When there is an emergency on an airplane…
In flight training, pilots are taught an important set of priorities they should follow through their entire flying career: Aviate, navigate and communicate.
These three words define priorities and help maintain clarity for the cockpit crew in an emergency situation.
First, the entire flight crew focuses on keeping the plane in the air.
In our case, the company exists to serve its customers. A lawsuit or bad publicity harms the company’s ability to serve customers and keep operations running. Your first priority is to make sure an issue doesn’t escalate publicly in a way that harms the company’s existence.
Identify and bring together key players
Set a high priority meeting as soon as enough details emerge. Do not rely on a blizzard of email threads to communicate what is happening.
In a large enterprise, it may take some diligent communication to identify relevant parties. Sometimes those who are supposed to be responsible may try to hide from being accountable.
Who to include
- Legal counsel
- Leadership relevant to the product
- The product team managers
- Any related third party partner relationship managers
- Accessibility subject matter experts
A word of caution about third parties
Be cautious about involving a 3rd-party partner too early in a discussion. First consult with legal counsel and the partner relationship manager.
The discussion may need to be handled delicately if the 3rd-party relationship is fragile or if they provide crucial functionality to the application. Sometimes emotions are running high or the full picture hasn’t emerged, and this can be harmful to important relationships.
Make sure you’re addressing the right problem
Legitimate customer complaint
Focus on how and why the customer complained.
It’s tempting to place the blame squarely on the product. It’s also possible the situation was mishandled or exacerbated by your customer service team.
- If you do reach out to the customer, consult with legal counsel on what you can and can’t say.
- To the degree that your legal counsel allows, carefully ask the customer for details.
- Try to reproduce the exact set of circumstances.
- If you can recreate the issue, you’re in a great place to resolve it.
- If you can’t recreate the issue, you may need to reach out to the customer.
Generic legal complaint
If the complaint is generic, broad in scope and contains an automated assessment, it may be from an attorney who repeatedly files generic complaints seeking settlement. It may take the form of an automated report identifying hundreds or thousands of technical defects, which may not even affect the customer experience.
It may not even be possible to remedy all of the issues delivered in the complaint, and your legal counsel may seek settlement. Next focus on removing or reducing the number of issues. The complaint could resurface since many settlements include an agreed upon remediation schedule.
Understand the risks of the situation
Activist-minded customers may want to pursue action in a public way that could embarrass the company and tarnish its brand.
Determine the timeframe for action
Any legal complaint will have a deadline for a response and/or remediation. Your legal counsel will determine how best to work with that date.
Surface any obstacles to action
Now is the time to identify barriers if there are business reasons why this cannot be addressed quickly.
- Will it be difficult to address issues because of a code freeze?
- Is the codebase so fragile any updates could have bigger repercussions?
- Is there a publicly ongoing project which can’t be risked?
- Is there adequate capacity available with developers or designers?
- Is a vendor or partner responsible for this part of the application?
Ask leadership to help escalate priorities
Don’t be hesitant to escalate if there are barriers or parts of the organization aren’t responding in-kind to the seriousness of your situation; quickly ask leadership to help expedite action.
“I’m waiting for a response from another team” is not an adequate explanation for why a complaint isn’t being resolved.
It can be a challenge to escalate a complaint if a 3rd-party partner is involved as they may not see it as their problem, or they may simply not be equipped to address accessibility issues.
Next, the flight crew determines where they are right now and where they need to go.
This is time to make a prioritized plan based on data and your capacity to address the situation.
Reproduce the issue
Reproducing the issue is critical to resolution. It’s difficult to define a remediation plan if the complaint doesn’t include enough information to reproduce the problem.
For example, if a customer complains that they can’t purchase a particular product, you’ll need clarity about where they were unable to proceed. Was the problem a with a specific feature or is there an outage affecting all customers?
- What action the customer was trying to perform
- What website or application were they using?
- What actually happened?
- When did this occur?
