Enabling Digital Inclusion

Wed 16 Mar 2016

As we plough ahead with making our services digital, there’s a danger that we can lose sight of WHY we’re doing it. Much is made of “digital Inclusion”, and the government is committed to ensuring that the public has access to the internet through improved infrastructure, that its online skills and confidence are improved and accessibility, including for those dependent on assistive technology, is made real.

Building services that are Digital by Default should make what we do and how we deliver it more efficient and cost effective. For a digital service to succeed, it has to be easier for someone to do what they need online rather than via another channel.

The process has to be quick and simple, removing the “hassle-factor” for the user, not adding to stress and inconvenience. With this in mind, complex and unnecessary elements have to be stripped out of the experience.

The challenge is making sure that citizens want to use public sector digital services and that through this we enable efficiencies and improvements for internal staff.

Here, we consider how the development of any service must start with the user and how the end result must fitin with people’s day-to-day lives and be a convenience not a chore. This, in turn impacts on the challenges faced by the developer.

Digita: A Barrier Rather Then An Enabler?

There are some elements of Digital Inclusion we can’t address: parts of the population have no or limited physical access to the internet. To this end, the government is investing in internet access and digital infrastructure. Where we can make a difference as developers and service providers is to make it easy, convenient and appealing for users to take up the services we develop and help overcome their reluctance to use online services.

People rarely use a government service because they choose to: more often than not, they have to. And if they DO have to, how will users who are blind, deaf or for whom English is not their first language react to the service? Additionally, for many, a social media application or online game accessed through a smart phone is the extent of their digital activity and attempting to complete an official form or complete an online process provides a cumbersome user experience.

While we have little influence over users’ physical access to the Internet, we can help ensure that the number of people who could be disadvantaged by digital transformation is reduced. As a result, a combined approach is required, encompassing user-centric technology and design.

Digital Inclusion

Many providers in the private sector may believe that 98% device support is good enough: we understand this is not the case in the public sector where it needs to be 100%. We believe that low take up of digital services and poor user-experience are entwined as a common reason for projects failure. After all, if people are comfortable and familiar with using a certain method to access the internet, we should take advantage of that and not try to force them outside their comfort zone. Our services have to be available and be as efficient on a PC as they are on a smart phone.

This results in a number of implications for development teams: following the path of least resistance when developing a digital service can end up resulting in a temporary (and ultimately expensive) solution that isn’t used. You can’t simply create an electronic version of a paper process, put it online and assume success.

Existing processes have to be reviewed and redefined, accepting new and unfamiliar ways of completing hitherto common tasks in order to create the best digital experience for the user and ultimately the efficiency advantages for the service provider.

What is needed is a fundamental re-think, a completely new approach to developing online services. Rather than consider subjectively and anonymously what you want to get out of the user, turn it around and think about what the person using your service is trying to achieve. Remember that for each user, this is a new and possibly one-off exercise, one that they have to conduct. It may involve divulging personal information and the user’s success, or not, in using the service could have financial or personal implications.

The user, not the technology, is the starting point of design and development.

How Can You Achieve It?

With this in mind, the context of your digital project – users’ behaviour, abilities, comfort level and device use sets the scene for the approach you take. Using a collaborative (Agile) method, solutions can be responsive to change and focused on the user experience, stripping out unnecessary elements in order to encourage adoption.

At the same time, be conscious of the IT environment in which the service is operating in order to minimise risk, contain budget and take into account any dependencies of working with other suppliers or internal teams and any integration challenges presented by existing technologies.

  1. At the very start of the process, look at what the service is aiming to achieve. Challenge it. Ask how you know this element is necessary? Do we need to include this? If we remove it, will we lose anything of real value? How do we know if the user’s experience be improved if we keep it? You can only answer these questions by testing your assumptions with real users, and that includes those with assisted digital requirements such as people who are visually impaired, deaf and those who suffer from conditions such as ADHD – all of which require different considerations.

