Understanding digital skills

Approximately 2,5 million people in the Netherlands still experience difficulties while using digital devices such as computers, smartphones or tablets (Stichting Lezen en Schrijven, 2018). Digital inclusion is therefore one of the main ambitions of the Dutch Ministry of Internal Affairs. They want to make sure that everyone can equally take part in the digital society and be able to receive and act upon governmental online communication. For many, digital developments are going too fast, especially for people who struggle with finding and processing information online due to language related issues. Things like filling in digital forms can be a huge hurdle for some. 

As part of the national programme ‘Tel Mee Met Taal’ (Belonging through Language), STBY was commissioned to do research on the challenges and needs of people with low digital skills. We set out to gain an in-depth understanding of the everyday experiences of people with limited digital skills, and to draw insights from their online behaviour in order to inform more inclusive web design with integrated AI detection and support mechanisms.  

Observing online navigation behaviour step by step

Before we started our fieldwork and interviews, we conducted desk research to get a basic understanding of the challenges people with limited digital skills face. We identified different factors that could play a role in the everyday digital experiences of our target group. These factors were, among others: financial constraints, practical education, limited use of technology, difficulties in reading or writing, and not having a big social network to ask for help. These economic, social and cultural factors enabled us to speak to a broad, but carefully selected, group of participants.

We then interviewed 15 people about their everyday experiences with using a laptop, computer, and/or their phone. The participants varied from a group of seniors at their weekly Digisterker course at a local library, to people who are learning the Dutch language and developing basic digital skills at a local language centre. To respect the COVID19 regulations, we as researchers, were wearing a face mask at all times, maintained distance from the participants and cleaned all touched interfaces after being used. Due to the announcement of a second lockdown in The Netherlands we had to adjust our fieldwork schedule and locations by organising the remaining interviews online. 

During the interviews participants revisited a recent experience of using a website. For example, by logging in on a governmental website, searching for second hand car parts on an advertising website, online shopping, or making an appointment for a Corona test. The participants shared their experiences, struggles and highlights while doing their usual online activities. We as researchers observed their navigation behaviour step by step, and for the online interviews we asked participants to share their screen in order to see how they would navigate and make sense of the website. In addition to the participant interviews, we interviewed experts who shared their expertise and knowledge about digital low literacy from a practical, technical and strategic perspective. 

Visiting a website can be an emotional and challenging activity

Our research gave rich insights into the participants’ experiences with using digital tools and websites. Generally, participants were motivated to use websites independently and arrange things online, even though it was quite an emotional and challenging process for most. Participants experience various difficulties when visiting a website. An insight that was striking, is that participants became suspicious and had major concerns about their digital safety, caused by the complexity of digital systems. The many steps and actions they needed to do for online activities were experienced as discouraging and often resulted in self-stigmatization. Some participants assumed it was their fault for getting stuck on a website. Another insight was that most participants were more familiar with using their phone in comparison to using a laptop, tablet or computer, because they use their phone on a daily basis. Often, mobile websites and apps have a simplified lay-out in comparison to online websites. 

The outcomes of this explorative research are a set of concrete insights that provide the client team with a starting point to further improve (governmental) websites. The insights were shared in a report and also in an online session with the client team to identify key opportunities that the developers can integrate in a series of digital experiments.