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Solutions for All: How one Canadian bank is developing technology to drive accessibility



As Vice President of Design, Digital Banking, at Scotiabank, Pamela Hilborn is tasked with developing unique technology solutions that can meet the needs of the Bank’s diverse customer base including those with disabilities.


By Shelley White



Pamela Hilborn has always been fascinated by what makes people tick.

It’s a passion that was sparked 25 years ago when she was a student of physical anthropology at the University of Toronto, and carries into her work today as Vice President of Design, Digital Banking, at Scotiabank.

“I’ve always had a deep interest in human culture and human behaviour,” says Pamela. “So it’s been a natural evolution from having this desire as a young woman to understand what it is that makes us human to a position where I’m trying to create better experiences for humans using technology.”

Pamela leads a team of fellow innovators at Scotiabank’s cutting-edge Digital Factory in Toronto, which launched in January 2017. The idea behind the Digital Factory is to build, improve and reinvent digital banking experiences — to rethink the “end-to-end customer journey” with fresh ideas and next-wave technology.

“The role of design is two-fold at the Digital Factory,” explains Pamela. “We’re responsible for executing on the software design, but our role is also to dig deep and understand what our customers’ needs are and help bring the customer to the centre of whatever we are doing here.”

One of Scotiabank’s top priorities is ensuring that everyone has access to their products and services, says Pamela. When it comes to improving accessibility for people with disabilities, it’s important to understand that they are looking for the same service that everyone wants in an interface or a piece of software.

“You need to make sure that performance is amazing — is it loading properly, is it responsive? Is it useable?” says Pamela. “Security is a huge piece of what customers and consumers are thinking about as well. And once you meet those basic needs, consumers are expecting a high degree of personalization and understanding.”


“It’s been a natural evolution from having this desire as a young woman to understand what it is that makes us human to a position where I’m trying to create better experiences for humans using technology.”


And these days, customer expectations aren’t set by their interactions with one company, says Pamela. They are set by the multiple applications that people use every day.

“Whether you’re interacting with a media site like the New York Times or a social networking site like Facebook or Instagram, you’re getting trained on responsiveness, on speed, on security — and these interactions set expectations for the user’s experience on all apps.”

The biggest challenge when creating solutions for people with disabilities is first understanding what those issues actually are, says Pamela.

“We don’t necessarily think about a distinct group of people that are separate, we think about human beings and how our services need to respond to different contexts and abilities,” she explains.

Scotiabank currently offers a range of communications options for people with disabilities. For example, customers who are deaf or hard of hearing can use online live chat or relay services to communicate with a contact centre. Alternate formats of documents are available to customers, including audio, large text, accessible PDF and Braille. At some branches, Scotiabank offers ABMs with customer pin pads that have colour contrast, a larger screen and a tactile keypad. Customers who are visually impaired can access audio navigation.

At the Digital Factory, the goal is to create digital banking solutions that solve the problems of people across a whole spectrum of capabilities, says Pamela. That’s why when they do in-house user testing, they engage with people of all abilities.

One interesting area of technology is haptic communication, she says. Haptic feedback uses the sense of touch in an interface design to provide information to the end user. (It’s something you may have experienced when your phone is on mute — the vibration you feel when your phone rings is haptic feedback). Haptic feedback could be leveraged to help people with attention span impairments, says Pamela, giving them cues through touch in distracting environments.

“One of the things we’re trying to figure out is how to take advantage of all the wonderful senses that we have, and how can we use them in different contexts.” she says.

Regardless of how customers are interacting with their bank — by phone, through apps, at an ATM, in person — they all have one thing in common, says Pamela. People want the ability to control their own finances, and any new user experience being developed needs to be in support of that.

“I see my role as solving problems,” says Pamela. “At the Digital Factory, we really try to understand the different contexts that correspond to different types of accessibility needs. We want to solve for the greatest number of people, more often.”