The introduction of Consumer Duty by the Financial Conduct Authority requires financial services to understand and respond to their customer’s needs, including those with characteristics of vulnerability at every stage of the customer journey.
It’s even more important as more than one in eight UK bank branches that were open at the start of 2023 closed by December, with almost three-fifths of the network vanishing since 2015. Digital self-service is becoming the main interaction with financial services for a large majority of consumers, whilst others are being forced this way.
Our previous research into banking attitudes discovered that 67% of customers are either unsure or think banks don’t do a satisfactory job serving vulnerable, elderly, disabled or digitally or financially illiterate customers.
Due to the cost of living crisis, unsurprisingly, we are seeing an increase in those who have low financial resilience. Furthermore, 19% of the population is aged 65 and over and this is projected to increase by 10% in the next 5 years. Vulnerability, whether situational or permanent, can be due to factors such as physical or mental health, age, literacy skills, or changes in personal circumstances e.g. bereavement, job loss or changes in household income. These all affect a person’s ability to access and understand financial services. Firms considering the needs of these customers when designing their digital offerings will, in turn, create inclusive and fair experiences for all customers whilst building trust and mitigating risks that may create harm.
To help product teams put inclusivity at the heart of research and digital experiences here are some key considerations for moderators to bear in mind when planning and facilitating research.
Think carefully about the topics you will be discussing
Previous research we have conducted with financial services has covered debt, fraud, and bereavement. These aren’t just casual topics and can be heavy or triggering for the participant, and even yourself. When researching with vulnerable, elderly, disabled, digitally or financially illiterate customers it may be more likely these topics arise and it’s important to be aware of how this can impact the research.
- Avoid questions about sensitive topics if it’s not relevant to the objectives of the research.
- If the financial topic is sensitive, opt for fewer questions in your discussion guide than you normally would to avoid being overwhelming.
- Have someone you can decompress with after the session, whether a colleague, a family member or a friend.
Someone who has encountered fraud or scams may not be open to speaking with a stranger about their financial past. The participant needs to understand why you are engaging them in the research to feel comfortable and know they are in a safe space to share their thoughts and experiences. This is done well by building rapport, creating a relaxed environment, giving reassurances and gaining informed consent. Without building trust, the participant won’t feel as comfortable during the session and may not be open or honest about their experiences. To make the participant feel more comfortable:
- Give them space and time to share context, don’t rush them. Give them time to warm up to the session.
- Emphasise that the session is confidential.
- When recording, verbally ask for permission and offer them options on what you record (e.g., not recording at all or video/audio only).
- Consider the clothes you are wearing. For example, wearing a suit may create too formal an environment for someone to open up about their experiences.
Put the participant in control
During research, participation is always voluntary. If the topic of conversation could become sensitive e.g., bereavement or debt, it’s useful to emphasise that the participant is in control and has the right to withdraw or pause at any time or to not answer a question. However, as the discussion unfolds, the participant may forget, so it’s key to observe and adapt to the situation as the moderator, always having the participant’s well-being in mind.
- Emphasise at the start of the session that they can take a break or withdraw from the session, at any time.
- Keep an eye on how the participant is responding and reacting during the discussion.
- Observe them closely, and listen to what they say and how they respond. Be sure to ask the participant if they need a break, or would like to switch to a different topic to ensure they are comfortable continuing.
- Outline what the next topic is and check whether they are ok to talk about it.
Be prepared for the unexpected
As a moderator, you need to be patient and flexible. This will help you adapt to unplanned situations e.g. an interview may need to be paused for 10 minutes, sessions may become emotional due to the sensitive or triggering topics being discussed, or perhaps a change of location may be needed to accommodate their needs. In some situations, meeting the objectives of the research may go out of the window. Here, pausing and doing what you and the participant need to do to get back on track, or exit the interview completely, is most important.
- Give participants time and space. If a typical qualitative research session is 60 minutes, schedule 90 minutes with a vulnerable participant.
- Provide support material. For example, whilst conducting research with people in debt, we gave participants a list of financial charities they could contact.
- Be kind to yourself. Give yourself more time between sessions to decompress and get some fresh air.
Consider the location for each participant
Take time to understand their needs and make it as easy as possible for them to attend. Remote sessions are now common, but offering a remote session might not always work for those who are elderly or digitally illiterate. Remote sessions may also limit your ability to capture the contextual aspects or the non-vocalised cues that are only noticeable in person.
- As part of recruitment, understand the most convenient and comfortable environment for the participant. It may be best to travel to them or to run the session within a neutral environment, i.e., not in a research lab or over a video call.
- Ask if the participant usually relies on someone to help them use technology, this might reveal their current experiences when using digital products and how they achieve/don’t achieve workarounds.
- Include caregivers if the participant relies on them for support when using technology as their perspectives can play a role in understanding experience as well as the participants.
- Consider booking community ‘neutral’ venues close to participants or familiar places where they spend their time to make it easy for them to access.
Balance empathy and sympathy
Try to create a non-judgmental space where participants can share emotions and feelings freely. This enables you to understand and advocate for them going forward. But, remember, when encountering a sensitive topic, participants may share stories or anecdotes which are uncomfortable, in this situation be careful to avoid creating a space of judgement or pity by overly sympathising, let them tell their story, while you are an objective listener to help them talk.
- Go beyond active listening and practice empathetic listening by showing a desire to listen and understand more. Simply nodding and injecting phrases like “I see” or “I understand” will encourage the participant to continue but not make them feel uncomfortable or judged, along with phrases like “tell me more about that”, and “how does that make you feel”.
Reasonable adjustments go a long way
By incorporating these tips, banks’ product teams should feel more confident in carrying out inclusive research and using the output to fuel future innovation, this will help them evidence data and meet the requirements of the FCA. These tips will not only help create a safe space for the participant (and the moderator) but will lead to richer insights and the ability to successfully respond, adapt and accommodate the customer needs of all.