Econsultancy: Please describe your job: What do you do?
Ashley Firth: I am head of Front-end development here at Octopus Energy, which means me and my team are responsible for ensuring that customers receive the best online experience possible regardless of which device, browser, or assistive technology they might use.
E: Whereabouts do you sit within the organisation? Who do you report to?
AF: I run the Front-end development department, and work alongside Pete Miller (Head of Customer Experience), Ronan McKinless (UX lead), and Rebecca Dibb-Simkin (Director of Marketing). Together with our teams, we handle all aspects of marketing and customer experience.
As a tech-driven startup, we operate with a reasonably flat hierarchy to encourage collaboration – we don’t want to stifle any great ideas, regardless of where they come from.
E: What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
AF: You need to be able to span multiple disciplines, in order to be a bridge between the tech department and business strategy. The end result is always translating customer needs into code, and so that requires empathy for our users, and a technical eye for even the smallest of details.
Everybody at Octopus Energy is inherently customer focused; everyone from the CEO down answers customer emails daily – I’m often out on the streets of Soho discussing potential new approaches and ideas with strangers!
E: Tell us about a typical working day…
AF: To be honest, there is no typical working day! You can go from working on the world’s first half-hourly tracker tariff, to making a floating octopus that tells you when carbon intensity is high or that you’re still charging your device whilst it’s fully charged. The only constant is trying to bring our personality through in the digital experiences and products that we create.
E: What do you love about your job? What sucks?
AF: I love that my job gives me the freedom to focus on things like accessibility that perhaps other companies wouldn’t make time for – a lot of my time (far more than I would at most other places) is spent looking after little details that make a big difference for people who are often overlooked.
What can often be stressful is the pace at which you move between projects (like any startup). It asks a lot but rewards equally, so I think you are either ok with that lifestyle or you’re not.
E: What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
AF: A large part of measuring our success comes from the feedback that we receive from our customers. As everyone can respond to any communication we send, be that a marketing email or a routine bill, every day we get thousands of pieces of almost instant feedback to any changes we make or new features we launch. This allows us to iterate quickly and test our assumptions about what customers want in a very open forum.
E: What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
AF: We get to build our own tools to get the job done – from answering customer queries to interacting with the industry itself. It gives us the power to rebuild how the industry works rather than adhering to rules that were here before us. We’re a challenger brand whose intention is to break those conventions.
It’s also great to have a work space that allows people from all departments to get into a room at a moments notice to discuss an idea, rather than resorting to a long email chain.
Oh and Skittles, lots of skittles.
E: How did you land in this role, and where might you go from here?
AF: I had actually worked with one of the founders before at a digital agency, so when I saw that they were looking for someone to own their front-end development and build the team I knew I had to apply. He’s the only person so far who’s been kind enough to hire me twice!
Since then we’ve built an incredible team, some of which we’ve worked with for years. I can imagine that, whether it’s this industry or another, the team will stay together to tackle it.
E: What are your favourite customer experiences? And which brands are making strides with accessibility?
AF: It’s amazing to receive feedback from customers on how seriously we take accessibility, and to hear about customers who now feel confident enough to manage their own energy accounts when they would have typically relied on a spouse or relative before. For me that’s always a massive achievement.
In our sector it’s been really positive to see other challenger brands following our lead. I’ve been really impressed with Monzo’s approach to accessibility and being there for their vulnerable customers
E: Do you have any advice for people who want to work in accessibility and design?
AF: Try the tools that they use: try navigating your site with just a keyboard. Try listening to the contents of your web pages as opposed to looking at it. Once you use these tools you gain a much better understanding for the challenges these users face, and it’ll help keep those considerations in your mind whilst you’re designing and building.
There are a lot of amazing resources out there to help as well – the a11y project is a particularly brilliant site for all things accessibility. Finally, talk to as many users as possible – there is honestly no substitute for feedback from them.
You can hear more from Ashley and Octopus Energy at 2018’s Festival of Marketing, where he’ll be speaking about their approach to web accessibility.