A Simple, Elegant, Sustainable and Cost-Effective Solution to the UK Government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy

Credit: Simplicity Computers

Credit: Simplicity Computers

I had a really great chat this week with Nigel Houghton, CEO of Simplicity Computers, who shared with me some of the company’s latest product developments. As a champion of Simplicity Computers, I have previously written about the sustainability dimension of their products (see for example A Simple Way to Recycle Your Old Computer), but in this article I would like to focus on their core target audience, people who are not currently able to access the internet.

Before we explore the solution, it is worth looking at data from the UK:

  • In 2013, 36 million adults (73%) in Great Britain accessed the Internet every day, 20 million more than in 2006, when directly comparable records began.
  • Access to the Internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24% to 53%.
  • In 2013, 72% of all adults bought goods or services online, up from 53% in 2008.
  • In Great Britain, 21 million households (83%) had Internet access in 2013.
  • Broadband Internet connections using fibre optic or cable were used by 42% of households, up from 30% in 2012.

Source: Office for National Statistics, Internet Access – Households and Individuals, 2013

If we look at usage by age groups, a sizable increase in daily computer use, by age, in the past seven years has been for adults aged 65 and over. In 2006, just 9% reported that they used a computer every day, this compares to 37% in 2013.

Daily computer use by age group, 2006 and 2013

A recently published Government Digital Inclusion Strategy policy paper reports that:

    • 21% of Britain’s population lack the basic digital skills and capabilities required to realise the benefits of the internet.
    • 10% of the adult population may never be able to gain basic digital capabilities, because of disabilities or basic literacy skills.
    • Over 53% of people who lack basic digital skills are aged over 65, and 69% are over 55

In terms of actual numbers therefore, issues like disability and old age mean that 6.4m adults (13%) have never gone online. Disability remains the single biggest problem area and the ONS states that 3.5 million disabled adults have never used the Internet. Income also remains a factor. 5% (253,000) of those earning less than £200 per week still had not used the Internet (down from 286,000 at the end of 2013).

I have direct experience in these issues. One really interesting piece of user experience design work I did at BT was to work with older customers, and how they coped with mobile telephony. Mobile phones are a huge issue in many ways, such as small keys, small text, and it can be difficult for people with reduced mobility and dexterity in their hands. There are major issues which current user interface accessibility requirements only partially resolve.

(Source: Internet Access Quarterly Update, Q1 2014)

Four main challenges that people face to going online were identified:

  1. access – the ability to actually go online and connect to the internet
  2. skills – to be able to use the internet
  3. motivation – knowing the reasons why using the internet is a good thing
  4. trust – a fear of crime, or not knowing where to start to go online

In recognition of the size of the issue, the UK Government has committed to the following charter:

  1. Use a common definition of basic online skills and capabilities
  2. Support the cross-sector national partnership programme across the country (building on Go ON UK’s partnership programme)
  3. Identify and support best practice initiatives to grow through cross-sector working and complement the national partnership programme including:
    • uniting to support each regional partnership programme to give them the greatest chance of success
    • piloting and scaling up initiatives which bring support to where people are in their daily lives
    • embedding digital inclusion into partners’ communications activity to encourage people, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and voluntary, community and social enterprises (VCSEs) to take the first steps to going online
    • piloting practical ways to make internet access, kit and digital skills cheaper and more easily available
  4. Make things simpler for users who lack basic online skills and capabilities by using a shared language
  5. Establish digitalskills.com as the trusted source of information about good quality help available to get people online
  6. Support the development of a national volunteering network of digital champions to enhance existing networks
  7. Support an online skills and capabilities programme for SMEs and VCSEs
  8. Share best practice and use data to measure performance and improve what we do
  9. Build the online skills and capabilities of people in our own organisations
  10. Work together to support the aims of the digital inclusion strategy

(Source: UK Digital Inclusion Charter)

Complementing the UK Government’s drive towards digital inclusion are a range of not-for-profit charities and think tanks who are also contributing ideas and programmes:

Digital Inclusion Programmes

(Source: Sarah Fink, Simple Things Done Well, Policy Exchange)

The majority of these initiatives are focused on training as the key to digital inclusion. Policy Exchange, a UK Think Tank offer the following cost estimates based on the concept of Technology Advocates:

For a full-scale programme, we estimate that the creation of around 1,000 Technology Advocate roles working over a five-year period would have the potential to get around 500,000 to 750,000 people independently online. The cost of running the programme might be around £150 million over the five-year period, and the potential savings from cheaper government transactions worth  around £170–225 million over the same period. Our assessment, therefore, is that such a scheme has a reasonable chance of delivering a small net saving to government of perhaps around £20–75 million over five years.

Source: Sarah Fink, Simple Things Done Well, Policy Exchange

If we look at the business case for Technology Advocates, the assumptions of an overall cost saving are not certain, and based around lower government transactions. The time scale covers five years, and a major cost of getting older people on-line, the equipment itself, is not factored in.

The Tinder Group have also carried out similar studies. They estimate that the cost of getting 6.2 million people on-line by 2020 will be £875 million. Their model also includes a wide range for the average cost per person, from £47 to £319, and their model does not factor in the costs of any hardware, software or connectivity. (Source: Tinder Foundation, A Leading Digital Nation by 2020: Calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all).

