apps on a phone

Designing digitally: Start with the need, not the technology

By Andrew Weston 31 January 2017

Whenever discussing new ways of working the most important question for a charity is how it affects their mission. But this makes creating digital services more problematic than it first appears, because ‘digital exclusion’ is a very real thing among some of the key groups that many charities target.

The 2016 internet usage data from the Office of National Statistics showed that while 87.9% of adults in the UK have recently used the internet this drops down to 71% of disabled people with 25% of disabled people having never use the internet. Older people also show a far lower level of online engagement.

Yet while there is certainly the possibility of excluding people through badly done digital services the massive loss of opportunity caused by failing to embrace the digital revolution risks even more harm.

So in order to use the full potential of digital technology offers without isolating vulnerable users you need to consider two things:

1. Does your product cater for the needs of your users?

Start with the need, not with the technology. It sounds obvious, but it is something that people can get wrong. Citizens Advice’s analysis of the universal credit pilot, for example, found that 66% of its target users were unable to fulfill the core criteria of ‘getting online’.

The product should be designed and tailored specifically to meet your user’s needs, and not just because you want to ‘do digital’. Take MeshPoint, a project set up with the help of Techfugees (currently in a late piloting stage) to provide a mobile Wi-Fi point to refugees. The crucial point is that it lets refugees and those around them connect to the internet while on the move. Like many projects supported by Techfugees it involved refugees in the design process, which helped them create a product that is effective and usable for the people it is aimed at.

Tailoring a product to your users’ needs should also take into account what tools are already in use. For example there are a number of screen reader tools designed to help people with vision difficulties access the internet. This means if you are dealing with a group such as the elderly or diabetics, who are particularly likely to include those who use these tools, it is worthwhile spending some time testing whether your product interacts well with them—and if not working out what can be done to improve its accessibility.

2. How can you support your users to make use of your product?

The second element is to understand the position of your users: their digital skills and what will motivate them to engage with the product. Because even when your users are involved in the design of a digital product, many may still need support and encouragement to reap its benefits.

The Family Independence Initiative, for example, provides a dashboard which lets people keep track of their progress through a number of different services. The dashboard helps to keep them motivated and engaged with the service by showing them progress, which in turn encourages them to continue to use the system. The Initiative also created a system whereby when the users input data they receive a small monetary reward. This not only teaches users about the value of their data, but also provides further motivation.

Supporting your users to engage with a product could also include putting on training, or even providing users with the equipment they need to access your service—be it a smart phone, or adaptive technology for a disability. It is also important to consider where your users are based. If you are predominantly dealing with rural communities you should not assume the same easy access to mobile Wi-Fi as for users based in cities.

Addressing these two issues requires you to communicate and engage with your beneficiaries throughout the design and building process, and to tailor both product and the infrastructure around the product to their needs. As with any service, digital or analogue, tech products must have the user at their heart.