With people trapped at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re seeing reports that internet use is up 70%, and online buying is surging more than 50% in some markets. The pressure is on for e-commerce experiences and websites to perform well at this time of crisis, which requires a renewed focus on both access and resilience.

But “access” means different things to different consumers. For most, it’s simply a matter of being able to access a service. In this instance, businesses need to ensure that – despite traffic spikes and panic buying-induced shortages – websites have no tangible downtime through rigorously secured and tested back-end systems. For consumers who are elderly or live with a physical or cognitive disability, however, “access” requires additional features and functions that put a different onus on businesses.

Think of the elderly consumer whose online interactions are limited to FaceTime sessions with grandkids. While an increasing number of older consumers are becoming more digitally savvy – in the UK, more than half of those over 65 are shopping online – there’s still a large percentage who struggle with the “new normal” of procuring even the most basic goods and services during the pandemic.

There’s More Than One Type of Shopper

Unfortunately, most systems today highlight the fundamental inequalities in our current digital world, in which e-commerce experiences are built for a user-normative experience rather than optimized for access-for-all.

The impact of COVID-19 has not only been to separate the vulnerable from their support network, but to also force them onto complex systems that are already straining under the weight of existing customers. For many of us, accessing popular websites (like online grocers) has been hard enough, with retailers like Waitrose, Ocado and Tesco introducing a queue to access the site, with delays of over an hour. For vulnerable groups, these challenges are worsened by their lack of online experience, accessibility challenges and complex navigation.

We need to be aware that the systems we build, design and test impact the lives of a range of users. We need to be active in our drive to provide level access to services, food and, now more than ever, care and supplies. 

Seeing through the Eyes of the Elderly and Disabled

The main challenges for the elderly and disabled include:

  • Access to digital platforms and services (including high-speed internet, internet-enabled devices and websites). If an elderly shopper relies on e-commerce for food, they must first be certain they have a device to access the website and consistent internet service to wait in a queue. This is before they can even begin their shopping experience. And yet, 53% of adults over 75 in the UK have not used the internet in the last three months.
  • Unfamiliarity with the online environment. While online shopping may feel intuitive for those of us well-experienced with buying online, the typical UX of today could be confusing to newcomers. While many online sites assume mouse usage, users with disabilities may need to use a tab key to click through the actions before pressing enter on their desired choice. If there are small menus, red/green text or other non-accessible features, this can become difficult if not impossible to navigate.
  • The know-how to register as “vulnerable” on supplier websites. While elderly or vulnerable users are given priority access and delivery slots on grocers’ websites, these users first need the digital savvy to register for this status online.
  • Payment barriers. The use of text- and mobile-driven digital payment and validation methods are second nature to younger users but can pose a barrier to those without mobile phones or online banking. Elderly customers, accustomed to paying with physical money, may not be able to pay online due to the lack of a credit or debit card or security barriers put in place by banks to protect them. Only 23% of people aged 75 to 79 in the UK have access to online banking, as do just 14% of people over 80. This represents a significant population who may feel uncomfortable with online transactions.

Connecting Vulnerable Shoppers with Needed Supplies

For businesses, therefore, it is important to consider the following solutions that could ease the online challenges for inexperienced, disabled or elderly online shoppers:

  • Load-balanced systems or full backup servers to provide seamless access.
  • Transparent and easy-to-use queuing systems to support those waiting in digital queues. These should provide a clear time and access code for those who cannot remain online, which can be entered to reclaim your place in the queue closer to the access time.
     
  • Simplified UX and payment methods for those who struggle to navigate the new shopping environment or may not be familiar with online payment systems, such as call-to-pay follow-ups with customers.
  • Error-free, watertight journeys that don’t pose barriers for users. One elderly neighbor of mine was recently daunted when told by a helpline that her payment card could not be used in the Explorer browser, and that she should move to Chrome.

All of this should be tested, and systems should be assessed for a range of potential services, such as:

  • The ability to deliver to a location other than the one registered on the account. This would enable a family member or friend to place an order for the elderly or disabled user.
  • Packaging that makes it easy for orders to be brought in by those with physical conditions (i.e., packaging that is packed in more, lighter bags, or with handles that don’t require shoppers to bend down to lift them).
  • Support available to assist users struggling with e-commerce experiences.
  • Support available to take orders for the vulnerable and enter them into online systems.
  • Simplified product sets to allow “emergency box” provisions (i.e., pre-packaged bundles that allow shoppers to pick a single item – containing all the dietary staples – without having to build a basket).

At this time of vulnerability, we must consider the already at-risk, be mindful of their challenges, and ease the way to support everyone through perceivable, operable, understandable and robust e-commerce experiences.

Koushik Sethuraman, Non-Functional Engineering Consultant within Cognizant’s Quality Engineering & Assurance Practice in the UK&I, contributed to this blog. 

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.

Ben Pilgrim

Ben Pilgrim

Ben Pilgrim is a Strategy Director within Cognizant’s Retail, Consumer Goods, Travel & Hospitality team. A strategic leader and strong proponent of... Read more

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