Our world has changed. Dramatically and fast. Most nations now have some level of restricted movement and activity. Many of us are now in full lockdown, leaving home only as absolutely necessary and allowed. None of us are immune from the impacts of these changes. This pandemic will influence us all. However, some people are, or will be, far more profoundly impacted than others. Both the lines and impacts of inclusion and exclusion have shifted dramatically.
In addition to variable risks to our personal or household’s health, our ability to engage in and manage the changed service and social environment is also variably impacted. As a result, last month’s inclusion priorities may no longer be relevant to an organisation. We need to think, adjust and adapt our inclusion priorities and actions.
- Our environments have changed very fast due to coronavirus and the resulting personal, social and governmental responses to it.
- Inclusion and its’ inverse, exclusion has shifted as a result. The mismatch between environments and people’s individual characteristics and differences has changed. Some exclusion has reduced as a result of these rapid changes, other exclusion has increased in breadth and depth of impact.
- The implications of exclusion have also changed. There is an increased risk of death from decisions made by businesses when considering how they protect customers and staff, particularly those at increased risk of severe consequences if they contract coronavirus.
- This puts more responsibility on teams to make rapid, effective decisions. Brand impacts in a time of crisis and uncertainty are much deeper than normal. We are aware of many businesses working very hard to realign their service capability to this, still changing situation. We hope to support this positive intent with a process that helps translate it to both business and social impact.
- We have developed a 5-step framework to support organisations consider a rapidly changing inclusion landscape and implications of decisions that are being made at speed. This sadly doesn’t make any decision easier, but hopefully provides a robust, framework to test alternate decisions that has taken into consideration the requirements of people living with disabilities and those who have other access needs or specific challenges and risks in this environment.
- Determine critical areas for review: Simplify all areas of activity to core journeys that are relevent to customers in this period and key staff jobs to be done supporting these journeys to focus efforts on.
- Understand from people most impacted: engage a small, diverse group of customers or staff who are likely to be most impacted by business decisions to learn from their breadth of perspectives. Include people with lived experience of disability, those who are older and have caring responsibilities or are in critical roles like health services. Also engage those with lower emotional or financial resiliance to this environment.
- Set the priorities:
- Do no harm: understand where risks are, which specific groups are most at risk, rate and act on removing or reducing them according to potential impact breadth and severity.
- Improve the situation: understand where there are opportunities to improve the situation. Use resources available in the business or collaborate to create products or services that are needed. Learn from people with lived experiences of disability who have a wealth of innovative approaches to adapting to new restrictions and environmental constraints. Establish or empower current processes to let innovative ideas continually be captured and rapidly assessed and filtered from your team internally as well as any relevant external sources.
- Act to make changes: Once decisions are made, define leadership of the change, distribute the management, resource and empower each team. As this is such a fast-moving situation ensure there is space for additional adaption and improvement of solutions from the ideas being captured and assessed from within and outside the organisation as you go.
- Assess and adapt: Capture the impact of changes on customer and staff experiences and business outcomes. Review and adapt priorities and actions as needed. The situation is changing fast so keep insight fresh and relevant.
Figure 1: Inclusive system review and design process
Yesterday’s inclusion priorities may not be relevant
The environment we live in has changed dramatically in a very short period through the rules and requirements of the lockdown and people’s own actions to keep themselves safe. This change has happened so fast that most businesses and individuals have had little time to prepare for it. We are all now working out the implications and how to optimise within them, with new constraints in place.
In terms of inclusion and it’s more important inverse, exclusion, these lines have shifted fast. Some prior sources of exclusion are much less relevant in this period. Others are significantly more important as barriers to our independence, safety, security, ability to contribute at work and more broadly across our communities.
For example, step-free access into a closed store is less relevant or able to be changed for the immediate future than digital access and ability to book a delivery irrespective of assistive technology used or other digital access needs or preferences. Today’s exclusion is impacting the community and individuals in new ways that we need to understand, re-prioritise and urgently address.
A systematic inclusive design approach to realign priorities
As the context of our society has, and is changing so fast we have had little time to adapt personally and businesses supporting our customers. We need to learn, think and act differently to support our customers and community through this period of new constraints and ongoing change.
We have created a framework that provides a systematic approach to understanding these changes, consider how they impact inclusion / exclusion as well as broader brand experiences and business reputation, and act on this insight. It isn’t a process that is only relevant in periods of significant disruption, however it is more important when operating in a less known and stable environment. Equally, it doesn’t provide the answers for any individual business, but hopefully an approach that can be used at speed to get to a considered set of options that support better quality, rapid business decisions.
