A hand held in front of a face, with text at the bottom of the screen reading 'No internet today'

Learn what others have done and copy or take inspiration from them. Any charity can do at least one of these things.

Digital exclusion is an issue in the UK. It affects millions of people. If you work with vulnerable people you’ll have seen it happening. It's likely you’ll have felt unsure, even lost, about what to do.

This blog explains the 5 different types of digital exclusion and some approaches to overcoming them. It’ll help you understand how your charity can be part of the solution. It’ll also help you see how to get started. 

What is digital exclusion?

“People shouldn't have to choose between data and fuel bills.” - David Scurr, Programme and Partnerships Lead, CAST.

There are five types of digital exclusion. Each one prevents some people accessing the same online services and opportunities as others.

  1. As someone living in poverty I can’t afford data - whether phone data or home broadband
  2. As someone living in poverty I can’t afford a reliable device with internet access
  3. As someone with low digital, or other type of literacy, I struggle to use devices and the internet  
  4. As someone with a disability or impairment I struggle to use devices and the internet in the same ways as others
  5. As someone who is resistant to using the internet I am unable to access services and opportunities

These issues existed long before Covid. The pandemic has simply made them more visible and impactful on people. This could turn out to be a good thing. It depends on how we respond.

The normalisation problem

“Tackling digital exclusion is everyone's problem but too often is no one's responsibility.” - Emma Stone, Good Things Foundation

Digital exclusion isolates people from each other, disenfranchises them from opportunities and leaves them disconnected from those who care. Yet in the UK it has become normalised. As a society there is a general acceptance that this is how things are. 

Do we think that excluding people on the grounds of digital access is less important than exclusion on the grounds of disability, income, gender, race or sexuality? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Either way it needs looking at again. 

Other countries are ahead of the UK

Digital exclusion can be ended. Other countries are working in smart and caring ways. But in the UK there isn’t enough political will or joined up thinking among those working in the digital exclusion sector. As a result simple solutions get blocked by the size and complexity of our systems.

It doesn’t help that many staff in charities still lack digital skills and confidence. This makes it harder for them to help both excluded and non-excluded people. 

So what can we do about it?

There are things we can do. That every charity can do. We can learn what others have done and copy or take inspiration from them. 

All the examples below used a service design approach to developing a solution. This means they used agile methods (that make it easy to change direction) and user centred design practices (that focus on evidenced user needs). Instead of relying only on surveys and mapping data, they talked to excluded people to find out what it was like to be them. 

1. Make it easier for people to use a digital service that excludes them

Use ‘inclusive’ design to overcome ‘exclusive’ design. Design something that makes the original service easier to use. 

Example: Universal Credit online application support 

If you have low digital literacy, navigating Universal Credit’s online forms and questions to access essential help with living costs is difficult. It’s hard to understand what is required of you by a process that most people already find anxiety-inducing. 

So a collaboration of charities and agencies prototyped three ways to overcome this. One of those prototypes is a digital guide, one’s a checklist, the other was support from a professional. They made a two minute video about it.

So even a written, digital guide or checklist can help reduce digital exclusion. Sometimes simple solutions work just as well as shiny, novel ones.

2. Take virtual solutions to places your users go

Augment your people-driven services with digital technology and install it in places your users go. This could be your place of service delivery, or places your users already frequent.

Example: Citizens Advice Southampton video hubs

If you lack access to a device or the internet how do you get advice? You’d usually visit in person. But what if face-to-face services are closed or restricted? 

This was the challenge Citizens Advice Southampton faced. They researched and designed a way to provide video-based support through their community hubs (e.g. library booths). This meant users could still walk in and see and talk to an advisor on demand. The advisor could do the same and also show them information over the screen. 

3. Use non-digital approaches or make digital services accessible in other ways

Give people an alternative way to engage with your service. This could be in person, postal or otherwise. 

Example: Reaching Families Remotely. Dartington Service Design Lab’s step-by-step guide to reaching digitally excluded families.

The service design approach can be used to work out how to reach digitally excluded users. Reaching Families Remotely shows how to reach families who can’t get online or have limited access (e.g. limited data). You can apply the guide’s advice to other contexts and user groups. 

4. Upskill your staff and volunteers

For when your staff and your users both lack digital skills and confidence. Your staff build their own skills then pass on to your users what they have learnt, in the normal course of their work. You may already be doing this without realising it. 

Example: The Scout Association (Scouts) volunteer digital skills self-assessment and support tool

Scouts’ tool (see the prototype) enables volunteers to assess their skill levels then offers guidance and training to improve them. It is based on solid user research and will be made available to other organisations to use with their staff and volunteers too. 

The more your organisation prioritises staff and volunteers’ digital skills, the more skills get passed on to your users. Digital champion schemes take this a step further. 

It also means that your staff have the digital skills to work with the digitally included, so they don’t miss out on your service. 

5. Give or loan devices and help people use them

For when your users either can’t afford devices or have them but can’t use them. You can loan, show or even install apps to help them. 

Example: Galloway’s tablet scheme for visually impaired people

Despite being one of the most effective ways to tackle exclusion, loaning or giving devices to people doesn’t happen enough. Galloway's Society for the Blind tackled this by providing devices pre-loaded with accessible assistive software. The software enabled their service users to access online support and other opportunities. You can do similar for any group with accessibility needs. 

How to start in 4 steps

Use service design methods:

  1. Understand your users’ experience. Talk to them about what it's like to be them. Ask them to describe the barriers they experience to getting online.
  2. Consider different ideas and solutions
  3. Prototype and test some solutions 
  4. Use what you learn from the tests to decide on a solution, or more prototyping

Use the CAST Digital Toolkit to learn more about this approach.

Go further and learn how to embed digital inclusion into your organisation’s work. 

Search the Catalyst Digital Inclusion Resources list when you need more help.

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