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Beyond accessibility: Designing for vulnerability

5 minute read

Disability and vulnerability are not necessarily one and the same, and so it follows that considering accessibility alone may not be sufficient when designing for the vulnerable. It is fundamental for designers to recognise that designing for vulnerable people doesn’t mean exclusively designing for the disabled.

Broadly speaking, vulnerable customers are those who are considered to be more exposed to harm, or in need of added support. So, although those registered as disabled are certainly considered vulnerable, those considered vulnerable might not be disabled.

Without a holistic understanding of vulnerability, businesses are missing a valuable opportunity to engage with all those who could benefit from more sensitively designed products and services.

So, how might we begin to design beyond accessibility to ensure we adequately cater to the needs of vulnerable customers?

Understanding the extent of vulnerability is an important first step to understanding and meeting the needs of vulnerable customers. It is also a key stepping stone to creating products and services that enable people to have exceptional experiences and empower them to make better choices for their circumstances.

Understanding vulnerability

Vulnerability is a nebula and complex concept that is difficult to define succinctly. Oftentimes it can be conflated with the definition of disability; a long-standing illness, disability or impairment that causes substantial difficulty with day-to-day activities.

However, there are great many people who have substantial difficulties with their day-to-day activities but who are not suffering from a long-standing illness, disability or impairment.

One example of this might be those in significant financial difficulty. Indeed, the FCA concedes that:1

Most users of consumer credit may be regarded as ‘vulnerable’ to some degree because of their financial circumstance… We consider a vulnerable consumer to be someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment.

And so we can see that the breadth of vulnerability as a concept doesn’t guide us to design effectively for different vulnerabilities, or help us understand how those vulnerabilities might impact their customers’ experiences.

Grouping different dimensions of vulnerability

Whilst far from an exhaustive list, businesses can begin by considering five key dimensions when trying to understand how vulnerability impacts their customers’ experience:

Each dimension can be broken down into further categories (e.g. physical vulnerability can be vision impairments, hearing impairments, mobility and physical coordination issues).

Depending on the type of service and the type of touch-points, each dimension and possible type of vulnerability will have a different effect and consequence on the customer’s experience (e.g. unable to use a keyboard, needs to use a screen reader).

As an example, when working with a client recently, we were confronted with a challenge to design for socially vulnerable customers. We were considering persons living in the UK who do not have a firm grasp on the English language. In this instance we worked to accommodate this by recommending our client go beyond the use of a “simplified English” and designing in alternative languages on digital devices. For face-to-face, we recommended that interactions could be improved by investing in the latest translation technologies. It was only by narrowing our focus to this particular type of vulnerability that we were able to provide a solution.

Not forgetting temporality and situation

Categories of vulnerability are not the only important factor, though. It would be too easy to forget that some vulnerabilities are also temporal or situational. In an attempt to not succumb to temporally restrictive definitions of vulnerability, we might learn from Microsoft’s Inclusive Design principles.2 These principles suggest that vulnerability can be understood as permanent, temporary, or situational.

Defining a vulnerability as situational means issues could be prompted by context and emotional or social cues. For example, an agoraphobic’s trigger is from their surroundings, and someone with an incomplete understanding of English would only encounter difficulty when having to interact in English. These are situational or contextual vulnerabilities, which can be designed for by considering their causes.

Considering self-definition

Finally, it is worth also noting that not all vulnerable people self-define as vulnerable. They might not even realise they are considered vulnerable. In fact, many people may not consider their vulnerability to be a defining characteristic, even if actively prompted.

However, this fact does not preclude businesses from designing products and services that cater for vulnerable people, whether they define themselves as such or not.

For example, while researching “financially vulnerable” individuals for a utility provider, one “quick win” was to change billing frequency from a standard monthly format to a frequency that matched their customers’ wage-cycle. Doing so simplifies monetary in-goings/out-goings for the customer, and saved an expensive overhaul of the client’s ‘financially vulnerable incentivisation’ programme.

Customer-centric approach to vulnerability

Designing for vulnerable customers isn’t about sectioning off a part of a service or carving off a channel for people with a certain kind of vulnerability. Nor is it reducing the quality of service to meet additional needs.

It requires improving the whole service, optimising the potential for each touchpoint for everyone, and then providing additional support as people need it. Doing so allows people to use the most appropriate channel when they encounter the need.

Understanding the extent of vulnerability is an important first step to understanding and meeting vulnerable customer needs. It is also a key stepping stone to creating products and services that enable people to have exceptional experiences and empower them be able to make better choices for their circumstances.

By using vulnerability as a guiding focus for the design of new products and services, or the redesign of existing ones, businesses can drive value whilst remaining socially conscientious and responsible.