Tackling the Social Costs of the Digital Divide

Envisioning New Horizons

A critical look at UX design practice

A column by Silvia Podesta
February 5, 2024

My mum decided that we had to fill out our family’s income-tax returns online, on the Tax Agency’s Web site, and from that moment on, my dad had to confront the daunting practicalities of obtaining his own digital identity. This entailed his making a Web call to a service provider to get his identity verified by a human agent. Seeing my dad struggling with this unknown medium, engaging in a type of interaction that felt completely cringey to him, was touching and somehow a bit funny, too. It struck me that he just couldn’t make himself look at the person on the screen. Instead, he invariably turned around to look at me, where I was standing silent and out of view—given the legal requirements of the online verification—but ready to provide assistance during the procedure.

To be fair, my eighty-year-old dad is quite comfortable tinkering with his smartphone and proficient in carrying out the tasks that matter to him—for example, texting his loved ones, looking up information online, or perusing a Web shop. However, other tasks that are novel for him often come with unexpected hurdles and the risk of failure. A case in point: his identity verification failed.

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The use of digital services has become an imperative in both the public and private sectors, and digital apps increasingly mediate our daily lives. Therefore, we must reflect on the implications that these shifts hold for the more vulnerable user groups who find it hard to access or use online services for all sorts of different reasons. Not just the elderly but users who grapple with disabilities that hinder their online interactions. Plus, many others cannot afford to connect online or live somewhere with poor signal.

However, regardless of all these barriers, many organizations and governmental entities are relentlessly pushing for everyone to be online—whether to arrange travel, use a launderette, or simply pay for parking. It’s easy to see why. In the public sector, digital services show enormous potential, with an estimated reduction of 50% in the time that administrative employees must spend interacting with the public, 50% lower costs for companies interacting with the public, and according to the German National Regulatory Control Council, a 60% reduction in case-handling efforts. [1]

Despite the undeniable advantages of technology, moving to online digital interactions could leave large swathes of the population behind, particularly those of us who lack the necessary tools, skillsets, or economic means. Without a smartphone, life can become a very complicated affair these days. As a consequence, some users are feeling resentful about organizations’ discriminating against them.

As UX designers, it is our moral and professional duty to understand and address the eventual inequalities that could accompany this digital transition in our lives and help organizations build inclusive, user-friendly services.

Understanding the Barriers to Digital

For us to tackle this digital divide, an important point to consider is that a lack of access to the Internet is neither the only, nor the main reason for the exclusion of some user groups from digital services.

In the EU in 2022, only 2.4% of a population of 450 million lacked access to the Web—largely because of financial barriers. Still, that is a staggering twelve and half million people!

While the digital divide seems to be closing in the most developed countries—at least in terms of physical access—disparities persist when it comes to people’s digital skills and use of applications. In fact, even though aging populations are becoming increasingly digitized, recent studies have come to the conclusion that the digital divide still exists between age groups and continues to intersect with gender and other demographics.

Gaining an understanding of the root of the problem will be neither immediate, nor easy. BBC Radio 4’s program You and Yours conducted an investigation that surfaced some very different perceptions of digital technology within the context of accessing General Practitioner (GP) medical services. The majority of the seniors they interviewed lamented their having difficulties when trying to book medical appointments or get their prescriptions online. On the contrary, younger patients praised the convenience of avoiding lengthy phone calls or going to their GP’s office for health matters that weren’t urgent.

It might be tempting to attribute elderly people’s attitudes about going digital to laziness or a stubborn reluctance to embrace new habits. However, in reality, we still know little about the cognitive impacts that users who are first exposed to digital media later in life experience when they have to translate their entrenched behaviors to an online setting. This process might be akin to learning a new language.

Although society might broadly recognize that constant and continuous exposure to technology is critical to building digital proficiency among older adults, seniors often lack the necessary experience because they are hesitant to try out new technologies. Plus, popular degrading narratives that depict older adults as “technologically inept” or “digitally illiterate” might simply put them off. Or seniors might be missing the basic building blocks of digital literacy—some fundamental understanding that could guide them through further trial and error when learning new tools.

Before blaming these users or expecting that they’ll simply adapt to the rules of a new world, it would be beneficial to observe them in context so we can shed light on their struggles. Are there impairments relating to age, disabilities, or culture that could impact senior users’ understanding of digital tools? Have we designed the digital services that these people use to minimize frictions in the user experience? These questions are relevant to whomever wants to build digital services that would create a fair and inclusive future.

