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Designing With Empathy: Why Are You Ignoring 20% Of Your Audience?

COVID-19 means shrinking markets for many brands; despite this, the vast majority are still ignoring 20 percent of their potential audience.

The “Purple Pound” covers the one in five people with a range of disabilities who are unable to fully access many platforms and experiences. This market is worth approximately £249 billion, making it both a commercial and ethical issue that cannot be ignored.

Most are doing the minimum to comply with web content accessibility guidelines but are still failing their audience. There is a better way, and in this session, you’ll find out how “Designing with Empathy” is the new standard for opening up platforms to everyone.

Join passionate advocate of Inclusive Design, Kevin Mar-Molinero, and Charlie Woodhead, Accessibility and Inclusion Manager at LNER, to discuss the issues surrounding designing with empathy—what it is, how it can be delivered, and how you can avoid the experts on the subject who turn out to be charlatans.

You’ll learn about how the issues surrounding inclusivity can affect all of us and the surprising range of people unable to use your website and buy your products. Find out why designing with empathy is much more than a box-ticking exercise and focuses on thinking like a human being. And you’ll discover how your business can move from compliance to compassion and reap the rewards on your balance sheet.

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Charlie Woodhead, Accessibility & Inclusion Manager at LNER
Kevin Mar-Molinero, Director of Experience Technologies at Kin + Carta Connect
Eloise Maslewski, Group Account Director at Kin + Carta Connect

What does the social model of disability mean to you?

Yeah, of course. So it's a phrase that not a lot of people who don't work in this area have heard of. So there's two sides to think of here. There's the medical model of disability and the social model of disability. So the medical model of disability says you are disabled because you are in a wheelchair or you have autism, or you are visually impaired. Whatever that disability might be, the medical model says that is why you are disabled. So the reason you can't do something is because you are in a wheelchair, let's say, for example. Social model of disability turns that on its head and says, actually, the reason that you can't do something is not because you're in a wheelchair, it’s because that has not been made accessible to you. 

And so the example that I use for us in a railway context is the reason that you can't get on a train without someone helping you. The medical model would say because you're in a wheelchair, the social model would say, because we did not design the train in a way that you can just get on yourself. So it's kind of taking that responsibility and turning it on its head, because actually saying that the reason you can't do something is because you're in a wheelchair is just blaming that person for being disabled. And that's really not what we should be doing as a responsible business or as a society, we should really be actually taking that responsibility ourselves and saying, the reason you can't do something is 'cause we've not done it right. And we need to make it easier for you. And a kind of analogy there I guess is that, let's say I make the same journey two days in a row. On day one, and I'm a wheelchair user in this example. On day one, I arrive at the train station and the member of staff who's supposed to be helping me can't be found. By the time we find them, I've missed the train 'cause I couldn't get on on my own. When I get to the end of that route, there's no one there to meet me. So I'm panicking while they're trying to find a member of staff. And then on the way to the office, but I know at the office there's steps and someone needs to put a ramp down. 

When I get there, the normal receptionist is off sick. And the one who is covering can't find the key for where the ramp is stored, and I'm out in the rain getting soaked. Day two, exactly the same routine, except there's a member of staff for me. I get on the train. Member of staff waiting at the other end, I get off. Work texts me to say, just let us know when you're a minute away and we'll get the rum out so you can come straight in. Both of those days, I had exactly the same medical condition and disability, but I would strongly argue that on the first day I was a lot more disabled and that was nothing to do with me. That was entirely to do with my surroundings and society. So that to me is why it's an important point and trying to understand is really taking responsibility for it.

How does that apply to digital?

So I think it's kind of important to look at where we are at the moment. I would say within the digital space currently, we are very much within the medical model of disability. And the reason why I think that is because we spend a lot of time building a digitalised state, our services, our products, et cetera, et cetera, to fit criteria such as design or usability or technical performance. And then at the end we come in and we retrofit accessibility and we fix for people with disabilities. And what we're doing there whilst it is a very good thing to do and it's something I'd encourage, is treating people with disabilities, people with impairments as a tick box exercise at the end. Undeniably, a good thing to do in terms of making sure we're making our state right for purpose and compliant. But to reach the social model of disability, what we really need to be doing is inclusive design right from the start. And that means we begin with users, with people with impairments in mind. And we adapt our products and services for the benefit of all. And one of the advantages we get from being in that situation is that if we start at that point, we can actually fix a problem for one which may well fix things for many users and many people and give us all a bigger opportunity and a bigger customer base to talk to.