There are other initiatives of course, such as the Bournemouth Peer Support Groups where older volunteer users guide other users, and Age Concern’s Intergenerational Computer Club, which particularly help older people get over their fears of going online.

Initiatives based on training are good, but the training can be both complex and takes a long time. The other hidden aspect of people who are digitally excluded is that many may have an ability to go on-line, but do not have the skills to be effective once on-line. As we have seen, there are cost benefits to the Government enabling better access to on-line services, but these require a complete understanding of the whole problem, and not just a part, i.e. offering more training.

So what can Simplicity Computers offer that other programmes currently do not? And how can they offer a cost-effective solution which is has an important ecological dimension as well?

Credit: Simplicity Computers

Credit: Simplicity Computers

Simplicity Computers flagship innovation is their simple-to-use operating system they call Envelope. This offers email, web and an application to store and view documents, as well as video tutorials from British television presenter Valerie Singleton. The first offering from Simplicity Computers was Envelope on Simplicity branded desk top and lap top computers, with a range of service options including specialist computer support for one year.

My mother was one of their early customers, and I spent some time observing her learn and use the system, which now comes with a version of Skype. Sometimes we do not realise just how complicate modern operating systems are, and I would venture to say that Simplicity Computers are the people who managed to get my mother on-line.

Simplicity Home Key

Simplicity Computers followed up their initial offering with a new solution, Home Key, which is the Envelope operating system on a memory stick. This solution transforms any Windows computer, however old, into one that operates Envelope, and as such it means out-of-date computers no longer have to discarded, even if the Windows operating system is broken in any way.

For people like me who are “good with computers” Envelop also comes as a pure download, so that if you want to give your old computer to someone who wants to get on-line, you just download the software and with a few tweaks you are up-and-running. For clarity, someone new to computers would not be able to do the installation themselves, but if you are OK with making a few alterations to the booting procedure, you have the ability to convert your old computer and give it to someone who would benefit from Envelope.

The very latest version of Envelope now works with any Windows system, including Windows 8, which has been extremely badly-received. Envelope therefore offers a solution for people wanting to buy a genuinely easy-to-use system for first-time adult users.

Credit: Simplicity Computers

Credit: Simplicity Computers

As I said, Nigel and I had a discussion about their new product which is still a few months away from being commercially available. This is a very small box which sits on top of a television, and allows Envelop to run using the television and a wireless keyboard.

Credit: Simplicity Computers

Credit: Simplicity Computers

In terms of price points, initially it would be available for £140 (not including the keyboard) with a view to reaching £100 once volume sales were being achieved. Given the challenges the Uk and other governments face with digital inclusion, Nigel and I discussed the following aspects of what this could potential mean:

 1) Costs of Training

This product, as with all other versions of Envelope, includes video tutorials. Looking at how my mother learnt ow to use the system, she still needed my father who does and has used Windows for many many years to show her the ropes, such as how to work the mouse and what a cursor is. However, inclusion of video tutorials provides a very rich source of training, and also inspires confidence in users. (For those of you not from the UK, you may not know Valerie Singleton. She was a well-respected BBC television presenter, and is in the same age group as the main audience, retired people, and provides video tuition).

2) The Concept of Training

For many people, the word training has some negative connotations. With Envelope, training dissolves into the background, and is therefore not seen as a ‘bad’ thing to have to deal with.

3) People with Memory Problems

Simplicity Computers have anecdotal evidence that people with certain degrees of dementia are able to learn how to use Envelope, and retain their skills. Although psychological studies are needed to validate this claim, Envelope could be a solution for people for whom more complex operating systems are simply not suitable.

4) Access to Government Services

As we have seen, a number of think tanks and organisations are looking at how to enable full UK digital inclusion, and these costs do not factor in the equipment. Given that no screen or expensive computer equipment is required, this could offer dramatic cost savings compared to other solutions which have not factored in the cost of equipment, and which may be under-estimating the full cost of training.

5) Effective computer use

Those people who use Envelope do not just get on-line, but are able to use their new on-line skills effectively. The training normally needed to take someone from being on-line to being on-line effectively can also be high and should not be under-estimated.

6) Ecological factors

The obvious element of this solution is that it works on existing television screens, including older ones, and the new physical equipment is minimal compared to purchasing a whole new computer.

In this article I have focused on the UK, since at this moment in time Simplicity Computers are mainly UK-based and I am familiar with the various work happening in the UK on digital inclusion. With little effort Envelope can be translated into other languages, and it would be interesting to see which initiatives start to explore Envelope and its various implementations as a very real solution to digital inclusion.

In Brazil there are many obvious ways in which Envelop could support not just the elderly, but in educational programmes too, driven by the private and NGO sectors.

To summarise, I see a huge potential upside in incorporating hardware and software solutions such as Envelope from Simplicity Computers into digital inclusion initiatives. It is not always the case that people recognise all the complexities and costs involved when only current operating systems such as Windows and Apple OS X, as has been seen in the reports I have mentioned, and so for me, Simplicity Computers do offer a realistic and fully costed solution, which is both scalable and sustainable in the long term.

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A Simple Way to Recycle Your Old Computer


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