New insight into UK digital alienation

New research from Sigma looks at the digital inclusion issue in the UK

This is a contributed piece by Hilary Stephenson, managing director of digital user experience (UX) agency, Sigma.


Digital has become a massive enabler for the majority of the UK population in some capacity. And whilst this has given our economy an undeniable boost, we currently face a digital inclusion challenge that means we are alienating some of our population. With the industry evolving so rapidly, it’s worrying that a sizeable 23% of UK adults still don’t possess the Basic Digital Skills necessary to take advantage of it.

Somewhere, we aren’t connecting the dots. We are getting ahead of ourselves, focusing on business growth and big numbers, and forgetting that one of the best things about digital is that it brings us together and makes our lives easier. In fact, as more services move online we are making it harder for some members of our society to keep up.


The scale of the digital exclusion problem

If we drill into the scale of the digital inclusion issue further, 23% of our small businesses haven’t harnessed basic digital skills, and as a result are missing out on annual website sales of £193 [$274] billion. In the charity sector it worsens, with over half of organisations lacking these skills. Our latest report into third sector websites would support this sentiment.

As we look to exploit our current digital intelligence and cement our position as a European tech leader, we must address the digital inclusion issue. It’s counterproductive and is leaving people and businesses behind. Go ON UK’s Digital Exclusion Heatmap (below) shows we have a long way to go.


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Aside from businesses, there are a number of other groups that are affected by digital inclusion. We have spoken with jobseekers who were really frustrated that they had to use digital methods to search for work, and we have interviewed Peaks and Plains Housing tenants and Citizens Advice customers who were worried about digital by default services such as Universal Credit or Universal Job match. We saw a similar theme in work done by the DWP, where their user research showed the need for sensitivity in service design when dealing with difficult subjects like care allowance applications.

One group we have dealt with extensively is older users - over 65s are one of the most excluded but many myths exist about their engagement with technology and online services.


The effect of digital exclusion on older users: what we have discovered

Currently in the UK 10 million people are 65+, with an additional three million over the age of 80. This number is expected to double by 2030, and reach eight million by 2050. By this time, the digital economy will have progressed massively.

There is a stereotypical view that older people don’t use digital services, but this isn’t the case - according to the ONS, nearly half (42%) of this age group shop online. On the other hand, 32% of over 65’s have never used a computer, showing that although some members of this group are welcoming digital, a large proportion have no experience of it. The issue is complex, but we can’t ignore the fact that there’s work to be done here.

As a digital agency specialising in UX, we have a user experience lab where we bring in members of the public for user testing sessions, in order to show clients how their websites are currently being used.

Recently, we ran digital inclusion workshops for 39 local residents with an average age of 60 with Peaks and Plains Housing Trust, to gather insight into their favoured devices, and how they approached the internet. And although we found a lot more research needs to go into this topic, what we discovered about this age group was eye-opening:

  • They prefer tablet or mobile devices for first-time browsing, yet a lot of digital inclusion training is developed for desktop PCs
  • Their initial interest was in hobbies or entertainment on these devices, rather than transacting. YouTube, Google images, and social media channels were their first destinations
  • In fact, they were scared to shop, book travel, or bank online when the idea was introduced
  • Device maintenance is a huge barrier for on-going engagement, for example. People panic when they see their first iOS update
  • Many were unsure where the information they found online was coming from, or where it exists
  • They couldn’t differentiate between computer and the Cloud, or between Wi-Fi and 3G.


We can’t ignore this kind of feedback, as a design community that purports to care about user experience.


Longer-term studies: what do older users think?

One of the problems with digital inclusion training is it can be limited to one or two sessions, yet problems creep in and confidence falls over time. Currently, we are running diary studies with older users to capture longitudinal insights around how they use technology. We’ve asked 10 participants aged 65+, to monitor their use of technology for aiding a healthy lifestyle, as part of a research study we’re conducting with Public Health Dorset in partnership with University of Salford. Although this is an ongoing study, early feedback from some of the participants has revealed why digital inclusion is so important.

“I’d like to thank you, or whoever thought of this. My diary is making me think more about my health and what I can do to make a difference. I’m going to look on the internet for recipes today,” said one participant in Dorset.

It’s not easy to put yourself into the mind of an older user. But by not considering all of our different audiences and their limitations, we could potentially be marginalising them. That’s why user research is critical.

There are things we can do to make the web more usable for older people, and start turning the digital inclusion issue on its head.


It’s our responsibility to fix this problem: here’s where we should start

Technology will evolve as the industry does, but we need to make sure that the population on the whole is moving with it, too. Misunderstanding language, terminology, and icons used on websites was a recurring issue throughout the testing we’ve conducted with older people. Observational testing of content comprehension and calls to action with targeted user groups will help here.

Other users we spoke to struggled with things like reCAPTCHA to verify they are a real person and this can be difficult for users with visual impairments. Similarly, we might understand what Google means when it asks us to confirm we are a person and not a robot when trying to make a purchase, but inexperienced web users might not have this kind of knowledge, meaning they could become frustrated or abandon the task altogether.

If you want someone to type in a code to ‘prove they aren’t a robot’, content needs to explain to them what the code is, and why they need to fill it in clearly - in order for these users to fully understand what you’re asking them to do. As web developers, we could implement simpler means of verification.

It’s not just language that’s proving difficult for older users when navigating the web. The debate on the hamburger menu was one we had with this group. For users new to the web, can we really expect them to understand that three dashes in the corner of a screen provides a dropdown menu, which lets them find the majority of information on a website? We should test icons (if we need them) to understand how users interact.

Once older users get online and visit a website, we need to make it as easy as possible for them to navigate it. By avoiding technical jargon, they will be able to navigate these sites more easily.

Making changes to our approach to web design is a good start. However, more widely, we need to build a long-lasting plan.


Current initiatives are good, but don’t forget about aftercare

Recently, a number of initiatives have appeared to bring inexperienced web users up to date on digital. Go ON UK is the UK’s digital skills charity, which works with partners in the public, private, and voluntary sectors to develop programmes that improve Basic Digital Skills for people and organisations in the UK. They do a great job at helping members of the public get online.

Other endeavours from the likes of Barclays with Digital Eagles, and Argos are fantastic efforts, too. Whilst these are positive steps, what happens after these sessions when the internet continues to evolve and new technologies emerge?

Teaching children in schools to be tech-savvy is a good starter, but with an aging population, it’s going to be a while before we reap the benefits of this. Right now, we need to provide aftercare once these training sessions come to an end.


It’s our job to help…

It’s the job of us as digital experts to help coordinate with others, where we go next. Especially as the Government has allocated £1.8 [$2.5] billion to digital transformation – it’s an opportunity we can’t mess up. What Helen Millner, CEO of Tinder Foundation – the organisation that runs initiatives to help people get online - said, rings true about the state of our current approach:

“If you’ve ever watched small children play football you’ll know what I mean – no space, no tactics, no strategy, just ‘look there’s the ball’ and run after it. Sometimes I think the digital inclusion sector is a bit like those six year olds playing football.”

It might take some time but by collaborating, digital experts, education providers and government bodies can work together to coordinate a plan that will encourage and facilitate further digital inclusion across the UK.