Is digital transformation discriminatory?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy)

As businesses embrace technology in a push to adopt the next-gen experience and improve customer experience, there are unwanted side-effects beginning to emerge. Specifically, are companies inadvertently “digitally” isolating some customers? It appears that there are certain sections of society more at risk from exclusion from our evolving digital society than others, and it is important that businesses, the government and the wider public make sure we all embrace an “everyone-first-digital-first” strategy when it comes to both access and identification.

Firstly, your socio-economic group has a substantial part to play. In Callsign’s 2018 User Authentication Report, when respondents were asked about preferences for identifying themselves online, ABC1’s were found to be at least twice as likely to use work email, check account balances, and make online transactions than C2DE’s. This fuels concern regarding individuals in lower socio-economic groups being digitally isolated and not having the “right equipment” to use important online services which could help them progress in society. When considering those on low incomes - they might not be able to afford a smartphone, and home broadband might be too expensive or impossible for those living in temporary or unstable accommodation due to the affordable housing crisis. This is then compounded by the fact that libraries that offer Internet access are closing at a rapid pace across the country and have very limited opening hours.

Right now, a great deal of consumer technology trends are being driven by the internet, but a recent report from Ofcom found that rural families and businesses were being left behind because properties were too far from the local exchanges that provide fast broadband speeds. They found that 17 per cent of homes, in fact, were not getting adequate internet, compared with 2 per cent in cities and towns. This is placing customers located in more suburban or rural areas at a significant disadvantage when it comes to access to services online, as the internet will either be too slow for specific functions to work, or won’t even be fast enough to load a website at all.

 Significant disadvantage for the elderly and disabled

Let’s also consider access to the internet. According to ONS statistics on UK internet use, in 2018 90 per cent of adults in the UK used the internet in the last three months. However, only 44 per cent of adults aged 75 years and over were regular users, and 20 per cent of disabled adults had never used the internet in 2018. Whether this is attributed to a lack of access to an internet-enabled device, internet connectivity, or a low understanding of new digital services, these statistics clearly show that the elderly and disabled are at a significant disadvantage in terms of getting the best customer service and being able to access a full range of products. It should be the case that these individuals are guaranteed constant connectivity to ensure that they are not left behind in our digital society.    

Furthermore, access to online services predominantly relies on the ownership of a smartphone and we are now seeing new challenger companies, such as Monzo, operating on an app-only basis in order to provide a cheap and efficient service for those who own the correct technology. Whilst this generally suits the younger generation, Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2018 indicated that only 77 per cent of people aged between 55-75 own a smartphone, so almost a quarter of the older population are immediately excluded. This older demographic, as well as disabled people, are most likely to struggle with accessibility and not having the ability to use certain devices for the authentication process. So, there are multiple barriers holding them back from accessing all the services they might require.

Focussing on banking and finance, researchers from Nottingham University found that the rapid closure of banking branches are felt particularly acutely in poorer areas where the economic value of transactions is low, and partly set off by the opening of revamped branches in popular locations to attract and keep young, comfortably-off employees. But unfortunately, it is these areas that the least likely to have access to online services, leaving banking customers in these areas somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place

Digital isolation

It’s clear that digital isolation is stopping some users from accessing services as the default authentication methods currently offered are excluding them. Fortunately, this is being recognised on a global scale. In fact, the World Identity Network (WIN) has just announced a partnership with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to establish a Platform for Good Digital Identity. The Platform seeks to advance global progress towards digital identities that satisfy at least five criteria: they are fit for purpose, inclusive, useful, secure, and offers choice to individuals, which should make steps towards alleviating the issues stated above.

The real solution is implementing technology that embraces everyone (and that’s not just about dumbing down to the lowest-common denominator) while simultaneously improving customer satisfaction, reducing fraud and maintaining high levels of security. Confirming identity has a crucial role to play, and we need to leverage technology which helps reduce friction in the identification process, meaning accessing services online is as easy as possible to all areas of society.

The right technology should focus on providing consumers with a greater amount of choice about which methods of identification they prefer. To serve all demographics technology needs to be ubiquitous, and it is imperative that any identification solution should lead the way – for instance, say a person doesn’t own a smartphone, they should be able to use an alternative method, such as voice verification, to easily prove who they are. Customers should be empowered to be able to select a method of identification that they can easily access, have the capability to use, and have the preference for, so they have the maximum amount of choice, control and consent.

As we continue to see digital transformation impact every industry, translating into a rise in the use of biometrics, AI and machine learning, to name a few technologies, we need to ensure that we don’t isolate pockets of society that don’t have access to these tools. This is the first step towards eliminating the digital isolation problem before it truly takes hold.

Sarah Whipp, CMO and Head of Go to Market Strategy, Callsign
Image source: Shutterstock/Wichy