Barclays aims for barrier free banking
Accessibility head Paul Smyth explains Barclays’ plan to be the most accessible bank in Britain
As a student Paul Smyth had to work twice as hard as his contemporaries, using binoculars to scan the blackboard in class and reading books with the help of a powerful magnifying glass.
Those early efforts to overcome a degenerative eye condition have stood him in good stead in his current position as IT Accessibility Head at Barclays Bank.
“I thought it was intensely unfair that people who face barriers in life had to continue to face them in accessing banking services,” he says.
For the past four years he has spearheaded Barclays’ drive to become “the most accessible and inclusive FTSE company”.
That bold objective was adopted in 2012 with Barclays’ introduction of talking cash machines. “Almost immediately we saw a significant uptick in customers with vision impairments coming to Barclays,” he recalls.
“Historically, Barclays had focused more on initiatives to recruit and support disabled employees but realising that accessible customer service was both good for business and good for society, we ramped up our efforts,” says Smyth.
The introduction of the new cash machines was followed by a day-long event to ensure senior managers running services such as high street banking and Barclaycard heard the views of disabled customers.
“It was a big turning point: other businesses have a disability champion; for us it was more important to have everyone championing disability.”
But it wasn’t just a one off event. “We had to systematically go about it: tracking trends and measuring ourselves through net promoter scores,” says Smyth.
The Net Promoter Score is marketing jargon for answers to the question “would you recommend us to your friends?”
With help from this kind of feedback Smyth and his colleagues were able to see the impact of each innovation they made.
For example, deaf people do not use the phone, and find it difficult to communicate with branch staff.
Three years ago Barclays introduced a virtual sign language interpreter service in partnership with SignVideo, enabling a deaf customer to use a home PC and a webcam to contact their bank. In 2015 the service was extended to bank branches through frontline staff’s iPads.
“Before we introduced it deaf people had to wait up to two weeks for a human interpreter when booking a branch appointment but now we can offer a virtual interpreter instantly.”
People with cognitive impairments and problems with dexterity find passwords and security PINS a trial.
Voice biometrics, originally a service for corporate customers but now being rolled out to all Barclays customers, by-passes the need for passcodes by recognising someone’s unique voice patterns.
The software checks a client’s voice against their stored ‘voiceprint’, and verifies that the person is who they say they are.
Contactless cards and recently introduced wearables, for smaller transactions, do not require people to memorise PINs either when shopping.
At a time when online and mobile banking has become the norm for many customers, accessible services are a must.
Barclays has partnered with access consultants AbilityNet to be the first bank to independently accredit their most popular mobile apps – PingIt, Barclaycard and Barclays Mobile Banking.
As each app underwent a design refresh, disabled user testers and accessibility experts were involved from the outset to ensure that the app was both technically accessible but useable too.
Barclays has experimented with talking webpage plug ins and continues to seek feedback from users through their Barclays Launchpad app – a public site where the bank tests new features and designs that in time are dropped into main mobile apps. For example, fingerprint identification.
A chartered accountant by training, Smyth spent his first decade at Barclays in the finance department working to reduce the bank’s exposure to interest rate risk, hedging as it is called.
He became involved with the bank’s voluntary disability staff network and was asked to create a dedicated accessibility team and then to lead the digital accessibility agenda some four years ago.
“I did a complete career change that led to something of real interest to me. It is a labour of love.
“So far as IT accessibility is concerned I wear three hats. I am responsible for training and tools, helping others to learn about and deliver accessibility. And that is a big job because we have thousands of projects underway at any one time.
“I have an evangelist hat, spreading the word inside the organisation. And finally a policeman hat since I oversee compliance performance and measuring the benefits that improved access brings.
“Changing attitudes is an important part of the job, especially how comfortable and confident non-disabled colleagues in Barclays are with disability.”
It is a mission that reaches beyond Barclays itself. Business customers, for example, can learn about accessibility at a recently created portal aimed at smaller enterprises.
A module on accessibility will soon be added to Barclays Digital Driving Licence, a free elearning hub developed with the help of companies such as Microsoft and IBM and backed by the City and Guilds examination body.
“It is important with technology that everyone can use it,” says Smyth. “The accessibility module, based on AbilityNet’s MyComputerMyWay learning programme is trying to make everyone is aware of the built in accessibility settings (in their devices).”
The process of providing 30,000 digital and change people with the knowledge and tools to make the bank accessible seems a daunting task.
“We have to make sure they satisfy international standards. The World-Wide Web Consortium’s Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) may relate to developers but everyone has an obligation to understand, manage and meet accessibility requirements.”
To that end Smyth has boiled down the dry technical guidelines into a set of accessibility principles.
His team have also published a series of books containing personas, comic book characterisations of people with disabilities.
The personas, which are available for any organisation to use, make it clear what difficulties differently disabled people may face in everyday life and how they may use technology in different ways.
“Accessibility is getting more important but we need to make sure that developers get the right tools and training, for example, by trying to send a text using just their nose. These exercises provide light bulb moments and greater empathy.”
In addition to his Barclays day job, Smyth has also thrown himself into work with outside organisations, taking a leading role at the Business Disability Forum’s Technology Taskforce.
“I am proud of rewriting the accessibility maturity model which allows companies to measure their performance and compare it with peers,” he observes.
Smyth has also been instrumental in introducing to the UK a new certificate devised by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals (IAAP). He is looking to “professionalise the profession”.
“I am hugely positive about what we have achieved. But there is still a lot to do,” says Smyth.
“In particular, the AT industry needs changing.
“Historically bespoke AT solutions were created by niche suppliers for a narrow view of disabled users whereas now, mainstream manufacturers are applying inclusive design principles from building cars to kettles and major IT companies are enhancing built-in accessibility features.
“Accessibility is becoming of interest to more companies and of benefit to more consumers. It’s a fantastic time to be an accessibility professional.”
Looking ahead, Smyth sees new developments in prospect such as portable, personalised preferences that would allow individuals to identify themselves to any cash or vending machine and have it set up to suit their requirements.
In an age of increasing anxiety about cybercrime it is vital, he believes, to ensure that increased security does not result in increased complexity and the exclusion of disabled people.
Above all Smyth sees accessibility as a joint venture which is why Barclays is opening up its application programi Interfaces (APIs) so that they can be shared with other organisations.
The move is being driven by the Payment Services Directive which will require banks to open up to more competition and share information (assuming UK banks still adopt the Directive following Brexit).
“In a few years when details of customers will have to be shared with others you will have an interface that is user accessible on an aggregated portal (used by many financial institutions). It is an exciting prospect that will really improve accessibility.”