People are at the center of what we do. At Guardian, our Consumer Experience team continually works to create the best experience for all consumers. “Part of that is deepening the empathy across the company of who our consumers are, what their lives are like, and how it feels to go through our current processes or experiences,” says Wendy Dowd, Head of Consumer and Digital Experience at Guardian. For Wendy, we must continually ask “how do we make those experiences even better to be able to really make a difference in their lives and make things exceptional and effortless?”

Thinking inclusively

Deepening empathy starts with a mindset that considers all the people we serve. As part of our ongoing commitment to an inclusive consumer experience and website accessibility, we partnered with digital accessibility experts Deque Systems to conduct two empathy labs — allowing Guardian employees the opportunity to experience how people with disabilities interact with and use technology every day.

The Empathy Lab is an interactive learning experience that guides attendees through eight immersive stations, each simulating what it’s like to use different assistive technologies or to have a specific type of disability. Disabilities represented in the stations ranged from cognitive impairments such as dyslexia to vision impairments and mobility issues. Guardian employees travel from station to station, learning more about accessibility and assistive technologies, experiencing different tools, including  screen readers to navigate a website as though you had low vision or assistive controls for an application that you might use if you had limited motor control.

“In designing experiences for consumers of varying abilities it’s essential for Guardian employees to have empathy and truly understand how to develop and design those experiences,” says Mari Lee, a leader in Guardian’s Consumer Experience team.

“It’s made me reevaluate the resources that we use, have, and create,” says Megan Fitzpatrick, Research Analyst on Guardian’s Consumer Experience team, who participated in the Empathy Lab. “You have to think, is this working for everyone?”

How accessible design helps reach people of all abilities

Deque team members with disabilities were also onsite to speak directly with Guardian employees about how they use different technologies and what challenges they encounter. “When I visited Guardian, what impressed me were the number of employees who asked me to try Guardian applications so I might provide them feedback to improve the accessibility of their work,” says Tim Harshbarger, Senior Accessibility Consultant at Deque who was a representative at the Empathy Lab. “I expected to meet people curious about disability and accessibility. At Guardian, I found more than that, I met people eager to know what they might do right now to make Guardian more accessible.  For those of us with disabilities, accessibility does determine where we can do business.  At Guardian, I met people who want to ensure that Guardian will always be a welcoming option for us.”

Innovating forward

Placing the consumer first and introducing accessibility at an early stage in development and design can make an impact at every level. “A lot of people think that designing for accessibility means that all you have to think about is color contrast — and then you’re done — or if your font sizes are large enough — then you’re done,” says Matthew McGovern, a Guardian UX Designer. “You have to design with regards to accessibility from the get-go, before you even start creating a mock-up or typing a single line of code.”

Improved digital accessibility increases searchability and findability and optimizes clarity in overall website structure. Mari notes, “If you wind up creating good experiences for people who have disabilities you wind up creating good design and experiences for everyone.”

Fostering empathy and awareness around the need for and benefits of accessible design lets our internal developers and designers shift from creating products for our consumers, to co-creating with our consumers. “When we think about our values, People Count; we’re living our values because our consumers count and to really be able to serve them, we need to understand them,” says Wendy. Having empathy for our consumers is “more than just a program and more than just an initiative for web accessibility. It puts a human and a person in the middle of what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it.”