Transformation & Change: Inclusion by Design

Posted: 13th September 2021 Cher Lewney, Principal Consultant, Digital Transformation

As the pace of change increases and organisations are working to improve efficiency and effectiveness, for tenants, customers and employees alike, are they investing in inclusion by design?

Social housing tenants, as members of today’s modern and increasingly digital society, want – and often expect – to be able to self-serve digitally, at a time of their choosing.  The time of Monday-Friday 9-5 services is no longer, and this has been accelerated through necessity by the Covid pandemic.

Huge programmes are in motion in organisations of all sizes to transform delivery; to use existing technologies to modernise the way we work; and to design and embed emerging technologies, to make things smarter, and more efficient.

This is obviously to be welcomed and, indeed, not to do so, would leave social housing languishing behind other sectors and offering our customers poorer services and worse experiences than they receive in other parts of their lives.

But are we doing enough to consider the needs of those who potentially already face exclusion and barriers in their lives; and are at risk of additional – often inadvertent – exclusion as services are digitalised?  Digital by design is a concept that is now well recognised in the sector, but have we given enough thought to inclusion by design?

Risk Factors

The digital divide and risk of exclusion of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities could be exacerbated by the digital acceleration, unless this is explicitly factored into service design from the outset.

The issue of skills and confidence is widely recognised, particularly in relation to older people, and many organisations provide, or partner to provide, training to help people get online and begin to develop the skills they need to build technology into the way they bank, shop, keep in touch with friends and family and access services and support.

But training itself may not be enough to build confidence to change a lifetime of habits; and support to change behaviours needs to be more sustained and personalised.  Everyone learns differently so organisations need to be thinking about the outcome they want, in terms of sustained changes of behaviour; rather than focusing on a blanket roll out of high level skills.

On the same topic, when organisations recognise that they need more digitally literate staff to support new ways of working; and roll out training purely via eLearning, it may vaguely be on a par with ‘we know you don’t speak French, but we’re going to deliver our training in French nonetheless…’

We can do better

Even recognising these limitations, however, other risk factors that our customers face from digitalisation appear to be less consciously considered or built into the way we are designing and launching digital services currently.

For example, we know that people with lower incomes are more likely to be on monthly data plans, and have reduced access to digital information and services at certain points in the month.  This lack of access through poverty could potentially result in a vulnerable applicant missing a property they are eligible for if the only way to access Choice Based Lettings systems is online during a specified window each week.  While we could argue that people can access laptops in public spaces if it is important enough for them to do so, we may be able to do more to reduce the impact of this by considering changes to advertising or allocations processes.  Flag where people may not be able to bid and automate an expression of interest for example?  It’s not rocket science, but if we plan for the realities of each of these risk factors in the design of our business processes and systems, we can help to reduce any negative impact they may have.

Also, are we confident that our systems are consistently fully responsive and accessible via mobile phone (as opposed to via tablet, laptop or desktop) so that people are not discouraged from using services because the user experience is poor? Again, people with lower incomes are more likely to only have digital access via a mobile device, so if a system works less well on a smaller device, the impact it has for them is disproportionately greater.

Similarly, are translation tools inbuilt for all customer-facing processes to provide easy support for customers whose first language is not English?  If so, how robust and accurate are they and are there appropriate escalation processes in place if something goes wrong or a situation becomes too complex to automate?  The customer shouldn’t disengage because the service just stops or because they don’t know what to do next.

Where customers have physical disabilities, are they able to access support to help them engage with services appropriately, or is there an expectation that they will do it via an advocate which could be discriminating in its assumptions or have a range of unintended consequences?  Are increasingly available accessibility tools considered in the way that services are delivered digitally, in order to support issues with mobility, or vision or hearing, or neurodiversity or even mental health?

Similarly, are assistive technologies understood and considered in the way that services are offered to people with learning disabilities?  Does the business process design focus on the application of a standard experience for all customers, or can it be tailored to the individual, for example, to support independent living in a wider range of scenarios and allow people to live more equally?   

 Core principle of inclusion by design

Across the sector, as new digital channels have begun to be introduced to contact centres, it is important that all customers need to experience the same quality of experience, regardless of their channel of access or personal situation.

Use of digital technology undoubtedly offers new ways to address some of the barriers to inclusion; but investment in inclusion by design needs to be embedded as part of the digitalisation process from the outset.

Written by Cher Lewney, Principal Consultant, Altair

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