It is based on our understanding of inclusive design thinking and from engaging over the past few weeks with people with varied lived experiences of disability along with older consumers and others specifically impacted by COVID-19 and the lockdown. We will be updating this article as we learn more through our inclusive ethnographic research, kicked off this week and our conversations and work with organisations.
We hope that this will provide a practical and valuable tool to support you and your businesses, to help reduce unwitting or inadvertent exclusion or undue impact on customers or staff. We understand this is landing at a time that you are incredibly busy solving the many new challenges of the new, with staff working in new ways, consumer product and service needs changing, and supply chains stretched in new ways.
Brands, values and long-term value
When business is overstretched beyond capacity and new services are being demanded with highly variable impacts on customers, it is critically important to prioritise business responses and activity. With lives at stake right now, we believe that social impact needs to be put ahead of immediate financial value. Value will follow from genuinely earned, powerful moments of positive brand experience and perspectives, both from those impacted directly and the bulk of society that appreciate organisations acting with humanity converted via decisions to action.
In more usual times, it is really hard to generate deep enough experiences to drive strong loyalty and advocacy. The positive brand impact of socially responsible decisions right now will last a very long time in customers’ minds. The impact of alignment (or lack of it) between actions and brand values will run deeper and be remembered longer than usual as emotions, impacts and attention are significantly heightened at this time.
In a recent McKinsey article about adapting customer experience in the time of coronavirus the consulting house wrote,
“Particularly in times of crisis, a customer’s interaction with a company can trigger an immediate and lingering effect on his or her sense of trust and loyalty.”
Let’s take a moment to call out a few great responses from brands I am aware of who have been acting in alignment to their values and supporting their customers and communities at the moment.
- Waitrose with the first hour of the day when the shops are at their cleanest offered specifically for older and disabled consumers and having an all-day NHS staff dedicated till and supplies
- Claridges is offering it’s luxury hotel rooms in Central London along with breakfast and dinners for NHS staff unable to go home
- Natwest, Lloyds, TSB and other banks for being early to offer fee-free services such as limited overdrafts or loan repayment deferrals for those financially impacted and even offering specific cash services to help older consumers remain self-isolated
- Eurostar for operating unprofitable services such as a train that had 10 people on it (it holds 1,000) understanding that for those 10 people it may have been one of the critical journeys of their lives as they tried to get home or to loved ones
- F1 teams for using their engineering and innovation skills to a new purpose creating ventilators that will support people through the most life-threatening symptoms of the virus. Congratulations Mercedes-AMG for cracking this task in under 100 hours!
- Zara for using their famously fast supply chain to produce hospital scrubs rather than high street fashion. Burberry is using its famous trenchcoat factory to produce gowns and masks for the NHS. H&M, Kering, Crocs and Louis Vuitton are also all dedicating factory resources to supply the needs of health workers.
I look forward to coming back and adding many more examples to this list over the next few weeks. If you are doing something fabulous, please tell me! Other brands will have been doing this in less noticeable, but equally valuable ways such as ensuring staff safety in a fast-changing workplace, helping customers in many different ways and proactively identifying and reducing risks or shifting resources and skills to higher-valued activities for this period.
A challenge for us all to step up to, Open included
We don’t just put this out as an expectation for big business or certain industries and feel that it doesn’t apply to us equally as a small business operating in research, design and innovation. At Open, we are living to our values in new ways also. “Pragmatically optimistic” is my favourite of our 6 core brand values just now. We are being pragmatic in our changes and those we recommend for clients, and are very optimistic in terms of how we can usefully and sustainably support greater inclusion of people with disabilities or other access needs, both short and long term as a result of this tumultuous period.
All our research is now remote. We made this call over a week before the lockdown in the UK, recognising and wishing to mitigate the increasing risks to our disabled and older consumer community. All our team are working from home and we have instigated some new more social virtual connections to replace some of the fun that we had in person before. Luckily we were all set up to research and work remotely (most of us worked from home at least 50% of our time before) so this hasn’t been too large a change.
Remote research has allowed us to include very hard to reach demographics for a long while such as those in poor health or with heightened anxiety or difficulty in travelling into London for focus groups, usability testing or other generally face-to-face research formats.
All our working practices are constantly being tested to ensure they are fully inclusive as in our team we have a wide range of access needs and lived experience of disability. As a result, we can keep all staff and participants safe and these changes haven’t stopped anyone working effectively.
