Smartphone use on the rise: good news for digital inclusion?

20 May 2016 |Written by James Richardson


Last week I attended the launch event for Ofcom’s annual Adults’ Media Use & Attitudes report; as always it was a fascinating day and a chance to catch up with some of the most interesting research - and interesting researchers - in the field of digital technology in the UK. Anyone familiar with the report might not immediately see the connection with Good Things Foundation’s work around digital exclusion - after all, this is a study of how people use media technology, including the internet. And if they’re using it, how can they be digitally excluded?

To understand the answer, we need to look at the percentage of people who are now accessing the internet using only a smartphone - which has jumped from 3% last year to 6% in the latest report. This trend can be seen across all demographics, but it’s particularly high among young people and newer users, and also correlates with social grade, with DEs having the highest proportion of smartphone-only users at 13%, more than twice as high as the national average. It looks like an encouraging statistic: accessing the internet via smartphone is theoretically the same as accessing it via a desktop or laptop, and DEs - who stand to gain the most from accessing online information and services, and make the heaviest use of digital government services - are getting connected at last.

Implications for usability

But this isn’t the whole story. Younger people, new users and DEs are more likely to be smartphone-only users, but they’re also less likely to access public services online. As Ofcom’s report notes, smartphone-only internet access has ‘implications for usability, as the size of the device may hamper some types of use [such as] typing longer forms/documents; and online habits, as people’s use is more dependent on their data consumption and can diminish considerably as monthly allowances are used up.’ So are smartphone-only users really at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing vital information and services, compared to those who have the option to get online using other devices?

For me, the most interesting part of last week’s event was the presentation of new research which tries to answer this question. Conducted by ESRO for Ofcom, ’Smartphone by Default’ was a carefully-designed qualitative study of 26 individuals who used smartphones as their primary device for going online. In some cases this was a matter of convenience, with ‘smartphone by choice’ study participants able to easily access other devices if they needed them. In other cases, personal circumstances - such as unstable living and financial situations - made smartphones the only option on a day-to-day basis; this ‘smartphone by circumstance’ group included a number of vulnerable participants facing homelessness, long-term unemployment, or seeking asylum.

For both groups, the benefits of smartphones were clear. Some of the ‘smartphone by choice’ participants were using their devices to achieve some amazing things, especially those running microbusinesses: from a DJ performing as well as managing his operations, to a small taxi firm connecting to a WiFi printer to produce accounts. Smartphones were also immensely important for vulnerable participants, for keeping in touch with family despite distance and difficult circumstances; as ESRO noted, the importance of this activity was underlined by the fact that these participants 'were often paying a fairly large proportion of their income to ensure that they had access to a smartphone.'

But smartphones had their limitations. Comparing prices for goods and services across multiple websites was found to be much more difficult on a smartphone browser, as was creating and managing documents, completing online registrations and carrying out complicated searches for information: exactly the kinds of activities necessary to interact with public services online. Attempting to register to vote led to frustration, with one participant spending time - and a sizeable chunk of their limited data allowance - completing a complex online form, only to find out that he needed his NI number to proceed; creating CVs and covering letters for job applications was so difficult on a smartphone that participants didn’t even try, preferring to wait until they could gain access to a free WiFi network and a full-sized computer. ESRO found that ‘almost all participants experienced moments when they felt unable to complete a necessary task on their smartphone and needed access to another device.’

For ‘smartphone by circumstance’ participants, getting such access was far from easy: some had to take long journeys to make use of short bookable sessions on public library computers; others were able to access IT facilities maintained by a social housing provider or support organisation like a homeless shelter, but were hampered by a lack of skills. One young jobseeker resorted to a three hour round trip to use his girlfriend’s family computer to search and apply for jobs online. As ESRO noted, these participants

[O]ften faced barriers when accessing publicly-provided [computers], including prohibitive mental health issues (e.g. anxiety, agoraphobia etc.), the cost of travel, and the stigma associated with public computer terminals. [One participant] did not want to ask library staff to help her decipher the information on health-related websites, including NHS Choices, when she had a health scare, because she was embarrassed about her own lack of knowledge.

In other words, ‘smartphone by circumstance’ users needed regular access to the internet via other devices, and support with completing online tasks, often for urgent reasons - but they struggled to get it.

Access isn’t the answer

We can learn two things from ESRO’s study. First, personal access to the internet has become a poor measure of digital inclusion: even if not everyone feels the need to get online, pay-as-you-go contracts and secondhand mobile devices have put some degree of personal access within the reach of almost everyone who wants it. But it’s clearly perverse to describe the vulnerable participants in ESRO’s study as ‘digitally included’ on the grounds that they had a smartphone: even where information and services were theoretically available to them, in practice they were completely inaccessible. The twenty year-old you see on the bus, glued to Facebook on their mobile phone, might be less digitally included than the retiree sitting next to them: less proficient with a mouse and keyboard, less familiar with online forms, less able to access online services and sources of information that could make a real difference to their life. And it’s not clear that smartphones act as a ‘stepping stone’: although they have obvious benefits for people from all walks of life, they don’t build all of the core skills that are necessary for full digital inclusion.

The second clear finding is that many of the ‘smartphone by circumstances’ participants in ESRO’s study were socially as well as digitally excluded, through a complex interplay of factors including low income, homelessness, unemployment, mental and physical health problems, addiction, and unfamiliarity with local language and culture; their digital exclusion exacerbated their social exclusion, and vice versa. Expecting their lives to change significantly for the better because they had a smartphone is like expecting a table to stand up with just one leg: it’s vital, but it’s only part of the solution. Vulnerable participants had a ‘heavy dependence on front-line services’ - and that included a dependence on support with accessing the internet and completing online processes.

What needs to be done to address these issues?

For a start, ‘smartphone by default’ users need help to understand the capabilities of their devices. One of the most common complaints we hear from learners struggling with smartphones is that ‘they don’t come with an instruction manual’; they joke that they’re making good progress learning how to use a desktop, but that the phone they were given two Christmases ago is still a mystery to them. ESRO found that study participants - even those with decent digital skills - had only the vaguest understanding of how to store and manage documents on their smartphone - but unlike document creation, this isn’t an inherent limitation of the device: if you know where to find documents like CVs on your phone, and how to email them to a potential employer, you can reduce your reliance on public computers, or spend less time trekking to friends’ houses to use their laptop.

With ‘smartphone by default’ and ‘smartphone by circumstance’ on the rise, digital skills practitioners need to think about these issues, and work out how new users can get the most out of their smartphones. Online learning materials need to be developed, as well as resources for people providing support in computer classes, homeless shelters, housing associations, healthcare clinics, and anywhere else that’s used by digitally and socially excluded people who could improve their lives and reduce the burden on overstretched services by making better use of digital.

But above all, ‘smartphone by default’ users need convenient and affordable access: to alternative devices when they need them; to device-specific skills training, and friendly and informal advice on how to make the right choices; and to local support services that incorporate digital as part of a broad solution tailored to individual needs, and that help them to manage their health and their finances, find work and advice, get back into learning and community life, and keep in touch with friends and family.

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