- Laptop, Desktop, Smartphone, Tablet
- Operating system
- Windows, MacOS, iOS, Android
- Chrome, Safari, Firefox, Edge, Internet Explorer
- Assistive technology being used
- NVDA, VoiceOver, JAWS, keyboard, switch device
- Version (if applicable)
A note about software versions
People are sometimes hesitant to update software because applications could stop working as expected with assistive technology.
It’s rare that the version of software affects the accessibility issue, but it’s worth gathering if the customer is happy to share it.
If the customer is upset or frustrated, getting the operating system, browser and what assistive technology they’re using is practically always enough information.
Acquire detailed assessment of the feature in question
Experts can study the complaint and the product in question to determine what’s wrong, why it’s a problem and how to fix it.
Assign roles for remediation
The team that developed the product will typically be responsible for its remediation. If that team doesn’t have an adequate competence or capacity to solve the problem, your accessibility SMEs will be required to collaborate frequently.
It’s possible managers who don’t understand the repercussions of the complaint may assign sub-par team members to the issue, reserving their more talented team members for feature development. If you sense that this is the case, surface this to leadership as early as possible.
In a crisis, after keeping the plane aloft, determining location and any immediate next steps, pilots will communicate with a broader audience, like air traffic control or surrounding aircraft.
It’s now time for you to maintain clear contact with the resolution team.
Establish a channel and daily cadence for communications
This is not an email thread. This should be something like a dedicated slack channel or a daily standup.
Project manager daily remediation standup
Project managers leading this effort should meet briefly daily. It might sound like overkill to check in daily, but experience has shown that it’s important to align efforts and ensure a shared understanding.
Standup team members to include:
- Accessibility team project manager
- Accessibility coaches
- Product management team
Product developer daily remediation standup
Set a daily standup with the accessibility subject matter experts to consult.
Standup team members to include:
- Accessibility coaches
- Product team developers
Why daily? What could go wrong?
This may seem cumbersome at first, but it’s easy for a team to misinterpret the defect, de-prioritize the work, or move in a direction that doesn’t further or even hinders resolution.
- A well-meaning customer service representative could end up pestering an already upset customer with unhelpful questions.
- A developer could misunderstand the issue and make the situation worse, adding larger defects.
- A program manager could share the wrong information with a 3rd party vendor, causing panic.
- A misinformed manager could reassign priorities if the issues seem resolved.
Any of these may lead to a longer, more expensive resolution.
Employ a project management tool
Translate the remediation work to the team’s project management methodology.
This could take the form of a full agile development story, bug, or it could be as simple as a spreadsheet for team members.
Do not try to manage this project over an email thread.
Clearly communicate a definition of done
The resolution to the complaint must be cleared and declared as complete for a legal response.
“Done” could mean that the specific feature or content has been remediated and now meets WCAG standards. It could also mean that an entire customer experience has been adjusted to remove barriers.
This definition of “done” must include participation in the post incident report/root cause analysis.
Post incident report / root cause analysis
Notice, the FAA doesn’t call it an “accident report.”
Accidents are things that could never have been foreseen. Incidents happen when warning signs are ignored or proper best practices weren’t instituted.
What are the lessons learned
Ask the following questions about the resolution process:
- What went poorly that we don’t want to do again?
- What went well that we want to do next time?
How can we prevent this from happening again
A root cause analysis will reveal where processes and procedures broke down.
Questions to ask
- When was this product built and by who?
- Were functional requirements defined at that time?
- What automated gates did it pass through?
- Was the team involved following best practices?
- Were there accessibility acceptance criteria written for the product?
- Did the QA team properly employ assistive technology in their test case?
Celebrate and recognize the team
Handling a customer complaint will be stressful and intense for the team working to push forward its resolution.
Recognize that work and express gratitude for the Herculean effort exerted.
Ask leadership to recognize the team members that fixed the problem
Your goal is not to recognize the accessibility team, but rather show the organization that accessibility matters to leadership.
The accessibility team will be full of gratitude, but recognition from leadership will have more impact.
Conclude the work with a ceremony
This can take the form of a party, or perhaps enshrine the complaint in some way as a reminder.