18th October 2019
Making energy fair and inclusive through web accessibility
Jackson Howarth, In-house Writer
Mental Health Awareness week is over, but there’s still heaps of important work to do when making life easier for those who experience mental health issues. We want to shine a light on some of the online barriers people face, and give some tips on how to build a website with inclusion in mind. (Plus, let you know about a Really Cool Thing our Front-end developer Ashley Firth has done to help make the web accessible.)
At Octopus, we use tech to improve online user experience, no matter your access needs. Thanks to some of our great, dedicated people, we’re helping to improve web accessibility, not just on our own site, but all over the web too.
We’re lucky enough to have Ash Firth as our head of Front End Development, who has worked incredibly hard to make web accessibility an absolute priority for Octopus. He’s written a couple of great blogs on his work auditing and reviewing the Octo site to make sure it provides a great experience for all, from blind users to those with anxiety. This year, Ashley has been working on an exciting project focused on building a more inclusive online world.
After months of work he’s put his findings together and literally written a bloody book: Practical Web Inclusion and Accessibility.
It’ll be released early next year, but you can, and definitely should, pre-order a copy.
Practical Web Inclusion and Accessibility is a guide to online accessibility, aimed at content creators, designers, developers, and anyone else whose work involves websites. It teaches readers how to cater for users with a range of different disabilities and ‘access needs’. These are needs that must be considered to make sure that nobody is excluded from online spaces, and especially not from vital online services, like managing their energy supply.
Based on some snippets from the book’s ‘Mental Health’ chapter, here are some things you can keep an eye on (as a content creator, developer, designer - or simply an engaged user) that will help make the web a more accessible place for those who experience impaired mental health:
Encourage Accessible Communication
It’s fairly common for people who have mental health issues to experience ‘communication anxiety’. This can lead to heightened symptoms when using certain forms of communication, whether email, phone, or web-chat. To quote one user: ‘I have massive anxiety about talking to strangers on the phone. I frequently end up feeling exhausted or at worst suicidal afterwards.’ In this case, the basic solution is simple - make sure that your websites contain several reliable channels for getting in touch, and encourage other sites to do the same.
However, there is a lot more we can do to make sure that communication is accessible. Those who experience severe anxiety often respond negatively to using unfamiliar sites. This is usually because they worry about their actions having unintended consequences (especially when dealing with important services like utilities, or banking). One innovative solution is to integrate communication with sites that users feel more comfortable on. At Octopus Energy for example, we have a chatbot embedded in Facebook Messenger that allows people to receive an energy quote based on their property and energy usage. It asks all of the same questions as our regular website journey, but can be completed in a more familiar and informal setting.
Another solution is to make sure that communication itself – and online journeys more generally – are as clear and predictable as possible. This means using plain language and setting expectations. You should let people know how long a particular journey or interaction will take, what they need before they start, and how much further they have to go. As communication draws to a close, you should always allow people to clarify and review their actions, and make sure they know what happens next.
Call Out ‘Dark Patterns’
Coined by UX specialist Harry Brignull, dark patterns are web-features that are designed to benefit businesses by ‘tricking’ users into doing things they may not want to do. There are a lot of techniques used online that are designed to ‘nudge’ users into behaving a certain way, but dark patterns are especially manipulative. They affect everybody, but those with Mental Health impairments who experience a lack of motivation, periods of impulsivity, or suffer from anxiety, can be more sensitive to this exploitation. The solution here is simple, avoid dark patterns at all costs, and call them out whenever you can.
Common Dark Patterns Include:
- Creating a false sense of urgency using timers, ‘virtual queues’, and by bombarding users with misleading messages that say things like “Last chance! Only 1 left on our site!”, “33 other people looking now”, or “1 other person booked in the last 10 minutes”.
- Adding something else to a users basket automatically, when they go to checkout, putting the responsibility on the user to spot and remove it. This tactic is often combined with the forced urgency that we mentioned above.
- Using purposefully difficult wording to trick users into making decisions they wouldn’t have otherwise made: “tick here if you do not want etc”.
- Creating complicated journeys to dissuade users from making undesirable actions, like deactivating an account, for example. This often means hiding these processes of vaguely titled pages that are difficult to find within sites.
- Confirm Shaming: This involves framing decisions in a way that ‘shames’ users if they make a choice that the site, or company doesn’t like. For example, when choosing whether to enter your email address to get 15% off an order, the option might say “No thanks, I’m not into savings”.
The barriers and solutions mentioned above impact those with Mental Health Issues, but they also affect the rest of us – everybody finds clear communication useful, and nobody likes dark patterns. This alludes to a central theme in Ashley’s book and something that we strongly believe at Octopus: working with accessibility in mind makes the world a better, more convenient place for everybody. If you are interested in learning more about how to build a more inclusive web, we strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Ashley’s book – you can pre-order it now.
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