After the death of Prince Philip, National Rail found itself in hot water when it changed the site’s web design as a sign of respect to the Queen’s consort. To honour the Duke of Edinburgh, the rail operator turned its website from colour to greyscale, affecting some customers’ ability to use it, especially those with visual impairments.

As the move backfired, travellers took to Twitter to express their disappointment at the company’s decision.

“The National Rail website debacle perfectly encapsulates a deeper problem within the rail industry: Accessibility is a constant second thought,” one user tweeted.

“Decisions that affect the whole user experience of your website should never have been implemented without first considering accessibility. Exposes how to many accessibility is still just a secondary thought,” added another.

The website was eventually reverted to its original form on 12 April, with the company tweeting that it was “listening to feedback about how people are using the website and are making further changes today to make it more accessible to all our customers.”

The National Rail incident highlights a more systemic disregard of accessibility issues in the world of UK railways and transport in general.

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Hilary Stephenson, managing director user-centred web design agency Nexer Digital, explains how the incident is a symptom of a wider issue within the UK transport sector and what can be done to fix it, at least from a designer perspective.


Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): National Rail’s tribute to the death of Prince Philip caused quite the stir among users. What was the magnitude of the company’s misjudgement?

Hilary Stephenson (HS): In the UK, almost two million people live with sight loss and of these around 360,000 are registered as blind or partially sighted. When you consider that many people who suffer from visual impairments may not be able to drive, you can understand why it is so important for a rail ticket vending platform to be accessible and easy to read.

Although the greyscale tribute to Prince Philip came from a good place, accessibility guidelines were disregarded and as a result, customers were unable to efficiently use the website of an important public service.


IGM: Did the incident highlight a bigger problem in the way the UK transport sector deals with accessibility?

HS: The National Rail incident has definitely highlighted a wider issue in messaging and communications, which is not exclusive to the transport sector, where online accessibility is an afterthought. Throughout the pandemic, we have seen this in a variety of different forms, such as missing captions, no British Sign Language and misuse of animated infographics and charts in important public communications.

In some ways, the social media response was worse than the actual website change, as it highlighted that a major UK public service provider probably had issues with accessibility before they made that design decision.

As the transport sector continues to undergo digital transformation, access for all should drive services, such as National Rail, to extend their reach to the broadest audience possible.

National Rail being held to account on this matter has prompted a review of its internal accessibility processes, which failed to pick up the error, and I hope to see this echoed throughout the entire transport sector to avoid further misjudgements.


IGM: What are the issues regarding accessibility? What can be improved?

HS: The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines state that public agencies should “use text colours that show up clearly against the background colour”. The fact that users couldn’t revert to the original colours unless they knew about a browser hack, meant National Rail probably had issues before and this incident flagged it to people.

Moreover, the initial Twitter response suggesting there was no one available to address the issue highlights a lack of awareness on inclusive services within the digital and communications team.

Accessibility means making your web design and content clear and simple so that most people can use it without needing to adapt it, while also supporting adaptations for those who need them. This means making the website compatible with screen readers for those who struggle with visual impairments, or speech recognition software for people with motor difficulties, for example.

Going forward, the transport sector’s communication and recognition of national events, such as the death of a royal family member, must be much more considered and undergo more scrupulous accessibility processes.


IGM: What practical tips would you give web designers if they want to avoid making the same mistakes as National Rail?

HS: All designers and developers should have accessibility knowledge if they want to build inclusive products and services. Web designers in the public sector should know the government’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and check they are embedded into their web design, so it’s difficult to understand how this happened. Even non-public sector organisations, which are not obliged to follow the guidelines should consult them to ensure they are aware of and implementing best practice accessibility.

Some key accessibility points which designers should consider include ensuring text is in clear and easy to read colours and fonts, making websites compatible with specialist software used by those with disabilities, and avoiding intrusive or excessive pop-ups which could interfere with the user experience.

Web designers should audit their content, scrutinise its accessibility and make changes where needed. If necessary, designers can enlist the help of online accessibility and UX experts to identify any issues and give guidance on how to rectify them.

If there is one lesson to be learnt from National Rail’s misjudgement, it is to review internal accessibility guidelines and make sure they are watertight, making it impossible for poor accessibility decisions to slip through the procedure, as we have seen happen in this incident.