This week we ran three Zoom based focus groups and they offered rich and varied insights equal to what we would expect if they were in a room. Our oldest participant was in her 80s and we had blind, visually impaired, hard of hearing and digital novices in the mix, some dialing in by phone. We had live transcription, audio described images of all products or websites we were talking about, and everyone was able to engage fully. The engagement of the participants and insights they provided were fabulous!
In addition, we are diverting some of our specific skills and resources to support the community at this time. We are commencing a piece of ethnographic inclusive research to better understand where the common and/or substantial challenges are for disabled and older people through this period. We will then share these insights with the organisations that they may be useful to. This isn’t a paid piece of research, just something we want to do because we have the ability to and we understand the power of insight to inform better decisions and outcomes. We will run the ethnography for as long as this period of dramatic uncertainly lasts to support the need for very up-to-date insight.
If you are older or disabled and would like to be involved in this research please contact us. We are recruiting in both the UK and beyond.
A simple process for inclusive considerations
1/ Determine critical areas for review
Resources are in short supply, especially time and staffing. Prioritisation is very important. Start by defining the currently relevant key customer journeys that need to be assessed and improved first. Look to your changing customer patterns over the past few weeks to inform this.
For a supermarket, this is likely to be buying a basket of basic goods online, home delivery services and in-store purchases of basics. For an accountant, it may be helping customers understand the new financial support packages, if they are applicable and how they may apply. Ignore all other previously underway campaigns and projects to focus resources on ensuring these priority customer journeys are better understood in this environment and supported.
Identify the most important resources and people in the business to enable the rapid assessment and improvements to these journeys.
2/ Ask the people most impacted
You can’t be expected to know all you need to in these very fast-evolving environments. It can be very confusing for us all with new advice coming in daily, different people responding differently and fears and potential impacts landing very unevenly across society.
To make it worse, what seems like a great idea one business has may not be so great in your business due to it being a different product/service, target market, customer base or brand attributes. Ask your staff and your customers for what they want and how they would like to improve the situation. They are likely to have some great ideas to help gather useful insights for decisions.
People most impacted can be affected in different ways: physically, emotionally and/or financially. Please note that this is not necessarily a complete list. It is my understanding of groups that need to be included at this moment from the perspective of our business. Your industry, region or culture may have other at-risk categories. Many people may fall into more than one category, so consider how co-occurring needs impact outcomes also.
Ask for insights from,
Those less physically resilient through this period including,
- those with long-term health conditions or disabilities, particularly where those impact lung and heart health, immunity or physical resilience
- the older population, particularly those over 70
- those who are working in critical jobs that are exposed (especially health professionals but also those working in supermarkets, pharmacies, care homes and other customer-facing roles)
Those less emotionally resilient through this period including, those who
- live alone, especially if they have limited regular connections to family or friends in this period
- live in a difficult home where being confined together may put people at physical or psychological harm
- are dealing with illness or loss directly impacting their family or friends
- have mental health issues that are exacerbated by heightened anxiety as a result of the pandemic and confinement
- communicate differently and find the confinement and move to virtual communication formats limits their usual adaptive techniques
- have limited skills, interfaces or connectivity to maintain connections
Those less financially resilient through this period including, those
- with limited savings and whose income has been impacted
- who may incur a significant unexpected expense as a result of the pandemic (such as a funeral expense for a family member)
- who own negatively impacted businesses or are self-employed in a role that isn’t able to be done
Ask people that fall into these categories how they are experiencing the services you are providing. Focus the insight gathering on the core journeys that you have prioritised but look across all relevant environments such as digital, physical (if still relevant) customer service (such as call centres or online human support) and your communications and messaging.
Identify the barriers and challenges to different groups so you can better understand how this new environment is impacting and potentially excluding people from the experience you would like to be providing due to their specific needs. For example, blind customers cannot easily maintain social distancing and keep safe if they need to go to the supermarket, yet if your online app or website isn’t accessible to them, or all delivery slots are booked out for weeks, they will have no option.
Open can support you gathering insight efficiently and quickly from these communities if you need help doing so. Please contact us if this would be of help to your business.
3/ Set the priorities
For every core business area start by thinking like a doctor. “First I must do no harm.” Once risks that you may have in the business have been minimised, then you can consider what resources you have that can do specific good through this period.
Consider the key stakeholders your business impacts; staff, customers, suppliers. Who is of personal risk of infection as a result of conducting their role in or with your business? Of those, who may be specifically at risk of a very adverse outcome from contracting COVID-19. Prioritise changes around protecting those most at risk.
