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How inclusive design can bridge the great digital divide

October 18, 2020

Why starting with people and considering the full range of human diversity is more imperative than ever.

The reality today is that not everyone can access, use, and enjoy digital products and services to connect with their loved ones, organize their finances, manage their wellbeing, or receive an education.

Capgemini’s recent report “The Great Digital Divide: Why bringing the digitally excluded online should be a global priority,” called on the global community to take urgent action on digital inclusion.

Why now, more than ever?

The internet has become a “must-have” societal necessity. COVID-19 has rapidly accelerated digital transformation in organizations from all sectors, with more and more essential services moving online.

However, many people still experience barriers to online participation and can’t experience the benefits of the digital economy. This means that the most vulnerable members of our global community may not be able to receive the support they need from essential services because they remain offline.

The digital divide has widened, magnifying the impact digital exclusion has on quality of life, including social exclusion, limited career mobility, and difficulty in accessing public services.

So how can inclusive design help bridge the digital divide?

Inclusive design “considers the full range of human diversity, including ability, language, culture, gender, age, and other forms of human difference.” One of the core principles of inclusive design is that exclusion can occur to everyone, not only the vulnerable. Depending on the context, anyone can experience a temporary impairment. For example, when you are holding bags of groceries, you are less coordinated to get your car keys to unlock your car.

Inclusive design is a human-centered design methodology that learns from diversity and uses exclusion as opportunities for innovation. We can apply this mindset to reframe the obstacles that prevent the offline population from going online into opportunities to innovate more inclusive and accessible digital products and services.

Different sociodemographic groups have different barriers to going online which span across accessibility, affordability, and digital ability. For the elderly and those who hadn’t completed secondary school, a key obstacle is a perception. They believe the internet is complex and difficult to use or have a perceived “lack of interest” stemming from fear or lack of confidence, skills or experience with the internet. Digital natives don’t realize this, but in fact, there’s no user manual for the internet.

Let’s reframe this obstacle into an opportunity: How can we improve digital confidence in our new users?

Recently, IDEO released “Digital Confidence Design Tools,” in collaboration with Google’s Next Billion Users team and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The tools can be used by anyone (e.g., product manager, developer, or designer) to ensure that common obstacles faced by new internet users are surfaced and addressed. The outcome is a product that works for everyone, regardless of location, language, or device.

More broadly, Idean also created “Cards for Humanity,” a set of cards that encourage product teams to consider a diverse range of needs and different perspectives during the design and development process.

Have you considered whether a new immigrant with poor digital literacy would be able to easily manage their finances online?7

Research from the Centre for Inclusive Design has found that when designing products or services with edge users in mind, there is potential to reach and benefit four times the intended audience.

Take the example of the electric toothbrush – originally invented for those affected by motor skill impairments. Now everyone is benefiting from the convenience of this inclusively designed tool.

The electric toothbrush embodies the inclusive design principle “solve for one, and extend to many” – solving problems for edge users, which in turn, actually benefits the majority. By designing to address the offline population’s concerns, the online population can also benefit from more accessible and intuitive digital experiences.

The digital divide affects millions of people around the globe. Therefore, the solution should start with the people at stake. Inclusive design is a mindset and methodology that can help us bridge the digital divide. We can co-create a world in which everyone can access, use, and enjoy digital products and services to connect, grow, and thrive.


Michelle Ou

UX Researcher

Capgemini Invent – Idean, Australia