Global pandemic calls for a review of digital usage

July 3, 2020 9:20 am

Global pandemic calls for a review of digital usage

In a global pandemic where physical contact is restricted and businesses and services have ground to a halt, there’s no wonder we’ve seen an acceleration in digital usage. Businesses have turned to digital alternatives to continue operating and essential services have had to find ways to serve the public remotely.

In turn, many who were dependent on physical services and experiences have had no choice but to seek digital alternatives. For some this may have involved adopting technology or devices they never expected to use. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the changes we’ve seen in digital uptake over the last few months but also highlight where Assisted Digital practices are essential in making sure no one gets left behind.

An increase in digital uptake

In just the first week of Lockdown, network providers such as Vodafone reported a 30% rise in data usage in the UK, and up to 50% in some European countries. During this period we saw high proportions of office jobs switch to working from home, schooling switch to home learning, and many physical and social activities being replaced by remote alternatives.

Online streaming services such as Netflix saw an increase in viewers, and video conferencing tools like Zoom and Skype gained persistent popularity as workers used them to keep in touch with colleagues but also to contact family and friends at evenings and weekends (Independent).

Trends were consistent in the grocery sector too as retailers experienced an unprecedented demand in online shopping, some experiencing traffic and sales figures alike those in the busiest periods of the year such as Christmas.

The public sector was forced to accelerate their digital transformation too. The NHS and public authorities found themselves under intense pressure to maintain vital services for millions of customers. Several local authorities developed apps or took advantage of social media channels to get volunteers, provide updates, and organise essential deliveries.

To put this into perspective, on 17 March 2020 the NHS website received the highest number of website visits in a day ever, reaching 3.4 million, and in March 2020 their recently released app received a 111% increase in registrations, and 97% increase in repeat prescriptions requests via the app.

Who’s included?

There’s no doubt digital use is increasing across all sectors, but this online takeover seems to have impacted a range of demographics, not just the generations we’d typically expect to be digitally active.

In the UK, adults in general are now spending a quarter of their day online, as studies show average daily time spent online was 4 hours during the height of lockdown. As well as the services already mentioned, use of online messaging tools such as WhatsApp and Facebook messenger have increased to daily use, overtaking traditional SMS or email methods. Rates of online voice calls are now only slightly lower than voice calls too.

Surprisingly this trend is also noticeable amongst the 65+ population, as Ofcom reported a rise in the proportion of older internet users making at least one video-call each week from 22% in February 2020 to 61% in May 2020. For many, these means have provided an accessible way to keep in touch with loved ones and retain some element of normality in otherwise lonely circumstances.

This data is consistent with our own discoveries too, as during research we’ve noticed a real increase in digital competency across all age ranges. Our remote sessions require use of tools such as Zoom, and even when asked to screen share and navigate between different windows on a desktop or mobile, we’ve found users across the board becoming increasingly au fait with these more complex activities.

Impact on Assisted Digital and the Digital Inclusion Scale

If those previously reluctant or less confident online are now also turning to digital channels, this raises questions around the impact on Assisted Digital and Digital Inclusion practices.

For context, Assisted Digital is the term used to describe initiatives and strategies aimed at ensuring no one is left behind during digital transformations (GDS).

The Digital Inclusion scale is a measure also created by the UK government to plot digital capability. It outlines 9 categories of online competency ranging from ‘Never have, never will’ to ‘Expert’ online users. This scale is something we use heavily when recruiting participants for research and encouraging inclusive design practices.

During recent months, as digital means have become an enabler of key services, not just an efficient alternative, it feels as though digital competency has taken a leap forwards in response. This suggests users across the scale are becoming more able in their digital use, potentially reducing presence at the bottom end of the DIS scale and changing the emphasis of Assisted digital practices entirely. This calls for a review of digital activity in general, to understand how behaviours have changed, whether competency has increased and how Assisted Digital and Digital Inclusion strategies must adapt.

But who’s missing?

However, the key aim behind Assisted Digital practices is that no one gets left behind, and in light of the recent digital shift, it would be crude to assume that everyone has had the opportunity to benefit.

In 2019 7.5% of UK adults had never used the internet. For some this may be out of choice but earnings and qualifications also have a part to play as moving online can be expensive and daunting. Although the exact figures are likely to be smaller now, this is an audience we cannot ignore as they don’t necessarily have the means to complete basic tasks and access essential services online.

So whilst Coronavirus has accelerated our digital dependence in a way that’s likely to have lasting positive effects, what it has also done is create a chasm between the connected and unconnected. A large proportion of the population may have moved up the Digital Inclusion Scale, but some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society haven’t moved from the bottom. Globally, these disparities are just as stark as those in less developed countries not only suffer in terms of the human and economic consequences of the pandemic, but also lag behind in terms of digital readiness.

What can we do?

As digital platforms become a critical tool for survival, it’s important the knowledge of this disparity is used as an opportunity. In the spirit of Assisted Digital, authorities and businesses should make it their mission to understand how digital presence is changing and identify where people may get left behind. We need to make a collective effort to reduce digital divides before dependence increases further.