ComputerRoomIn the business environment, forward-thinking companies have, for some years, recognised the importance of a diverse workforce and an inclusive approach to employment.  But, often through no fault of the company itself, knowledge gaps emerge due to a lack of real insight into the challenges faced by disabled people in the workplace.

Pitney Bowes is a company that prides itself on a long-established and highly respected diversity programme.  In the UK, a recent software deal with a central Government department kick-started an initiative that has led to a permanent change to the way the business approaches solution development.

Pitney Bowes’ PI™ OfficeMail software is a tool designed to enable businesses or departments to create mail at the desktop and to then send it to a purpose-built production site for processing and despatch. The solution drives quality and consistency in communications and delivers economies of scale otherwise unachievable when printing on desktop devices.

The central Government department in question identified PI™ OfficeMail as an obvious route towards cost-savings and greater efficiency and required Pitney Bowes to demonstrate that the solution complied with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).  WCAG compliance is not (yet) a legal requirement, but it is a preferred ‘tick in the box’ for most major public sector bodies.

Companies are able to self-assess if preferred, but Pitney Bowes chose to show its commitment to best practice by seeking an assessment from a third-party expert.  Shaw Trust is just such an expert – a national charity which supports disabled and disadvantaged people to prepare for work, find jobs and live more independently.

One of Shaw Trust’s services to business is testing websites and web-based solutions for accessibility. Rather than simply sending the PI™ OfficeMail software to Shaw Trust, Pitney Bowes decided to witness the testing process at first hand. David Thomas, Director, Global Software Product Management & Business Development, Pitney Bowes, takes up the story:

“We took a team of five people to Shaw Trust to better understand how they work and to be on-hand to answer any queries. The whole experience was fascinating – and very humbling.

“To be quite honest, we were confident that our solution would meet Shaw Trust’s approval. The reality really opened our eyes. Shaw Trust invited a group of people with a range of disabilities to test our solution. All of the testers were full of praise for Pitney Bowes’ decision to undertake the most thorough testing procedure. But this positivity did not disguise the fact that the individuals all found the solution frustrating to use.

“In hindsight, many of the frustrations seem obvious. But unless these issues are addressed from the very beginning of solution development, they can easily be overlooked. For example, one of the product testers was blind. We take great care to ensure that our solutions are intuitive and that commands are simple and easy to follow. But of course, such graphical intuition is completely lost on those with impaired vision. So, although some voice technology was implemented in the solution, it simply wasn’t sophisticated enough. For those with sight it’s easy to see command controls on screen such as ‘OK’ or ‘Cancel’. But blind operators were simply hearing ‘unlabelled control’ or ‘check-box’ – without any indication of the command type.

“Similarly, our software is incredibly easy to navigate with a mouse. But not all of the testers were able to operate a mouse, relying instead on the tab and arrow keys. Not all areas of the screen were accessible via this method, again leading to frustrations.

“Despite these operational obstacles the experts at Shaw Trust actually told us that OfficeMail was one of the better products they had ever tested. This comment brought home the fact that web and software accessibility is still a major challenge for most businesses.”

This is a point echoed by Shaw Trust Sales Manager Ian Lyons. Ian comments: “Although some organisations are now aware that digital accessibility is a serious issue when it comes to their client facing websites, many forget about the importance of procuring and developing software that can be used by disabled employees.

“This is important as disabled employees want to be able to use all organisational systems  non-disabled employees can use; especially when it is a software solution that can mean they can be more productive in their role as employees.”

Following the initial testing session, Shaw Trust produced a detailed report outlining precisely where improvements were required and recommending a phased approach to development, focusing first on user functionality and then on administrative functionality surrounding sale and implementation of the solution.

In turn, Pitney Bowes invited the Shaw Trust team to come and present to personnel from all lines of business and many different geographies – an event that attracted impressive audience numbers. As a result, Pitney Bowes is engaging with Shaw Trust across a number of new software solution builds.

Pitney Bowes has now implemented the last of Shaw Trust’s user functionality recommendations for PI™ OfficeMail and has consequently achieved WCAG compliance for user functionality. This development puts the company well-ahead of the schedule set by the Government department for the testing and evaluation of all new solutions.

“The commitment to inclusion that Pitney Bowes has shown has been outstanding in the development of this project,” states Ian Lyons.  “The development team has worked tirelessly to insure that no stone was left unturned when it came to making the Office Mail solution accessible.

David Thomas concludes: “The Shaw Trust visit has made a lasting impression.  The relationship continues and our developers now work with a different mind-set. Such is our belief in the charity’s work that we recently introduced a user-group of major customers to Shaw Trust to help them understand accessibility challenges.

“Many companies pay lip-service to issues such as accessibility but we were determined to be the best we could be.  We have invested significantly to achieve our goals and we will continue to develop solutions that deliver a rewarding user-experience for all.”