Is 0ur Digital World Becoming Too Complex?

Another point worth reflecting on concerns the growing complexity of our digital experiences. In a world that celebrates concepts such as usability and seamless workflows, the idea that technology makes our lives easier is fundamentally true. However, the accelerated pace of digitalization has brought new challenges, too. Security incidents are rampant, as are online fraudsters. Apps and tools must implement new affordances for both data and consumer protection, which in turn could make the overall experience less seamless and immediate.

Apps also require updating more frequently, demanding users’ attention. While these updates might seem effortless for people who have grown up with technology, this is not so for people who have been living primarily in an analog world. Of course, I would not argue that we should stop progress and relinquish all the good things that come with it. But we must design the digitalization of our lives with greater consideration of the potential barriers to change.

Good Design Practices: An example from the Travel Industry

A recent, EU-funded research project, whose aim was making public-transport systems more inclusive and accessible through digital services, discovered that, in Germany, more than 50% of disabled people have little confidence in planning travel using a smartphone and, in Barcelona, Spain, over a quarter of people with low education levels have never used the Internet on a smartphone.

These findings have prompted UX researchers to involve vulnerable users in the subsequent design of new transport solutions in various locations. The Dutch city of Tilburg, for instance, made brochures available, providing information on the principal transport providers in Tilburg and the contact number of a help desk. They are currently distributing these brochures in train and bus stations, as well as at the places elderly people visit. This solution answered the need of elderly travelers “to have a phone number they could call, with an actual human on the line, in case there were a problem on their journey.” Its goal was to make life easier for their target audience, encourage them to use public transport more, and by doing so, become more confident in using the app and more independent over time.

A Call to Action: Building Knowledge To Ensure Digital Inclusion

By no means we should stop applauding technological advancements that offer tremendous opportunities to change our lives for the better. But it’s undeniable that shifts in the ways we go about our lives and carry out certain tasks can prove difficult for some user groups.

There are still many unknowns surrounding the digital divide. Some shortcomings of digital-divide research that we’ve identified include a lack of theories and conceptual definitions and the need for interdisciplinary approaches to qualitative and longitudinal research. Greater investment in this field could result in a better understanding of these issues and lead to the design of appropriate strategies for user empowerment.

As Tomoko Yokoi described in Forbes, “Bridging the digital divide requires a multifaceted approach. We need to address the practical barriers to access, while also examining the broader cultural and societal factors that contribute to the divide.”

Is the cause of this disconnect purely physical—for example, a lack of connectivity or hardware—or are there underlying psychological factors that hinder users—such as the fear of being defrauded or falling victim to online scams, seniors’ memory issues, or the perception that institutions and commercial organizations are making these changes compulsory only for the sake of making bigger profits and their own convenience.

Identifying different root causes of the digital divide could inform the need for adequate solutions that would generate greater awareness among target groups of the importance of digitalization. Benefits of digitalization range from the availability of more accessible, alternative experiences to new communication strategies. Together, these could ultimately facilitate the creation of a roadmap to ensure widespread digital adoption, with no user left behind. 


[1] National Regulatory Control Council. Annual Report 2022: Reducing Bureaucracy in a Changing World: Acting Now for Citizens, Business and Public Administration. (PDF) Nationaler Normenkontrollrat, November 2022. Retrieved January 28, 2024.

[2] European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency. “Mind the Gap: Travel Apps Need Human Help to Bridge Digital Divide.” European Commission, November 15, 2023. Retrieved January 28, 2024.

[3] Sophie Lythreatis, Sanjay Kumar Singh, and Abdul-Nasser El-Kassar. “The Digital Divide: A Review and Future Research Agenda.” Science Direct: Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Vol. 175, February 2022. Retrieved January 28, 2024.

[4] Tomoko Yokoi. “Tech Companies Can Do More to Bridge the Digital Divide.” Forbes, April 9, 2023. Retrieved January 28, 2024.

Innovation Designer at IBM

Copenhagen, Denmark

Silvia PodestaAs a strategic designer and UX specialist at IBM, Silvia helps enterprises pursue human-centered innovation by leveraging new technologis and creating compelling user experiences. Silvia facilitates research, synthesizes product insights, and designs minimum-viable products (MVPs) that capture the potential of our technologies in addressing both user and business needs. Silvia is a passionate, independent UX researcher who focuses on the topics of digital humanism, change management, and service design.  Read More

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