How everyone can win when we design for the most vulnerable

By designing for the overlooked and underserved, the overall brand experience can be raised for everyone. We take a look at how.

Jess Jones
By Jess Jones
Posted 10. 07. 2020
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As part of our #CreativityWins campaign, we’ve been asking ourselves some key questions about how we can support wider communities against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic. This week, we’ve been considering the more vulnerable groups and how we can protect, serve, and support them better.

There have always been and will always be vulnerable people within society. But the pandemic has thrown us all into a less safe and secure situation where we can better understand the plights that others have faced every day. By designing for the overlooked and underserved, we can help raise the overall experience for all - now is the time to effect long-lasting change that’s here to stay.

What do we mean by vulnerable?

It can be difficult to define what we mean by the term ‘vulnerable’. There are those with visible and arguably more obvious vulnerabilities at this time - such as the elderly who are at higher risk, and young children who are out of school and potentially face disadvantages because of that. But there are also hidden vulnerabilities, such as illnesses - both physical and mental - that people might prefer to keep private, as well as more subtle challenges such as mobility issues, struggling with technology and many more.

Over 2 million people in the UK are shielding right now. We love this grassroots initiative from a mum of 3 (2 of whom are shielding) which helps identify & protect those at greater risk when they re-enter the wider world whilst giving them a choice to draw attention to an invisible need. The fact is, whether they define themselves as vulnerable or not, a wide range of people are likely to fall into a group facing some form of challenge at the moment - and there’s an opportunity here to design with empathy in order to benefit everyone.

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We’ve identified three ways that all brands can lower the barriers for the most vulnerable and improve wellbeing, experience and loyalty for all:

Don’t just say it - be seen to be safe

It’s an obvious point, but a huge cause of worry and stress for many is whether they will feel safe doing the things that were once a normal part of their lives - whether it’s food shopping, eating at a restaurant or browsing for a new outfit. Where some brands previously embraced retail theatre as a way to delight and entertain customers, they should now think about using similar methods to emphasise their cleanliness and how seriously they are taking health and safety guidance. Disney is a great example of a brand that has historically built cleanliness into part of the experience, with an underground network of waste disposal tubes whisking rubbish from trash cans away before any risk of overspill. With a heightened interest in sanitation post-lockdown, other brands could take note.

As we start to return to old activities, being in public again for the first time and breaking away from the comfort of home can be scary - brands should offer full transparency and could consider sharing visual representations of their physical spaces online so visitors know what to expect and can plan accordingly. Once in-store, brands should be putting people at ease by ensuring important communications are clear to all, including those with visual or hearing impairments. We love this example from Aldi - they're rolling out a flashing traffic light system complete with audible alerts to inform blind and deaf customers when it’s ok to enter the store.

It’s not just about being safe (although it goes without saying, that’s a no-brainer) - it’s showing everyone how safe you are that will really reassure and help put everyone at ease.

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Build bridges, not walls - create communities around your values

For groups who have been shielding or isolated from their loved ones, staying connected and feeling like a part of something is going to be more powerful than ever. Brands should utilise their ability to unite people - whether it’s by giving them a cause to rally behind or simply by showing them that everyone is in this together and that they are not alone.

PG Tips recently launched a great campaign encouraging tea drinkers to come together and share a cuppa over the phone, a zoom call, or the garden fence, partnering with charities to help spread the word and include as many as possible in the bid to combat loneliness. We’re big fans of this pirate radio initiative in the US which encourages elderly care home members to take to the airwaves with their own DJ set in order to stay connected with each other whilst safely staying indoors.

By giving audiences a platform to socialise and share, brands can help boost confidence amongst groups who have been struggling to form and maintain connections over this challenging period and give us all a greater sense of community spirit.

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Go the extra mile for the underrepresented

Generosity has been highly valued by all during lockdown. From Adobe offering complimentary Creative Cloud subscriptions to Virgin Media providing free bandwidth upgrades to homeworkers, many have done their part to help out those in need. But arguably the most valuable thing a brand can do is offer their time and support in order to build stronger and more meaningful connections.

Brands should empower their people as brand ambassadors to better connect with customers who may require that extra bit of personal assistance. Despite the surge in online activity during lockdown, those who struggle with technology might value a face-to-face experience over a digital one - brands could consider offering bookable time slots to tailor the physical experience to the individual and allow vulnerable customers to come at a quiet time that suits them. For those who would still rather stay at home, Sainsburys have simplified the volunteer shopping experience by creating dedicated e-Cards for helpers to complete purchases for the vulnerable more quickly and easily.

Brands could also consider using their time and resources to help customers ‘level up’ - whatever that level might be. Similar to the NHS-backed Couch to 5K initiative helping people get fit, brands could encourage and support their more wary customers to hit personal goals at a pace that suits them - whether it’s providing incentives for successfully booking their first online delivery, or unlocking discounts when braving the store queue. Be a champion for your vulnerable customers - ask what they want to achieve and then help them achieve it.

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The current situation has made clear that there are a wide range of ‘invisible’ customers who want to be seen and supported - and by designing for and focussing on these different groups, there will be benefits for all. With greater empathy from brands, experiences can become more emotional rather than simply transactional. With more control and a greater sense of freedom given to vulnerable groups comes empowerment and improved mental health and wellbeing. The ‘new normal’ has already seen the basics of an infrastructure put in place for the benefit of all, but particularly the vulnerable - Zoom-based social activities, letterbox deliveries and creative experiences to enjoy from home. We want to keep it that way and continue building on this drive for inclusivity going forward.

As a consumer-insights-led creative agency, we can help identify these overlooked groups - whether they are shielded, vulnerable, or simply underserved - and innovate ways in which to engage, support and protect them within your brand experience. It’s low risk to try something new, and brands can grow loyalty and expand their customer bases through actions taken now - the most values-driven businesses will really stand out in the weeks and months ahead.

For more information on how we can help you connect with all by designing for the most vulnerable, please get in touch at creativitywins@dalziel-pow.com.

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