What's the difference between inclusive sympathy and inclusive empathy?

I think that they are two words that people often mix up in everyday context, not just in this one. But there is a very, very strong difference in this area. So to be sympathetic to someone, you are potentially feeling sorry for their situation or feeling like that shouldn't happen. And you're trying to put yourself in their shoes a bit too much. And really just like I said, feel sorry for them, whereas to be empathetic, you just have to understand that situation. You don't have to be in it yourself. You don't have to even agree with it. You just have to understand it. And that puts a whole different perspective in terms of inclusive design in all aspects of business no matter what you're doing because if you are sympathetic when something you have done doesn't work for someone, you do exactly what Kev just said around, oh how do we fix it? What can we do that's nice to make them people happy again? 

When actually all people want is to have the exact same access to something. They don't want anything extra. They don't want any freebies any more than anyone else does. They just want the exact same as what everyone else has been able to access. So being empathetic is how you just understand that. You just go, that's wrong. I know why that's wrong. I know why that person is angry about it. I don't feel sorry for them. I just know it's wrong. And it's taking that and that completely changes your perception of when you're thinking about a complaint or a criticism, or even at an early stage of a design. How do I understand what someone is gonna think if we don't do this this way? So I do think being sympathetic in that particular situation, just to push yourself at risk of boxing people off as trying to do something separate for them, exactly what Kevin was just saying. Whereas empathetic is trying to put everyone under the same understanding position.


How to design with empathy

So I think designing with empathy means understanding your customers even if you don't live their lives. And I think that's a really important part of it as well it is, we cannot live everybody's experiences. But what we can do is we can watch, we can learn, we can listen to the experiences other people have. And we do that through things like inclusive research. We do it through things like personas. We speak to real people. We follow ethnographic studies and make sure that we understand how they are using your products and services. And when I talk about your products and services, as an example, it can be physical products as much as digital products. 

So take, for example, you are a company that sells say hair products, shampoo. If you take a look, a lot of shampoo bottles, the way they're formed, the lid is on one side and on the conditioner, the lid is on the other. The reason for that product design is so that they can be differentiated by people who can't see in the shower. Likewise when you're selling a product online, we can say through an eCommerce platform, then what you would have the advantage over there from doing a research and seeing how people use it is an understanding, and this is a real example which we got from research we did recently of a person who had, I think it's motoneuron. And what they wanted was to be able to understand how squeezable the bottle was to purchase, because if it was too hard to squeeze, they couldn't use it. And simply including video content that allowed them to access somebody squeezing the bottle would allow them to make a decision point. The purchase point. 

It’s important to understand that there's real insight into how people currently work. And I think if you look at them and you look at the failings which we are making, and let's be blunt and honest, all of us are making them at the moment. I don't think it's something to be ashamed of. You can see how your users are already, your customers are already doing work arounds. And by understanding their work arounds rather than just assuming what's best for them, you may well find new products or new features which you can take into the market, which benefit everybody. There's a beautiful example of this actually which is the electric toothbrush. And the electric toothbrush was designed for people with motor issues. But I guarantee you pretty much every single one of us here uses an electric toothbrush. And this is something which we can see across digital platforms and digital channels as well. And simply stepping back and listening to your users, listening to your customers and seeing an inclusive research and design of how they work, is what will push everybody forward.

The business opportunity 

I think you're absolutely right with buy in, is quite a difficult subject. A lot of people see improvements, the disabled people as niceties or just doing the right thing, and doing the right thing generally doesn't have a nice big profit tag next to it, which means it's much harder to get that business case across. But actually, just because a project in itself doesn't have a measurable profit margin doesn't mean that it is not going to be beneficial to business. So for example, if you look at the kind of modern society and how they perceive disability now. 

We've come a long way even in the last 10 years, let alone the last 20, 30 years. And as you alluded toward the start, everyone listening here and everyone has some connection to someone that is impacted in some way by disability, in whatever scale. And actually that means that perceptions of businesses that do things wrong is definitely impacted. So if you decide not to make a change that benefits disabled people, you're not just cutting disabled people off, you're cutting off anyone who knows someone with a disabled person, who thinks that that action is wrong. And as we mentioned in the title, you know, one in five people have some kind of disability and while I'm not a commercial expert by any stretch, I know that cutting off a fifth of your revenue opportunity is not a smart business move. If you then add everyone who has a connection to a disability, you're immediately cutting off so much opportunity and so much potential revenue. And then the reputation behind that as well. 

