Digital inclusion, disabled audiences and web accessibility through personalisationOctober 30th, 2009
Government Digital Inclusion Champion Martha Lane Fox was the Big Thinker at COI last week. She announced the launch of her campaign to Race Online for 2012, which aims to get more people online particularly from socially excluded groups.
Research by Price Waterhouse Coopers shows that 10 million adults in the UK have never used the Internet. 4 million of those are socially excluded, of which 38% are over 65 and 39% unemployed, and it is these that people that Fox is targeting. Her speech was inspiring. I particularly liked her ‘user-centred’ approach. She told three stories from around the country:
- A teacher at a computer literacy centre in Lambeth revealed that many of the students couldn’t read.
- A builder in Birmingham gets the majority of his work by looking online.
- Children on a rough estate in Bristol learned about growing vegetables from older residents, imparting computer knowledge in return.
Martha stressed that it isn’t about IT training, it’s about using computers for relevant purposes such as looking at photos of your grandchildren living abroad, saving money by shopping online or looking for jobs. People aren’t inherently interested in computers but may want to go online if they see that it can improve their quality of life.
Later in the week, I went to the BBC to hear about their new Accessibility Toolkit 2.0 (ATK 2.0) from Jonathan Hassel, Head of User Experience Design. His aim is to improve online experiences for disabled people.
There are 11 million adults in the UK with a long standing health problem or disability that affects their daily activities including their ability to work – and therefore covered by the Disability Discrimination Act. Of these, according to research from the Office for Disability Issues, 47% are over 65 and 43% are unemployed. Startlingly, 58% have never used the Internet.
Jonathan talked about the various barriers to disabled people getting online including lack of interest, lack of means and lack of confidence. These are the same reasons as for the population at large. BBC research into encouraging broadband adoption echoes the experiences of Martha Lane Fox. They focussed on the 21% of UK adults who do not have the Internet at home or use elsewhere. The figures are similar: 10.5 million aged 15+ with and average age of 61 (over half were 65+) and 67% are C2DE compared with 45% of the UK population.
The BBC’s research found low levels of interest (68%), low intention to acquire (82%) and low knowledge (81% knew little or nothing). The primary barriers were low perceived benefits versus cost and low confidence and skills. Secondary barriers include basic affordability, literacy and social exclusion. One participant claimed that:
“There’s nothing on there that you couldn’t get from Teletext.”
The challenge to get people online was acknowledged as being very difficult. Previous messages have failed because messages were not targeted and therefore not perceived as relevant or beneficial. Four broad areas were identified to aid adoption:
- Families and friends
- Media skills
- Easier home internet access
- Affordability and cost
Interviews with recent adopters revealed the power of friends and families, with one man saying:
“I wasn’t confident on the computer until (my son) started showing me bits on his computer.”
They also revealed that people were scared computer courses and the possibility of public humiliation in front of peers. It’s not enough simply to communicate the availability of courses.
The focus then returned to disabled audiences and Jonathan developed an interesting argument around web accessibility. The most common approach to date has been to focus on delivering inclusive websites. That is, to try to build websites that work for as wide an audience as possible. (Note on terminology here, this isn’t inclusion in the same sense as previously described, which is more about getting people online.) Jonathan’s argument is that this doesn’t work because people have such diverse needs that one design will never work. Websites do allow personalisation through operating system and browser settings but most people don’t know how these work. There’s also the AAA approach which places personalisation controls directly on to the web page. Most people don’t know what “AAA” means either. So the BBC have developed a prototype solution that brings personalisation controls into the browser but through an intuitive user interface.
The idea is that you have preferences for a website, accessible via a link at the top of the site. Clicking on this reveals a set of default options recommended by people with different health problems or disabilities. For example, you can set the colours, text size, font size and weight and so on. This isn’t revolutionary but what’s different is the user interface that the BBC have designed. It’s the first time it’s been done intuitively. And anything that helps create a positive user experience for people online is a good thing. After all, if we’ve worked hard to convince people of the benefits, the last thing we want is for them to switch off because of a usability or accessibility issue. Lets make sure it works for people when they arrive.