ASTC-NSW day 2: Travel insurance, the communication challenge

This weekend I attended the ASTC-NSW 2010 conference in Sydney. These are the notes that I took during a session by Rob McGregor. All the credit for the content and ideas goes to Rob. Any mistakes are mine.

Rob McGregor presented a session titled, “Travel insurance: the communication challenge”. He started by discussing a recent experience he had had with travel insurance. The problem was a question on the online application form:

“Is there a pre-existing medical condition?”

Apart from the fact that the language is strangely impersonal, the question presented two other problems. The form didn’t tell Rob what such a pre-existing condition might be, or what the consequences of his answer might be. There was a hyperlink giving more information, but the information given did not really answer the first question, and did not even attempt to answer the second.

Next Rob phoned the company and was told to read the product disclosure statement (PDS). So he went back to the website and opened the PDS. The content was long and difficult to read. Even worse, again it did not answer Rob’s two questions.

Rob phoned the company again, and did the transaction over the phone. Website failure.

Surveying the usability of travel insurance websites

This experience prompted Rob to look more closely at the travel insurance industry and at the usability of their websites.

Rob’s research showed that travel by Australians is growing fast and that more than 20 000 Australians find themselves in difficulty while travelling every year. Consequently, there’s a big demand for travel insurance in Australia and there are many travel insurance brands.

Rob decided to review the travel insurance websites, and also to find out what the user experience was like after obtaining the insurance, such as when making a claim.

Because he was not able to survey users first hand, he decided to look at independent online reviews. In particular, he used data from He generated a sample of 85 free-text reviews, dealing with the products of 6 providers. Then he included some results from other surveys, to give him a sample of 10 providers.

The results of the analysis

The numbers show that the reviews are either strongly positive or strongly negative. This is because reviewers who do the reviews of their own volition are motivated by strong feelings.

The online experience was a significant factor in the positive ratings. In the negative ratings however, the website experience was not an important factor.

Rob selected and showed us some specific comments from people who were initially sure that they were entitled to a claim, but then found out that they were not. Didn’t they read the PDS? Well, perhaps not, but Rob was beginning to feel that some of the insurers were using complexity to hide information.

Towards a better experience

Rob proposes a sound framework for design of better user experience. He showed us a framework that he himself uses, basing  the quality of a product on a balance of three factors:

  • Usefulness
  • Usability
  • Desirability

Looking at a website, the user’s first impression is based on the site’s visual appeal (desirability). Next is the website navigation and the person’s ability to understand the site (usability). Finally, the user values the insight they gain and the fact that they can take action (usefulness).

A designer works in the opposite direction: Starts with usefulness, then moves through usability to desirability. Remember that this process is iterative.

Rob took us through a number of examples from travel insurance sites and independent sites that give travel information to varying degress of success.

The usability of a PDS

After the website, the PDS (product disclosure statement) is the key component of the travel insurance industry. Travel insurance businesses clearly put the onus on the user to read and understand the PDS, in order to find out which product they should buy and what it covers.

Rob suggests four key factors in the usability of a PDS:

1) Length

The median length pf PDSes is 15 000 words. The top-rated products have relatively short PDSes. Design opportunity: Make the PDS shorter.

2) Structure

Here too is a good opportunity for improvement. For example, the table of contents. If it’s long and purely alphabetical, how can people find what they want? Rob suggests the following simple structure:
Before you travel
While you’re away
When you return

3) Wording

The PDS should be written in plain English.

4) Visual presentation

Layout, typography and use of colour. The visual arrangement should reinforce the meaning of the text.

Making sure the entire experience is good

Rob walked us through all the stages that a traveller may go through, from applying for insurance through to making a claim and receiving compensation, pointing out opportunities for improving the product and the communication that goes with it.

Wrapping up, Rob showed us some comments from people for whom the travel insurance experience had been very frustrating and even miserable. After seeing such unhappiness, Rob says he becomes an activist. When offering their customers “peace of mind”, insurance companies should:

  • Consider carefully what “peace of mind” means throughout the entire pathway and not just at the point of sale.
  • Make the offerings more transparent. Stop hiding behind complexity.
  • Commit to formal usability testing.

Our role as communicators

As communication professionals, Rob said that we should be more active in promoting the cost benefits of clear communication. I agree, and I think we can promote the social and moral benefits of clear communication here too.

Where does the user’s responsibility end? Whose fault is it if people don’t understand the product? It’s up to the technical communicators to make sure that we give them clear information.

Rob pointed out that informing consumers affects the entire financial industry. The Australian government is working on a recommendation for simpler PDSes. This will be a huge communication challenge.

My conclusion

Rob’s presentation was clear, concise and stirring. Thank you for a great session!


About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 1 November 2010, in ASTC, technical writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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