So if you don't do something, not only does it cost you a lot of money, if you have to fix it, or if you have to try and do something differently, but you will be perceived in such a negative way that that will massively damage your reputation which in turn will damage your customer numbers and profits. It'll add PR impacts and it will just generally change how your business is perceived. If you do it the other way around, you not only gain customers who have disabilities because they will choose you over competitors, but actually your responsible business makes it so much easier for people to go, actually that businesses do the right thing. And that might even be enough for them to decide to choose you over a competitor, regardless of product point if they know you're a responsible business. So I think that perception piece is so important. And if you can get it right internally and get people to do what we've just said around empathy, it's so much easier to understand why this is the right thing to do and not just a nicety. It does have huge benefits for businesses.

So I'm gonna be a little bit more blunt than Charlie. I'm actually going to talk numbers. The Purple Pound, which is the phrase used for the spending power of people with disabilities in the UK is 249 billion pounds. The spending power globally of people with disabilities is 1 trillion U.S. dollars. Those are not small market opportunities, particularly in a world where we are now, where markets are constricting. The idea that you cut those off, it just doesn't make any sense to me whatsoever. Also, impairments aren't just for those with disabilities. If you solve a problem for somebody who has one arm, you're also solving a problem for somebody with a broken arm, as well as somebody who is carrying a phone and looking at something on the phone whilst carrying a cup of coffee or a baby or a handbag. And it's kind of interesting to see how we can find opportunities for innovation, because if we're solving those problems at that end of the bell curve, you're gonna find some opportunities which are innovative and push you forward right through the entire market. And then, 

Another important point to me is that inclusivity isn't just about impairments. It isn't just about disability. It's about perception as Charlie said. But it's also about gender. It's about race. It's about sexuality and it's about class. And I think there's been studies recently which show that doing the right thing, as in actually showing diverse communities will make a huge impact on your spend and on what customers spend on you. But also on how you're perceived and how communities are perceived. So Proctor & Gamble actually had a report into the impact of diversity in advertising. And there was a 10% increase in positive attitudes towards LGBTP plus community as a result of seeing their representation in advertising. Likewise, the UN have been running the unstereotyped campaign, which I would recommend people look into. And in terms of unstereotyping advertising, removing stereotypes from advertising, they increased spend on brands, consumer brands, which was fascinating. And then finally I think is: performance. Performance is an inclusive issue. Performance is a socioeconomic issue. If you make your sites slow, if your sites aren't performing, then they're not accessible to people who cannot afford data. And we need to consider those considerations as well.

How does the social distancing impact LNER's ability to look after customers' accessibility needs?

Thanks for that. It's a really topical question particularly now, obviously. And, it's been pretty much the encompassing of my job for the last few months. And it was challenging at first. It's probably the only area of our business where actually there is physical interaction between customers and staff. So we guide people who are blind, say someone might need an arm to get help and get onto a train. We're helping people who are in wheelchairs, have them pushed up a ramp, and it was quite a difficult thing. It was essential that we still allowed people to travel because that perception point, it was very easy to go, well, only essential people are traveling so surely there's no one who needs assistance anymore, but actually disabled people can be essential workers too. They can be going to work, they'd be hospital appointments. So actually it was really important that we didn't let that perception kick in straight away of how well they've said that anyone who isn't an essential worker shouldn't be traveling. So that immediately rules out to several people. It doesn't at all. Yes, numbers are falling, but the numbers have fallen for everyone. So we've just worked to make sure that we keep to government guidelines, to make sure that we actually do what we need to do. But a lot of it was just reassurance of our staff and actually the amount of time that they needed to help people didn't put them at serious risk. But actually we wanted to make sure we could reassure customers too, because actually a lot of staff had concerns, but customers had concerns too. They didn't want to be touching a member of staff anymore than a member of staff wanted to be touching them in this current climate. So it was quite a difficult dynamic of how we managed it, but our staff have adapted to it because we've made sure we've given them resources. We've given them protection where we can, we've given them really solid advice to make sure that they can minimize risk. And as a result, we've managed to continue delivering assistance exactly how we did. Obviously a lot less now, but we've no problems so far. So it's just resilience I think, and understanding that, yes, we need to make sure our staff understand it, but also understand that customers are scared too. And make sure that they are as reassured as our staff are.