We know that this virus is more deadly to older people, those with long term health conditions, particularly those affecting overall immunity and resistance, or the heart and lung function and more dangerous to those sharing a household or goes to a workplace with anyone in these categories. How can you provide a work and provision environment that reduces the risks for all staff, suppliers and customers, and then specifically focusses on more fully protecting those in higher-risk categories?
This is like balancing universal design with adaptive design to support access needs. Use universal design (applied to all) as far as is it valuable and efficient, then leverage adaptive design (supporting those with deeper and more specific needs) with solutions tailored and provided just to the relevant group. This mixed approach helps balance speed, cost and impact.
In the examples in the brand section above, organisations from fashion houses to banks, train operators and luxury hotels to racecar engineers, are offering their skills and resources to provide services and products that are particularly valuable to the community now. Consider your business and personal capacity and if you can, work out how you can help. There are many ways we can all mitigate the difficulties of this period working together as a community.
Work with staff and suppliers to identify the best options available to you right now. Also consider how these may change over time and what may be available and effective in the next fortnight, over the next 4 – 6 weeks or in 3 months.
4/ Act to make the changes
When acting on the priorities that have been set ensure the following three things for rapid success,
- Resources are allocated to make it happen (sufficient people, time, leadership support, funding or other)
- Lower any internal or external barriers to change that can be removed or reduced
- Don’t slow changes down, but consider how you can embed capability beyond the initial change to apply for other business services, channels and segments or later iterations of the current mix.
Changes don’t just need to come from the business. Asking customers to change their habits is completely acceptable under these circumstances also and will likely be well accepted by most, if not all, when you also explain the increased safety or positive impact desired from the change.
5/ Assess and adapt
This is a very dynamic environment so any match of a solution to the environment is likely to keep moving, requiring ongoing adaption. Additionally some changes that are made will also have the impact that was desired, others may not. They may have additional unintended consequences that you hadn’t expected or wanted, or they may not work as effectively as intended.
This is a journey not a destination and will require constant realignment to customers, staff and the communities’ needs. Set up the impact measures and monitor them, and establish ways to get ongoing feedback from customers and staff to ensure ongoing alignment.
As with most design thinking, this is a cycle. Getting to the end actually just means going back to the beginning and understanding new contexts and needs, listening, learning, reprioritising and acting on the latest priorities.
Thank you for reading this far. It has ended up being a longer article than I had hoped. One last side note before I leave you to your thoughts and actions.
Learning to adapt from those who understand disability
The current environment means that most of us are living with some degree of mobility and social restriction. So let us learn how to adapt from those who already know! People with lived experiences of disability have been creatively adapting to un-ideal environments for as long as they have not fitted just as they were.
The value of lived experience of disability is more powerful than ever.
Our world is not yet designed to be inclusive of the full breadth of physical, sensory or cognitive diversity that humans have. People who fall outside of the norms of the built, digital or social environment are excluded unless they adapt themselves.
This community is full of natural innovators, hackers and creators who look at a mismatch between the job they want done, the way it was designed to be done and their abilities. Then they work it out. Technologies are born. People team up and collaborate to share abilities. New practical hacks and approaches are adopted that no one imagined when designing the environment that excluded them. Inclusion-led innovation is very real and has a very long history of profound impact.
This diversity of humanity needs to be protected to ensure our ongoing strength. Jutta Treviranus the Director of Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University in Canada wrote a great article on this topic earlier this week. It describes how Darwinism identified that survival relies on better adaption to changing environments, especially threatening ones. Adaption comes from the deviation from the norm, particularly in times of great difficulty.
“Our survival is dependent on supporting and including difference and variation. Monocultures do not survive; they can be felled by a single threat.”
This doubles the benefits just now of engaging with people with lived experience of disability. Not only may you learn what is needed to improve the core business services that you are providing to ensure you are not unintentionally excluding or negatively impacting a segment, you may also learn how to adapt yourself to this new undesired, but powerful change. We can all learn to hack our new environment to meet the social needs as well as our personal ones.
If we all do this well, we will protect our fabulous and valuable diversity and minimise the negative consequences of this pandemic on us personally, on our businesses and broader society.
Please reach out and contact me if you would like to discuss how Open Inclusion may be able to help at this time. We will offer as much as we can, as affordably as possible, to make sure we are all considering and supporting the needs of all of our community at this time.
There are also additional resources if you are interested on the Business Disability Forum’s website covering personal health and wellbeing, staff and customer inclusion.
Take care and stay healthy!