Digital inclusion: What is it and why is it important?

The web is taking over the way we do things, from bank transactions, to shopping, to paying utility bills and council tax; it touches most people every single day. But with an aging population in the UK, we need to be prepared for the challenges we might face by failing to include different user groups in the progression of digital.

Here, Hilary Stephenson, managing director at digital agency, Sigma, discusses digital skills, connectivity, and accessibility, and the steps we need to be taking to ensure successful digital inclusion.

The current state of digital inclusion

According to the Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy report, 21 per cent of Britain’s population lack the basic digital skills that are needed to experience the full benefits of the web. And if we look strictly at business, nearly a third of small to medium size businesses (SMEs) don’t have a website. If you add voluntary community and social enterprises (VCSEs) into the mix, this goes up to a massive 50 per cent.

This lack of digital inclusion is having a detrimental effect across the board; not just on the progression of digital in general, but on business growth, and the UK economy too. And as we adopt digital more and more, the public sector is also starting to integrate it – something which is going to affect everyone, regardless of their digital skills and experience. The Government is making strides to deliver its services digitally with its Digital by Default plans, so this issue needs to be addressed quickly. If not, this could become a barrier for some members of the population when they try to complete tasks that are necessary to their lives; like paying council tax or their TV license, for example.

Accommodating an aging population is a key focus

Through working with members of the public that are aged 60+ to see how they navigate websites, we’ve been able to see the severity of the digital inclusion issue first hand from one of the key user groups affected by it.

In our experience, older users aren’t familiar with their own devices - whether that be a Smartphone, desktop, or iPad - and therefore have difficulty with simple tasks like maintaining them. Whether it is virus protection, updating apps, or simply operating a device - seemingly small things for the average user often leave older users confused.

Our research also showed big misunderstandings about mobile devices in general – with some believing just turning on their mobile would cost them money. Other things we found were perhaps less surprising. Users forgetting their passwords was quite common, and worries around security was another recurring theme that we anticipated was a big reason why much of this user group avoids the web altogether.

Older users are an example of just one group being affected by digital inclusion - there’s likely to be a number of other user groups being marginalised, including those with disabilities, or those from lower-economic backgrounds without access to the devices needed to access the web.

Key challenges and goals

Access, skills, motivation, and trust are the things outlined by the Government as the biggest challenges facing digital inclusion, and we couldn’t agree more.

Web access

The ability to actually get online and connect to the internet is obviously the first port of call when it comes to ensuring everyone is clued up on digital. In 2013, 17 per cent of the UK population didn’t have internet in their home (four million homes), which could be having a huge economic impact. This figure may have improved since then, but it still stands that not everyone can get online – 11 per cent of adults (5.9 million) have never used the internet, a number which has only fallen by one per cent since quarter one (Jan to March 2014).

Skills

Not being able to navigate the web through lack of digital skills is another big barrier. Although there is now an increased focus on this in schools so it’s not likely to be an issue in years to come – right now it is. Digital businesses, key influencers, and charities must work together to provide guidance and advice for those that need digital skills to gain them. Free to attend workshops or seminars could accommodate training for users easily, for example. It’s our responsibility not to leave behind any user group, especially as the UK continues to champion the progression of digital.

Motivation

Within groups that have never used the internet before, some are ignorant to its benefits. As mentioned above: the ability to bank, shop, pay bills, find important information and engage in social interaction, are all big motivations for getting online. If we educate people of its benefits, they are more likely to use the internet. And this can only be a boost for the economy and our businesses in the long run.

Trust

Particularly for the older generations (albeit not exclusively), we have found a big issue with trust. The online space can be overwhelming and it’s not surprising that inputting credit card details into a website to purchase something, for example, makes those that aren’t clued up quite nervous. And with the news covering a different story about big businesses being hacked online every other day, the issue of trust might be one of the biggest barriers we face when it comes to digital inclusion. It’s likely that overcoming this will involve the same tactics as helping people gain skills – the more they know, and the more they are clued up on protecting themselves against security threats, and the more comfortable they will feel.

What’s next?

For businesses, charities, public sector organisations and anyone with a presence online, the benefits of digital inclusion are obvious. So it’s in our best interests to do everything we can to ensure everyone is able to access the internet no matter where they live, how old they are, and despite any skills they lack, or disabilities or impairments they might have.

User experience (UX), i.e. optimising a website for its users, might be the best place for businesses to start to at least make sure that their website is easy to navigate for every user. The language used, colours of buttons and banners, 3-click rule (whereby a user reaches the information/item they need within three clicks), link text, and touch areas for touch screen mobiles, are just some of the things that should be optimised to make a website easier for users to navigate. Failure to optimise a website sufficiently could result in users becoming frustrated and abandoning a website before they purchase something or find the information they need.

There’s no point in teaching everyone about digital, which is crucial for digital inclusion, if when they get online they regularly come across websites that are impossible to navigate.

It’s obviously important to keep your target audience in mind when designing your website, but don’t disregard other users that could land on your website whilst doing so.

Image source: Shutterstock/bestfoto77