The role of different disciplines within inclusive design

What you will find often is people look at accessibility as being a technical problem. And they will say, ugh we'll raise a bunch of tickets to fix the work hack guidelines at the end of the project lifecycle, and maybe give some off the cuff, looking at, say the design and the branding, looking at color contrast, et cetera. Actually, what needs to happen, and Leonie Watson is gonna do is to talk about this later on, which I would advise people to drop into. What needs to happen is the whole conversation needs to be shifted left, and you need to think of your inclusive user experience as part of the UX stage. And you need to be starting to plan at those stages. There is a technological area which retrofits some of the more rich experiences, which we, I mean, I speak for myself there, but as a fully-sighted user who doesn't use assisted technology can view on the web and it retrofits it's work in terms of working with assistive technologies. I believe those things should be considered a UX stage and should be planned at the UX stage to allow for the same consistent journeys, the same consistent experiences across the board and make sure we're leaving nobody behind. And most of the designers which I work with, if not all the designers I work with, have a desire to do these things and to be brought on this journey. We should never leave it to the end. We shouldn't just be happy and confident seeking a box just to get it through the door of compliance.

Technology examples

Technology has adapted in lots of areas to make things easier for people. So voice is a good example. How do you enable people to access things in the same way? So you could say that actually a website is fully accessible for someone who is blind, but actually accessible and easy are not always the same thing. Just because something is usable, doesn't mean it's a seamless, so you might be able to use a website perfectly fine as someone who is blind, but it might take you three times as long to do everything as it does someone who can see what's on there, whereas actually things like voice, flip that and go, we try to make it as easy as possible for you to use whatever tool works best for you. And I think that is just one example. Apple does all sorts of things like that. So the Apple Watch, with things like vibrations to your wrist on specific messages and specific times and different ways of making things easy for people to understand. 

It can be something as radical as that, or it can be something as simple as, we talked about color and color contrast, and we use traffic light colors quite a lot to describe things. And actually red, green is the most common form of colorblindness. So in the UK, 5% of the population are red, green color blind. So actually traffic light indicators on websites and on graphics are actually really unhelpful for someone who's color blind. And simply adding some little dots to that, or the lines or looking into the design mark can make a huge difference. So some things are radical and might be a whole new technology that, voice, obviously, is a whole thing in itself, and other things can be really quite small, like a simple graphics change. But the level of impact they have on someone can be equal depending on how difficult that activity is if you don't use that tool.

How to start your designing with empathy journey?


Start from the viewpoint that you are not looking at people with disabilities. You are looking at your customers and once you've changed your mindset and the culture internally to thinking of customers not fixing the disability or compliance, then you're already on the way to the journey. And there's a phrase which we use internally and I've spoken to clients and peers, et cetera about which I think is really important to think of. You do not have to be an expert to be an advocate. And to be an advocate of this change within your organisation is the first step to creating that change. On a more practical level, you can always get in contact with myself as well, and the team Kin + Carta and we will help you going on that journey as well. But don't feel the need to think that everything will be correct from the first day. This is still a nascent field and we are learning as we go. All of us are learning as we go.

I'd echo a lot of that. And I think one thing for me is education. Take any opportunity you can get to find out more. You know, I've been in my role for a few years now and I've learned more in that few years than I've ever learnt before, in terms of, I wasn't the expert when I joined my business, you know, I've learned as I've gone along and kept learning. And the fact that roles like mine exist shows that this is an area that is not easy. It's not supposed to be something that you can learn overnight and just do. That's why there are people like me in businesses and people who have this as a specialty. 

If there's anything that we've kind of said today that you kind of liked the idea but you don't really know more, I really encourage learning more. And equally, networking. So the most useful tool that I have in my role is my network of people who do similar things. So, like Kevin, more than happy to do anything, networking wise, LinkedIn, Twitter, whatever works. I'm more than happy to support however I can. Have that discussion and sharing of best practice. Accessibility is an opportunity to outdo competitors, an opportunity to be brilliant, but actually it is a noncompetitive area in my view, in terms of being a baseline. Accessibility is not something that we're trying to make anyone else look bad for, It's a baseline. So talk to your competitors, find out what best practice is and at least get that baseline. Nothing to stop you doing something great beyond that. But being inaccessible is not something that you should enjoy a competitor having. It's something that we should all be trying to get together. So networking is my strongest advice I'd say.

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