What we’ve learnt about reaching digitally disengaged older people

02 Jan 2018 |Written by Anna Osbourne

A month or so ago, I took part in my first design sprint to help tackle a question that has plagued me in my role for quite some time - how can we engage older people to engage with digital technology. The sprint is a set period of time where a specific questions can be answered or work completed - and this one formed part of the work we've been doing with the Centre for Ageing Better to help investigate solutions that can help older people engage with digital. The question of how to reach resistant older people effectively is something that occupies a lot of our thinking. 51% of people without digital skills are over 65, and we know that a big proportion of this group are completely resistant to tech, and no amount of persuasion is likely to change their minds.

The two day design sprint aimed to answer this question by bringing together a crack team of experts, from our Marketing and Communications team, alongside researchers, Service Designers and experts in working with older people. We were lucky to be joined by Jemma from Centre for Ageing Better, who brought her own unique perspective.


We hit the ground running, getting out onto the streets of Sheffield to meet and chat to older people about a range of topics - although we asked them about how they used digital, we also focussed on what made them happy and unhappy, who they trust for their information and who they talk to on a regular basis. From what we learnt, we put together messaging and campaign ideas and got back out onto the streets again to see if any of it had any impact in overcoming some of the barriers we'd discovered.

What did we learn

The two-day design sprint was a great opportunity to learn more about older people and how we can engage them more effectively. But I was pleased to learn that there was no immediate solution to engaging resistant people - as we've always thought, it's a complex issue, and a personalised approach is still the one that seems to have the most success. This is why the role of Online Centres in reaching people and helping to understand their motivations and barriers is vital.

A lot of older people we spoke to wore their disengagement with tech as a badge of honour, and so communication needs to encourage people, rather than making them feel they've been left behind.


We learnt that the risks of being online aren't holding people back as much as we thought and that the fears or barriers can often be overcome with the encouragement of a friend or family member, although these often aren't the right people to help show someone the digital ropes.

We also learnt that digital is often used by older people at a time of crisis (for example after a partner dies) and so it is just one other thing to think about in a time of stress. Again, Online Centres have a huge role to play in supporting people through these difficult times and ensuring that digital can have a long-term, and positive, impact on their lives.

What next?

Although we didn't find one single solution, or mass market campaign idea to support the millions of older people without digital skills, we reinforced some of what we already knew and had the chance to discuss and test lots of new ideas. And I for one have furthered my understanding of the complex barriers this audience group is facing. We'll build what we learnt about messaging, communications channels and referral approaches into our ongoing activity and campaigns, particularly thinking about next year's Get Online Week campaign.

The quick and dirty approach to formulating ideas, testing them and iterating them in a short period is something I'm definitely planning to use again. There really is no substitute for actually getting out and meeting the people we sit behind our desks trying to reach, and this design sprint has really reminded me of this.

Thanks to those we spoke to in Sheffield for their patience, willingness to help, and for making us both laugh and think with some of your responses - hopefully your insights will help us to reach many more people.