Katie Evans, Head of Research and Policy, Money and Mental Health

Universal design: how financial firms can make their systems work for everyone

There was much for us to celebrate in the Treasury Select Committee’s report on Consumers’ Access to Financial Services when it was published last week, but one thing really stood out to me – the Committee’s recognition of the value of universal design. Drawing on our evidence the Committee noted that:

“If [financial] firms designed their products to be accessible to all customers using a universal design approach, many of the issues faced by vulnerable consumers – including their concerns over having to disclose their vulnerability, would be removed.”

But what is universal design?

Having a mental health problem can affect your memory, make it harder to plan or solve problems, or make it nearly impossible to make a telephone call. There are two main ways that financial firms can support customers affected by these challenges, or who have other additional needs (such as hearing loss, a visual impairment or limited mobility):

        1. You can try to find the people who have additional or different needs, and offer them special extra support. For example, you might identify people with visual impairments, and offer them letters in other formats, like large print, audio recording or Braille.
        2. You factor in the additional and different needs people might have right from the start of designing your organisation’s systems, products and processes. Returning to the example of people with visual impairments, we commonly use this approach to help people cross the road safely – for example using tactile paving (those slabs with the bumps) at crossing points, and creating pedestrian crossings that beep as well as showing the green man, so a person who can’t see as well will know where and when it’s safe to cross.

The first approach is fine as long as you know who the people who need extra help are. But, when you don’t know who they are, it means that many people who would benefit from support are usually missing out on it.

The second approach – known as ‘universal design’ – can be much more effective, as it makes sure a person’s needs are always met, whether or not the person has been able to discuss them.

Which approach are banks using?

To date, when it comes to thinking about customers with additional or different needs, financial services providers have largely preferred the first approach. They often have special teams to support ‘vulnerable’ customers, and can offer a wide range of additional help – but only when customers ask for it.

When the help that is being offered is expensive, that might be reasonable. But in other cases, it isn’t appropriate to wait for people to ask for extra help.

Why is universal design important for people experiencing mental health problems?

That’s particularly the case for people experiencing mental health problems. Very often, people experiencing mental health problems either won’t feel able to ask for help – sometimes because they are worried about stigma – or that they will be discriminated against on the basis of their health. Others, simply don’t know what what they are experiencing is a clinical mental health condition: more than a third (36%) of people experiencing a mental health condition have never received a diagnosis. And you can’t tell a financial services provider, or anyone else for that matter, what you don’t know yourself.

Instead, we need to be designing products, process and services – in financial services and beyond – which understand how our needs might change if we’re experiencing a mental health problems, and ensure that we’ll still be able to access the things we need. In practice, this might mean:

  • Making sure bills are clear and easy to understand, so a person who is finding it difficult to process information can work out how much they need to pay and when
  • Sending reminders when payments are due, to support people experiencing memory issues.

The wider benefits

The great thing about this approach is it won’t just help people experiencing mental health problems. These changes could also help someone struggling to access financial services because English is not their first language, because of a learning disability, or even just if they’re sleep-deprived while looking after a new baby. Making things better for the people who most need help can be a great way to make things easier for everyone else too.

We’re convinced that building the principles of universal design throughout financial services and beyond is key to ensuring people experiencing mental health problems have access to products and services that really meet their needs – and we’re delighted that the Treasury Committee agree with us. The next news on this topic is likely to come from the Financial Conduct Authority, the financial services regulator, who are expected to publish new guidance on how firms should support vulnerable customers in the coming months. We’ll be watching closely to see if they too sign up to principles of universal design.