  2. Acknowledge that users WILL find a way around using a digital service if it is inconvenient, uncomfortable or confusing to use. It is important that you make provision for that in order to ensure they don't take the wrong route to bypass the digital service. This often results in the user being passed from pillar to post – endlessly referred to another team or put on hold and ultimately end up dissatisfied and frustrated, with a negative view of the service. But note: make it clear under what circumstances the provisions apply so people don’t automatically opt for the bypassing route.

  3. Consider which teams are affected by the service and involve them throughout development. Historically, teams work in silos and approach a project from separate perspectives, leading to a disjointed result that is unlikely to meet the needs of users.

  4. Address privacy and trust upfront: what happens to the data provided by the user? How is it handled? Does it need to be stored? If so, how and where?

  5. Have a long-term view: can any elements of the service being developed be used elsewhere in the future?

Easier Said Than Done?

From a technology point of view, seek out solutions that make it easy for you to scale and adapt as technology advances and manufacturers develop new features which users will benefit from. Be aware that new versions of operating systems will need to be quickly catered for. From a development perspective, your solution, from the outset, needs to be capable of being used seamlessly on different platforms, adaptable to different screen sizes, tested quickly and future-proofed.

This is easier said than done using traditional, bespoke, hard-coding methods. These demand complex project scoping, the time (and cost) associated with highly-skilled developers and drawn-out testing processes.

We work with you to bring together the benefits of bespoke customer-facing open standard applications with the cost advantages and deployment speed of a mature COTS / low code based technology platform.

The resulting services can be accessed by multiple users across diverse locations, using secure permissions-based access and strong data protection techniques to enable collaborative working.

Out-of-the-box browser and mobile OS support makes development of services that can be supported by multiple channels a lot quicker and easier than traditional methods.

Enabling Channel Shift

While our solutions are easy to use and develop and align with Digital by Default guidelines, they support all commercially-available browser options and optimise automatically for different operating systems and screen sizes. All common browsers are supported out-of-the-box, dramatically reducing the need to test with multiple browsers as required by bespoke development approaches.

This means our digital service and form design allows for sophisticated, dynamic, multi-part, web-based forms that work across device types – screen readers, tablets, phones, laptops and desktops – online and offline. We enable mobile data collection with always-on support for data collection on PC, laptop, tablet and smart phones over 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi and even when there is no connectivity.

In this way, we enable a range of "channel shift" digital services, compliant with both the Government’s Digital by Default Service Standards and Security Policy Framework.

We operate an open development approach, with open standards data formats, open source toolkits as well as a ‘build once, deploy many times’ method. While our platform is based on Microsoft technology, we also provide the capability for government departments to choose to use open standards to develop applications and utilise simple multi-browser-based development options.

At the same time, our solutions are responsive to change and focused on the user experience, stripping out unnecessary elements. This helps encourage adoption of services by users as they are not distracted or overwhelmed by elements which seem to have no bearing on what they are trying to achieve. The key is to avoid treating ‘external users’ as arms-length anonymous endpoints in a process.


You can’t mandate behavioural and cultural change but by providing well thought out, simple to use digital services, you can encourage users – both public sector staff and citizens – to adopt new ways of getting things done. Essentially, we want to help you make it easy for your users to get the practicalities out of the way so they can get on with their lives. Ultimately, digital services need to account for and acknowledge that they cater for users with assisted digital needs, whether that is the result of low digital literacy or disability.

To this end, we build services based on Digital by Default standards that interact securely and more easily with each other. More importantly, they improve the services for the people they are designed to serve by helping to replace paper, telephone and face to face services with more efficient and accessible digital alternatives. This is all achieved within the context of complex IT environments, security infrastructure and data systems in which digital services need to operate.

We have already delivered complete take-up of services with organisations such as the Legal Aid Agency and Eastleigh Council, proving their ease-of-use and the value of our customer-led approach and we look forward to working with you to deliver services that are inclusive for all citizens.