Building better websites - Developing for digital inclusion

17 Jul 2014 |Written by James Speake


Yesterday BT released a new white paper, 'Public Services: Delivering the Next Generation of Change', outlining why local authorities need to invest more in digital skills to ensure better public services. Working at Good Things Foundation of course I completely agree that increasing digital skills in the UK is hugely important, but it’s equally important that we make sure the online services provided are also fit-for-purpose. And that means building websites and services with your users in mind.

Last week I spoke at the SOCITM Building Perfect Council Websites conference on just this subject. As Head of Digital for Good Things Foundation it’s my role to think about newer internet users, and how we develop our digital services to work for everybody. We build and manage Learn My Way - an online learning platform for beginner internet users - so it’s something that we think about a lot here.

The most digitally excluded people in the UK tend to fall into certain groups - elderly people, disabled people, those on low incomes or those who have significant language barriers. In fact, exactly the groups of people who need to be able to use online council services the most. UK online centres are doing a great job at reaching out to these people to get them online but when they get there they need to find something that’s easy to use... they need to find the perfect council website.

So what should you do? Tips for developing for digital inclusion

1. Know your audience
First things first, you’ll need to know what your audience looks like. With 11m people in the UK without basic online skills, there are lots of stats about those who are beginners in the world of the internet. However your local audience may look very different to the national picture and there’s no substitute for doing a bit of your own research. Which leads to my next point...

2. Get out of the office
When building web services, it’s far too easy to assume that everyone uses the internet in the same way as you, but after spending just 5 minutes with a new learner from one of our UK online centres it becomes clear that there are issues to take into account that I never would have dreamed of by sitting in the office with my team of techies.

At Good Things Foundation, we’re blessed with a nationwide network of UK online centres, all of which are full of new internet users eager to tell us about their experience. We not only test new features with learners to see how they work in the real world but we even create content for our site in collaboration with our target audience. After all, there’s no one better to tell you whether you’re on the right path or not than your end user.

3. Get staff involvement
Buy-in from above is invaluable when developing new online services so include leadership in the process wherever you can. Getting your online offer right is really important to your organisation - make sure you have a champion for your cause at the top level.

Don’t forget your staff either! Digital inclusion skills for your staff are just as important as for everyone else. Train your staff properly to use your services and they’ll quickly become digital champions on the ground.

4. Keep it simple
Give your users a reason to use online instead of other routes. Done well, online services can be easy, convenient, and save everyone time and money. Done poorly, they can be extremely frustrating.

Avoid the jargon and keep your language and your content simple. Take a leaf out of gov.uk’s book and provide no more than 2-3 actions for each page. Think about the task at hand and make it as straightforward as possible for your users to get there.

5. Design responsively / mobile
Gone are the days when you could design online services for a standard-width PC monitor and know that every visitor to your site would have the same experience. With 61% of adults using mobile devices to access the internet, responsive design needs to be right at the top of your list. If the first visit to your site/service is a bad one, people won’t persist and try a different device or browser... chances are they won’t come back at all!

Why is this so important?

Getting online services right means saving time and money, and reaching wider audiences made up from more engaged and involved communities.

And it’s not just councils who need to be thinking about this. The Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index shows that as many as 1.7 million organisations in the UK have a very low level of digital capability and only half of SMEs and charities have any kind of website at all.

Too often digital inclusion is spoken about as getting your granny an email address but this really is an issue that’s for everybody and about everybody. Get your service right for new users and improved usability for all will naturally follow. Isn’t that what we all want?