Insights, UX Design, UX Philosophy

Network Rail’s epic fail: come back when you’re not greyscale

Rebecca Scott

Rebecca Scott, UX Consultant, UX Connections

Sometimes the most well-intentioned of acts can backfire. A poorly judged comment, taken out of context; a failure to ‘read the room;’ or simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time. All of these things can mean a person, or a brand, is left exposed or humiliated.

UX as an industry does not often find itself at the centre of a public faux-pas – but this seems to have been the case for Network Rail this week. 

In changing the brand colours and setting its website to black and white, or greyscale, in a mark of respect to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Network Rail effectively stripped the site’s usability for huge swathes of its customers. The move was reversed within hours, after visually-impaired users, and anyone who struggled to read the low-contrast text, complained in their droves. Network Rail’s own employees admitted that they found the newly-mournful website difficult to navigate too.

No doubt the aim of the digital paint-job was well-meant; but removing colour is far less user-friendly than adding it. Just think of how the addition of rainbows for Pride, or for the NHS, can complement existing websites, apps or interfaces, without removing any of their usability. 

And, frustratingly, a quick review on one of the online accessibility tools available for free would have showed up some of the flaws in this plan; but really, any UX designer worth their salt would know their way around the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that define how to make web content more accessible to people with disabilities, whether these are visual, auditory, physical, or cognitive.

It’s made us think – what would we have done differently if we’d been advising Network Rail? Well, perhaps we’d have suggested Network Rail take a leaf out of the FA’s book, and that of the Jockey Club* and add a black stripe, or ‘armband’ on their website’s home page. Or, they could simply have added a statement. No one – but no one – has a greyscale website, and with good reason. 

We’re no strangers to challenging briefs at UX Connections, but there needs to be a point where the designer can push back on their client. If it’s off-brand – we’d raise our eyebrows. If it’s difficult, with multiple hurdles to overcome (as can often be the case) bring it on! We thrive on the challenge. But if a redesign automatically excludes a proportion of its users, it’s no good. The user is, and has to be, at the centre of what we do. Sadly, in the case of the kindly-intended but poorly thought-through greyscale debacle, they were not. And it showed. 


*jockeys taking part in the Grand National were invited to wear a black armband as a nod to the memory of the DofE on Saturday

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