The Digital Divide – With the urgency to develop digital solutions for users, has COVID-19 made it more dangerous than ever?

Rebecca Walsh
7 min read

When the COVID-19 lockdown was first introduced in Northern Ireland at the end of March, it was evident that the world was about to change, but nobody knew how. It was a time of anxiety and panic – people lost their jobs, 200,000 workers in Northern Ireland were furloughed, contracts were cancelled and whole industries have been sidelined since. For many businesses, technology has been one of the only ways forward.

Without the luxury of time, organisations—particularly in education, retail and healthcare—started to provide services through digital interactions. Back in April I read a McKinsey article discussing the acceleration of digital transformation and the need to be bold. ‘What are the bold digital actions we’ve hesitated to pursue in the past, even as we’ve known they would eventually be required?’. Because of this bold and rapid transformation, citizens have had to adopt these ‘new services’ overnight, broadening even more the digital divide between individuals who have access to modern communication technology and those who lack access. 

That Divide is not new: The Digital Divide Council says,

‘the digital divide is the gap that exists between individuals who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who lack access.’ 

In a recent article for the Institute of Public Health, Prof Roger O’Sullivan explains the 4 main types of digital divide in Northern Ireland based on a 2018 NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency) study.

  1. Age Divide: In Northern Ireland, internet use varies sharply with age, with 55% of those aged 65 and over having used the internet compared to 98.4% of those aged between 16-24.
  2. Social Divide: Of those aged 65 and over, 100% from professional occupations report using the internet compared to 24% with unskilled occupations. 
  3. Gender Divide: Males, for example, in Northern Ireland are more likely to use the internet compared to females. 
  4. Rural/Urban Divide: Urban areas are more likely to have faster broadband than those in rural areas (if it is available at all).

The divide has been evident throughout the pandemic. Children living in poverty who have already been significantly disadvantaged are being tasked with picking up learning from home. This is leading to concerns for some families dealing with digital poverty. The lack of access to suitable devices (such a laptop or tablet) is also causing problems for some children, with many large households sharing one device for working from home and homeschooling.

Head of Barnardo’s – a charity caring for vulnerable children – in Northern Ireland, Michele Janes said “The whole world has now gone on the internet and I think people assume that everybody has everything they need right now to cope with the adaptations and they don’t.’

COVID-19 has also put limitations on the way wider Health and Social Care services can be delivered. As many services have been moved online, there have been significant concerns for people who are digitally excluded, which may lead to them missing appointments or assessments, and becoming more socially isolated. 

Given the digital divide and also the undeniable need for digital services accelerated by COVID-19, how can we make a difference? I truly believe that Service Design is one of the answers.

‘Service design is a process where designers create sustainable solutions and optimal experiences for both customers in unique contexts and any service providers involved. Designers break services into sections and adapt fine-tuned solutions to suit all users’ needs in context—based on actors, location and other factors.’ – Interaction Design Foundation

When I started working in Service Design, I was mainly working on the design of physical services (hospital letters, call scripts and physical healthcare spaces).  Having come from an engineering background, I was taught to think in systems. System level thinking is one of the essential engineering mindsets, it means you can deconstruct larger systems in smaller ‘modules’. Very similar to the need in service design to break services into sections, whether that be digital or non-digital interactions to suit the users, irrelevant of where they are on the digital divide. 

It was surprising to find that this was not the case in the design of services, they tend to be designed in silo. In a rapidly evolving digital world, people working on non-digital services have had to protect their service. In fact, more than protecting their service, they have really been protecting their users (many of whom may be vulnerable) from an inevitable shift that could cause more harm than good. As my work and interest in design began to incorporate digital interactions and systems, I realised why this was the case. Many digital products and services are not designed to be accessible or inclusive, in 2018 the World Wide Web Consortium reported that less than 10% of websites are accessible.

It is a given that many of us are increasingly reliant on our digital devices. 59 percent of the global population are active internet users. The lines between the non-digital and digital worlds are becoming even more blurred. 

As the digital paradigm seeps further into cultures across the modern world – how can we design new digital services that better serve the people for whom they exist? And how can ‘Service Design’ illuminate an approach that integrates both human and digital interactions?

Here are some ways in which Service Design can be helpful to bridge the digital / non-digital gap:

1: Service Design has the ability to align teams to think about digital as an opportunity, as well as a disrupter. It considers design for everyone. The ‘point’ of interaction between the user and product or service is only one within the broader service. Think about the last time you purchased something online. The service doesn’t end with the online purchase: you may need to contact the supplier to ask a question, or you might receive an email or text message to let you know your item has been dispatched, or you could say hello to the driver who delivers your item (contact free of course!). 

2: Service Design allows organisations to strike a careful balance between the convenience and need for digital and the immediacy of non-digital services and experiences. Gaining a deep understanding of the user, the customer, the community, society through interviews, observations, journey mapping, prototyping and testing. Service Designers understand the translation of services to digital and non-digital alike, the need for consistency in cross-channel experience and the need, in some instances, for hybrid services. 

3: Service Design is inherently human-centred, it tries to understand needs, motivations and frustrations. It supports people who do not have access to technology by designing non-digital touchpoints but ensures that those with access have a frictionless experience. It encompasses communications, new modes of engagement and facilitates behaviour change. 

4: Service Design creates value for both citizens and organisations. Service blueprints allow organisations to visual both the user journey (front) and the organisational journey (back-stage). Allowing designers to not only bring value to the user but also understand how to improve the support and administration of the service, adding value to the organisation. And finally (and this is my favourite!):

5: Service Design is a calling and a passion. Service designers thrive to create better experiences. We are passionate about problem-solving so we can make things better for everyone.

I believe that capacity building for service design will allow us to design solutions for everyone, regardless of their ability to access digital technologies. COVID-19 has forced change at pace, a change that may never be undone and we now have an opportunity to refocus on the needs of everyone in society.

Many digital champions such as Martha Lane Fox have been fighting for ‘better tech, for everyone’ by using design methodologies. Martha founded Doteveryone to ‘provoke change in how tech is made and used so that it serves a fair, inclusive and sustainable democratic society’. She has also called for leaders to ‘build an understanding of design’ to ensure the ‘furthest and most vulnerable people have access to technology.’  

In Northern Ireland, wouldn’t it be amazing to collaboratively thrive towards a goal of becoming world leaders in closing the digital divide, understanding that if we continue on the path of not fully understanding the divide we will, in turn, be adding to the danger and not trying to prevent it?

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