How culture and employees can inspire change and help your users
November 19, 2019
One of the core principles of Birdie is that we care— we care about the lives of older people, our users, our employees.
It is not some empty slogan that we just use in marketing campaigns, but a real tenant of who we are as a company. It is intrinsic to the decisions we make, our product roadmap and our technical priorities; with every employee able to make an impact.
It has been a highlight of my short career at Birdie to really see that in action, and a key example of this is a workshop we had at a company retreat. The workshop was aimed at defining how we might build a company that demonstrates it cares through action and how we could become a role model to other companies in our industry and society as a whole.
Defining our culture
We all got together and spent some time discussing the specific areas that we want to focus on, and settled on customers, community, the environment and the way we work together. We felt these areas covered a broad spectrum of internal/external affairs that we would have capacity to make a real impact on.
Next, we all spent some time individually coming up with ideas and split into four groups taking an area each, forming those ideas into tangible actions.
After that we got to the fun part (not that the rest wasn’t fun!) where we got to all individually vote on the ideas, with votes on those that would make an impact in the coming year and the next five/ten years. We settled on eight initiatives for the coming year:
Establish and reduce our environmental costs;
Define what it means to be environmentally friendly at Birdie;
Spend 500 hours per year on volunteering;
Every employee will meet with one client during their first two weeks;
Everyone in the team spends half a day on customer support;
An accessibility controller leading a guild;
A flexible working policy agreed with the team or squad that an employee works;
Every development plan contains one healthy behaviour that the individual wants to develop
We are extremely proud of every one of these initiatives and they are just the start of forming the culture that we want to create. Birdie has a mission to improve the lives of one million older adults and we are driven to get there, but it also has a secondary drive to be an upstanding member of industry and society, helping where and as much as we can.
We hope that through doing what we can towards climate change, giving back to the community, caring about the welfare of our employees and investing in our users goes some way towards that.
In this post, I want to focus specifically on the sixth initiative, an accessibility controller leading a guild. This initiative aims to ensure that we ship features that are accessible to all of our customers and that we humanise our products.
That all sounds a bit technical… What it really means is that that we will make our products easy to use by everyone and that a group of people will be in charge of making it happen. Simple!
Accessibility is a way to describe the design of products for those with disabilities and impairments, and an accessible product is an product that is usable by those with disabilities/impairments. (More on that later.)
What products do Birdie offer? Currently two:
An “agency hub”. A central place for care agencies to manage the care that is administered to care recipients;
A carer and family app. An application used by carers to input the care they give and a place for family members to view that care as well as things like sensor information in a loved one’s house
The product and engineering teams are constantly working on these products and we are quickly growing in feature set and engineering capacity. So we formed a team that consisted of one developer (myself) and two designers and discussed what our issues with accessibility were and how we were going to solve them.
Across all of our products, we know we haven’t done enough on accessibility. Accessibility is a broad subject and a lot of the time it can be mistakenly considered as just for those with impairments that require them to use specific devices or tools to help them. For example, someone who is visually impaired might use a screen reader to help them browse a website — a screen reader relays visual information on a screen through speech or braille.
While accessibility does indeed cover those cases, all of us at some stage will more than likely have had accessibility needs in our journey across the interwebs...
Ever broken your arm? You probably could only use one hand when browsing websites and had a vastly different experience;
Ever used a website while intoxicated? You probably forgot how to use the website or application and couldn’t navigate as easily.
These are trivial examples but they are true representations of common use-cases of applications by all of us.
So while we know we need to do better on specific impairments, what we really found is that we did not even provide a consistent experience for our users. A few small examples of how this bears itself out in our products are the (at least) seven variations of buttons, varying ways to provide messaging and copy, and contrasting flows to ultimately perform the same actions.
We know that our users can struggle to navigate and use our products and if users without impairments struggle, would those with specific impairments fare any better?
Considering all of this along with feedback from our users and customer care team, we decided to focus first on general usability of our system, which ultimately led us to the concept of universal design.
Universal design aims to make products accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors and to blend such into the core design of the system. This underpins our accessibility initiative’s mission statement:
Before we move to specific impairments, we must first address usability for everyone. This will lay the foundations for creating a truly accessible product. To do this, we must focus on providing clarity, consistency and simplicity.
With this mission statement created, we quickly got to work on how we could get there, and when we were reviewing the technical code as well as the designs of our product it was quite easy to see the problems.
What we found was thousands (not really thousands) of components that kind of did the same thing but slightly differently (as a developer… which one do I use?!), or components that weren’t duplicated thousands of times but were so malleable that they could be used thousands of different ways (as a developer… how am I supposed to use it?!). Furthermore, there was no guide or documentation to use all of these things, which only increases the complexity.
This is incredibly confusing to a developer or a designer and it was easy to see how inconsistencies can creep in and how these inconsistencies could extrapolate to not a lot of commonality and a lot of confused users.
If a carer is presented with dozens of button variants, how are they expected to know that when they want to do an important thing — like check in to a visit — they should click the big green button, when that big button is blue on the next screen but there’s a small green one as well?
As a developer, most of the time I didn’t even know! So we came to the conclusion that what we really needed was a design system. A design system is a collection of reusable components, standards and style guides that define a common language that can be used by designers and developers — which would bring consistency and coherency for our users.
This design system would be universally designed from the outset, which means it should be far easier when we do get to working on the experience for specific impairments.
Furthermore, it also helps our designers and developers, which usability is an issue for too. Too many different components that seem like they are doing the same thing, a lack of documentation and a lack of coherent structure. How could they possibly know what to do? The design system helps solve that by providing consistency, documentation and control. You know what to use, when/how to use it, and most importantly why you should use it.
We are well on our way with our design system now with the beta release for the agency hub already in use, along with buy in from the company in the importance and confirmed investment into its continuance.
Through the design system, we will continue to work to better improve the experience we offer to all of our users. However, this was only possible by surrounding ourselves with like-minded people that are genuinely invested in improving the lives of others and creating a positive workplace culture of trust in the personal actions of our peers.
In this case, creating a culture that gives space and responsibility to its employees will improve the experience of all of our users regardless of who they are, which is no bad thing at all.
We are very proud of this at Birdie and hope to inspire others to make the changes they all can and want to make. Give your employees the power to make decisions and they will reward you for it — only together can we improve society.