Demystifying digital accessibility programs in financial services: A story about Capital One

  • Accessibility is a moral no-brainer, but it can be difficult to carve out a strategy for financial services that have significant digital footprints.
  • Capital One's story offers a possible roadmap. Here is how the financial institution built one of the best accessibility programs in the industry.

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Demystifying digital accessibility programs in financial services: A story about Capital One

Making financial products accessible is a bit of a moral no-brainer. But it is also an objective that can help financial institutions do better business. For example, US companies that put disability inclusion at the forefront of their goals can see 28% higher revenue and 30% better profit margins than other companies in the Disability Equality Index, according to research by Accenture. 

The problem however is that it can be difficult to ascertain just how to prioritize accessibility in digital financial experiences, especially for organizations that have significant digital footprints. Often intentions and the goal of disability inclusion can be in place, but the road to building accessible digital products can be daunting or even unclear. 

In this case it helps to study the routes that financial institutions have taken to build accessible products and holistic inclusion policies and workflows. To demystify this process, Tearsheet sat down with Capital One’s Senior Director of Digital Accessibility, Mark Penicook, to discuss how the firm established one of the industry’s most well-built accessibility programs. 

Capital One’s journey and milestones 

Capital One’s journey with accessibility began about 12 years ago, at a time when a seismic shift to digital experiences took place.  It was in part aided by the fact there was forward-thinking leadership in place that wanted to work on accessibility, said Penicook. It also helped that Capital One’s corporate values are “excellence” and “do the right thing”. 

Starting out

What most people don't realize is that good accessibility practices share an intersection with good SEO practices. For example, metadata like meta descriptions of a link, help people using screen readers to sift through search results accurately and quickly. At the same time, they also impact click-through rates. Similarly, adding alt text to images helps with search engine ranking, but it also enables people with visual impairments to stay on top of what is being depicted in a picture.  Hence, SEO can be a good place to start, and it is where Capital One began its journey. The first members of their accessibility team emerged from their SEO team and the bank began building from there. 

Raising internal awareness about accessibility and Shifting Left

Another early undertaking by the bank was building awareness around the subject of accessibility. ”The challenge that we found at Capital One wasn't getting buy-in, on making things accessible. It was more about knowing how to do that,” said Penicook.  

So he and his team went on an internal campaign, communicating that accessibility is best considered at the start of the development process. “If you're making blueberry muffins, and you forget to put the blueberries in, once the muffins are baked, it is really hard to try to put blueberries back into the muffin,” Penicook said, referring to the accessibility-practitioner cliche that communicates just how difficult it is to build accessibility into a product after the fact. 

This idea that accessibility needs to be considered at the start of the development cycle is often referred to as “shift-left”. Like other metrics that track how effective and good a product is to use – for example security – accessibility too cannot be simply tacked on at the end. Doing so can add significant costs and may result in a compromised product. 

A figure showing that investments get significantly larger when you consider accessibility later in the product development cycle. The investment is largest when it is considered at the point of Release, however it is small when requirements are considered at design and coding phases etc. Hence Shift accessibility considerations Left in the development cycle.
Source: Deque Systems

Penicook firmly believes that building accessible products is a company-wide priority : “We wanted to make sure that .. [Capital One employees] .. understand there's a wide diversity of humans, from our business and product folks to our designers to our engineers, and legal risk compliance,” he said. Now Penicook’s team is an integral part of discussions around product development across the organization.

Building subject matter expertise

But accessibility is an area where there can be many roads to success. Capital One augmented its subject matter expertise from outside the company. But the goal was to expand these capabilities in-house. According to Penicook, this process allowed the bank to scale its accessibility work without relying solely on vendors. It also gave Capital One more liberty to define what accessibility solutions would look like for the bank. 

Digital inclusion projects receive the best results when there is a company-wide push towards accessibility. Capital One’s story is emblematic of how this can change the efficacy and quality of the products produced. The bank’s venture capital arm, Capital One Ventures, was an investor in both Series A and B rounds of Evinced, a company that enables accessible web and mobile development. The tool is readily used by the financial institution today to detect potential accessibility issues during the product testing phase. 

Work it

By having these capabilities in-house and through the use of tools like Evinced, Capital One has been able to improve efficiency. “We would spend about three to four weeks testing our public facing digital footprints. And we've gotten that down now to like a matter of hours. That’s huge,” Penicook said.

But it doesn’t stop there. Technologies like computer vision and machine learning have their own part to play, too. These help Capital One detect 10 times more testing touchpoints than before. All of this automation and use of software enables the team to spend more time on problems that may be harder to solve, like improving accessible interfaces to be highly usable. 

While the benchmark for Capital One is meeting the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, Penicook insists that it is also important that interfaces are “delightful to use”. In fact, he adds that those who work with accessibility understand better than others how to remove friction from interfaces and ease the cognitive load on the customer. A memorable point that shows that accessible design and expertise enable and improve good design. 

Seeing results

More than a decade of work and a culture of disability inclusion that permeates the top echelons of the financial services company has yielded some strong results. In the UK, Capital One was named the first credit card company to receive accreditation from the Royal National Institute of Blind People. Penicook’s team also vigilantly watches social media channels for any mention of accessibility and he happily reports that they have heard good things about their product. 

Why stop here? 

Having built a strong foundation, Penicook hopes to further address neurodiversity and expand preferences so customers can layer and customize their interfaces to their own liking. 

When asked how many people Penicook has on his team, he proudly but jokingly adds that because there are 55,000 associates at Capital One, he has 55,000 teammates. This confidence in company culture is not hubris, but instead speaks to the effectiveness of the awareness campaigns that Penicook’s team undertook. The road to accessible products can be winding and possibly even complex, but Capital One’s example underscores how one can chip away at it to meet customers where they are on their financial journey.

An image showing the steps a financial institution can take to build accessible programs. Buy In, Build Expertise, Shift Left, Automate & Integrate, Scale, finally continuously improve.

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