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“All of us experience different needs throughout our life” — making banking accessible for everyone

Melissa Mohun, vice president of digital customer experience at Scotiabank, shares the fundamental principles that are necessary to drive inclusivity.

If you’re a young, able-bodied, neurotypical person born in Canada, it’s easy to forget that not everyone moves or thinks like you do. But each of us navigates the world differently, and we all deserve equal access to services and spaces. Accessibility means applying universal design principles to make places and products as accessible as possible to everyone — no matter what their needs are. As more companies realize the importance of accessibility, many of them have set up departments that prioritize this type of inclusion.

“Accessibility is particularly important in banking, especially since having the ability to manage your own money and having financial independence are so tightly intertwined,” says Melissa Mohun, vice president of digital customer experience at Scotiabank. “I consider that a human right. And so, when I think about Scotiabank’s role in society, it is to ensure that that is available to everyone all the time.”

From making the workplace accessible to employees to creating a more inclusive mobile app and chatbot, Mohun shares how Scotiabank is trying to boost accessibility for all.

Why are universal design principles so important for everyone?

Universal design means catering to people with a wide range of abilities, ages, backgrounds and cognitive capacities. It’s all about promoting equitable use. This is not about a discrete group of people who have separate needs. All of us experience needs that vary throughout our lives and through different situations. And so, when you think about humanity in that way, it becomes obvious that this is an imperative for everything that we build.

How can companies ensure they take a holistic approach to accessibility so it extends throughout the organization in both physical and digital spaces?

In order to be holistic, it has to be a multi-faceted approach. Our design systems, our practices for testing and user research, our processes for delivery and quality assurance — all of these things need to have an accessibility lens. There are cultural elements to this as well; we need teams to think differently about the world in which they work and the people they’re here to serve. At Scotiabank, we believe in the concept of building products right for everyone. Inviting customers with disabilities to participate in the design process and the research process is critical. But it’s also not just inviting customers in. It’s also making sure we’re hiring individuals with disabilities to our teams. The people who make the decisions of what we build are an important part of this conversation, so I’m really proud to say we’ve been very focused on our strategies for recruitment, talent acquisition and retention for people with disabilities.

There can be hesitation from stakeholders around whether accessibility really is a must-have. How do you push back against this ableism when it appears?

We have been very fortunate that we’ve had support from the top at Scotiabank to make inclusion and accessibility an imperative. I’ve found that telling human stories — people who are struggling to use fundamental features because the alt text wasn’t coded properly, for instance — can go a long way. It’s one thing to talk about accessibility in the abstract. But by seeing the impact it has on real people’s lives makes it a lot more “real” for people.

We focus very much on intersectionality within our community here: We are all multidimensional, we’re a mosaic of segments based on our identity, our context, our current situation. That can include formal disabilities, and it can include all sorts of other things that create barriers, such as socio-economic barriers or language barriers. It can include cognitive challenges for somebody who has recently been in an accident. There are lots of different ways to think about inclusive needs within the context of people’s lives.

What are some examples of accessibility features that can really help everyone?

When we designed the basic interface for the homepage on the mobile app, we thought about the range of motion for a thumb, for people who might be challenged with motor issues. I’m a young mom; I have a two-year-old and a four-year-old. I often have other humans in my hands or I’m carrying 8,000 things. We’ve thought about how to make it easier to accomplish something with minimal use of your hand, which is not only helpful for someone with fine motor skill challenges, but also helpful for people who are trying to navigate their busy life. Maybe they’re on a crowded streetcar and not able to do something in the smoothest way possible.

What are some of the considerations that go into making modern banking tools like chatbots more accessible?

A chatbot is a powerful opportunity for inclusion. How do we build the chatbot in an inclusive way to make sure we’re not creating more exclusion in the way that we build it? How can we use the chatbot for serving customers who may have memory challenges, and how can we think about an assistant that actually supports users with varying cognitive needs to retain independence in their banking? But there are other fundamentals to address, such as: How do we think about customizable settings? How do we make sure the chatbots are screen-reader-friendly? How do we make sure that the commands for chatbots are annotated properly? If they need to be reviewed in different formats, how do we make sure that, for cultural inclusion, there are language considerations for chatbots? Is your chatbot only being trained in English and then being run through an automated translation service, or is it being trained for nuance, in French? How might the chatbot accommodate characters for a person’s preferred name, which might have alphabets that aren’t compatible with the English alphabet?

Are there any especially underserved segments for whom you’re especially keen to amp-up accessibility as part of your mandate?

We have made great strides for those who have functional accessibility needs when it comes to software. I’m interested in expanding the focus to address the needs of neurodiverse. I’m also extremely focused on inclusive service for people who have historically not been represented in their identities. So whether it’s gender identity or Indigenous identity, how do we ensure that these people feel seen, welcome and represented by financial institutions? How do we truly serve them better? That’s a particular area of passion for me.

How has doing this work changed you?

It’s made me more aware that my perspective is only my perspective. It’s no more important than anyone else’s. Understanding that you can learn from people you disagree with, from people who have different challenges than you and those who have different superpowers than you, carries you a long way in life. It’s my job to listen, and to try and build a better understanding of the world that I want to inhabit — the world that I want to help create — together with all the people that I have the opportunity to collaborate with.

This article was created in partnership with Scotiabank. MaRS convenes all members of the innovation economy to drive breakthrough discoveries, create jobs and make an impact by solving real problems for real people — in Canada and around the world.

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