuxconf.uk/speakers/brian-suda/) on the craving for analogue in certain situations: “From print-on-demand to just-in-time analog information, there is a lot of power and usefulness with paper.“ Not that useful for Molly, who is largely tech-dependent but it might have been useful for her Mum. I know I still print everything when travelling and who hasn't thought of ways to hack and redesign the multiple inefficiencies you experience when passing through an airport? It often seems harder than it needs to be, airline apps tend to be terrible and a simple thing like a delay can throw everything off course.

It's at times like this, we look to friendly customer service, delivered by expertly trained, compassionate professionals who can guide us through the process. It's the kind of customer experience that drives brand loyalty, trust and engagement. Instead, Molly suggested the staff themselves were confused, unaware of the rules and they lacked empathy with a very specific set of circumstances. No risk assessment was offered that might have allowed a discussion over whether her circumstances were exceptional. The content staff relied upon didn't allow for that. There was no flex in the service, so Bella was on lock-down, Molly angered and a brand seemingly embarrassed. All seems excessive and unnecessary.

I think I know Molly well enough to state she's not shy of criticizing well-known brands for poor service or inaccessible information. I also know her Mum, who has fought many service providers and brands as Molly has progressed through life. I'm not a fan of direct brand attacks on Twitter and at times have winced a little when Molly has @ me or wearesigma where a particular brand has slipped up. That's because we want to help fix through engagement rather than criticism but I'm starting to understand why people call out bad experiences online. For Molly, her initial criticism has often resulted in positive change, where she has advised on how things could be improved and people have listened, for example, her last experience with British Airways. For those hinting that Molly had painted herself as a victim, I'd say she and her family have probably earned that right. This isn't the first negative travel experience they've had, she still gets refused access to restaurants and spoke at an accessibility tech conference last year where the staff gave her a printed map to direct her to the stage...

The thread that ensued was really interesting from an online engagement angle. I wondered if any vets, expert in pet travel would chime in with information on the severity of the risk. They didn't. I was eager to see British Airways, or any of the other numerous agencies people tagged in the exchange respond. They didn't. I could almost feel them cowering and waiting for others, mostly fellow guide dog owners in similar situations to Molly, wade in with "well, rules are rules."

Rather than point out her mistakes and responsibilities, how about we think differently and identify ways to improve services and customer experience? It feels like we put way too much emphasis on disabled people needing to be prepared and not enough focus on simply making things better for all. Sad to see fellow guide dog owners so critical therefore and there is something very wrong with the way a service has been designed if the people most in need feel they can't use it:

On reflection

In trying to find positives out of this particular negative, there are some things people might like to consider in light of Molly's experience:

  1. Avoid hysteria and brand bashing but point out constructive, practical ways to improve a service or customer experience - even little things might make a difference

  2. Highlight confusing or misleading information to the correct customer service channels, whenever you see it and monitor improvements. Feedback matters and you can always check back to see if people are listening, as Molly does 😉

  3. Consider how your own experience might differ to those who have different abilities (cognitive, physical, sensory) - the more we all do that, the more inclusively we start to think about how well environments, products and services are designed

  4. Don't mistake the availability of online support as the provision of a good customer experience. We should still demand excellence in all forms of contact with a service provider, despite the digital by default agenda

  5. If you do work in digital, keep pushing the importance of content design and accessibility. Some of our clients embrace this but sadly some still claim it's an investment too great for the likely returns, or only tackle it when notified of a WAI guideline breach

  6. Send support and constructive guidance rather than snarky, "well you should have done your homework love" comments. The kindest thing to do for Molly right now might be to donate to her charity: The Molly Watt Trust

After 24 hours, British Airways did the right thing and got in touch with Molly, promising to investigate the case, refund the quarantine fees and improve procedures for future: 

A good outcome and she is now reunited with Bella but it's sad that it took this to highlight flaws in the service. It shouldn't be this hard for people to travel and work.

Bella and Molly reunited