‘Oh, great’, I hear you say – ‘another bill’.

Well ok, yes, if it’s from Telecom, it probably is another bill.

But it’s what’s different about this month’s bill that got my attention.

You see, I’d just returned home, after spending the best part of the day picnicing with friends in Dunedin’s botanical gardens (which incidentally were planted by my partner’s great grandfather. He did a splendid job and on a beautiful summer’s day they look great – respect.)

Anyway, our picnic friends were a couple, Tom, who works in the web department down at Otago Polytechnic, and his partner Francis, who had recently returned from Australia after finishing her PHD. It was the first time we had seen them together, and they made a lovely pair.

After the initial introductions and a bite to eat, the girls and the guys paired off, and the conversation between Tom and I naturally turned to web accessibility. It’s something we both feel strongly about and try to incorporate into our working life as much as possible. Unfortunately with the conflicting priorities of marketing people, designers, and those holding the purse strings, accessibility often comes off second best, so we inevitably found ourselves moaning about the state of commercial websites in NZ, and our desire to make them better.

Lightening our combined consciences by airing these issues, and seeing the sun disappear behind some grey clouds, we agreed to meet up later to share techniques and knowledge, said our goodbyes and headed our separate ways.

Returning home afterwards, then, I was actually quite relieved to retrieve this bill-like envelope from the letterbox.

And why was that? Check it out. This corporate communication just has ‘Accessibility’ written all over it.

Now I’m not sure if Telecom are suddenly making an effort to reclaim marketshare, or whether they’d simply outsourced their mail design to a different printer, but two things jumped out at me:

  1. The size of the typeface, and
  2. The size of the plastic window.

As an ex-postal-worker, I could immediately see a number of benefits in the updated packaging:

  1. Older people could read the address without donning their spectacles, so they wouldn’t open your bill by mistake (your 0900 call logs are safe and sound).
  2. The postie could get the bill to the right person the first time.
  3. The address couldn’t slip down, out of view of the plastic window.
  4. It looked professional, but not in a we-want-to-sell-you-something kind of way.
  5. The envelope was, naturally, white, but within the plastic window there was also a lot of whitespace.

Now let’s assume that Telecom were thinking about the end-user here, and figured that they could make their bills more accessible to older people by increasing the size of the address text. This, despite the fact that they’d probably prefer to funk up their correspondence so that it appealed to the younger crowd, you know, the potential customer base that were going to be around longer, and thus make them more money. No, instead they considered the communication needs of the secondary, older audience. Brownie point #1 granted. The envelope was more readable and more appealing.

But look at the flow-on benefits. The NZ Post sorters can read the envelope more easily, which helps efficiency when they’re processing thousands of letters a day. And some of those mail workers are probably pretty old too… But even for the younger ones, it’s a welcome relief from 12pt type and of course the scribbly hand-written nonsense that many non-corporates are responsible for. The end-result here is that the sorter’s job is easier and the letter gets to the correct delivery branch quicker. Brownie point #2.

And the postie (read: ‘Postal Delivery Officer’) also benefits. These guys street sort the mail after it’s been zone sorted at the mail centre. They spend the early hours of their day sorting and bundling mail, before heading out on the fun part of the job – delivering it. Despite the well-known risks of territorial dogs, lonely old people, and impatient shop assistants, there are also the less well-publicised annoyances, like addresses slipping down below ‘the fold’ in transit. 

So instead of rapid fire delivery into suburban mailboxes, posties find themselves constantly stopping and tapping envelopes to unhide the last few lines of the address. And when it’s that time of the month, and there are thousands of bills to deliver in a short timeframe, your local postie definitely appreciates any extra thought on the part of the product designer. So Telecom score brownie point #3 for making the messenger’s job that much easier.

Now, maybe Telecom didn’t think about the flow-on effects, or maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree and picked the wrong NZ corporate to pin my moral hopes on. Maybe they don’t give a damn about old people, and they just wanted to save money by getting the mail out more efficiently. No matter what the goal was, the point is that they put it a certain amount of considered effort, for X return, and they got X+Y+Z real-life benefits out of it.

And it’s the same for web accessibility. For example, you might code in Alt attributes and skip links to add blind users to your potential audience, and inadvertently the sighted yuppie on the mobile device also benefits. Or you could increase the size of the typeface for customers with poor eyesight and actually make your design seem friendlier to new customers.

The message is: you put in a certain amount of considered effort for one user group and inadvertently you increase your appeal to other user groups.

So, next time your Project Manager or client tries to pooh-pooh your attempts to incorporate universal accessibility into your site build, have them consider that money well-spent now translates to added value in the future.

And corners cut now – well they might just cut you out of some very lucrative new markets in a couple of years time.

Postscript: Upon opening the envelope it turns out that Telecom are actually running a ‘Bigger is better’ broadband campaign… so only time will tell whether they keep their brownie points or go back to 12pt type.

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