Send the grandmother to the library.

Another example of a library completely safe from cuts to services.

A friend works for a charity that looks after elderly people. This might be a bit of a complicated thing for some people to understand, but charities often receive no funding from the public sector unless they apply for it and it’s common for the most visible face of a charity to be either an unpaid volunteer in a fundraising shop or a very well compensated CEO, neither of whom understand what it’s like to be the people who work with the people the charity is meant to help.

My friend helps elderly people to do things that are surprisingly complicated in the modern world for anybody to work out correctly. Things like getting the right benefits, sort out bill payments, getting repeat prescriptions sorted out. This time it was about social housing.

The elderly are a massive user bloc of social housing provided by local authorities, and these are often subcontracted out to private companies; care homes, sheltered housing blocks, smaller flats for people who don’t need a 3-bed house because husbands have died and children are parents.

(Tiny aside; a family member is in a care home and their local authority constantly calculates the savings & income for them wrong, so the person who is dealing with the LA ends up overpaying the LA just to make the letters stop. Try telling a LA that they’re wrong when you’re a perfectly compos mentis 40something and see how far you get. Now imagine you’re in your 60s, or even your 90s and things are a bit vague; it’s complicated, confusing and people in authority are constantly telling you that you are wrong, so you believe them. We tell people to be on their guard for rogue traders, but there’s a decent chance they’re being scammed out of more by their LA. But I digress.)

An 80something has had a change in circumstance (it doesn’t matter what that is) and needs social housing. In their particular area the only way to apply for social housing is online, via a web form. The vast, vast majority of people over 70 have never used the internet beyond being shown something on it by their children or grandchildren. They have no digital skills, no email address that they’ve kept for most of their life, no smartphone (as anybody with pensioned parents will tell you even a simple mobile phone ‘for emergencies’ will be lost in a drawer before very long). They don’t have an analogy for the internet that makes any kind of logical sense to them.

Obviously they rarely have computers (again, as anybody with elderly parents will tell you when they do they’re rarely updated and riddled with unpatched software that’s almost certainly off maintenance), so when you’re a social housing officer with an 80 year-old lady in your office who doesn’t have the first fundamental understanding of what you’re asking them to do by “fill out the form on the website”, what do you do? Help them? Sit them at your desk and go through the form with them to make sure they answer things correctly?

No, of course not. You tell them to go to the library, where there are computers that anybody can use (if you book them, often using an online system, a catch -22 that would make Heller blush, and know how to use them) and helpful, adorable, human librarians who are rapidly being pushed out of jobs they love, because the same LA that is telling people to use the library is also shutting libraries at a rate of knots. Or you tell them to ask their children for help, which aside from making an astonishingly rude assumption regarding whether they’ve had children or not, isn’t easy if their children are ill, very far away or they just don’t get on. If you’re that social housing officer you do not offer to help the client. Ever. It’ll affect your performance metrics.

At this point they often end up at my friend’s desk, which if you remember is a non-publically funded charity, desperately trying not to cry because they don’t understand the world; this isn’t because they have dementia (although it would be completely understandable if they thought that), it’s because in the drive to make everything efficient and steamlined and zippitydoodah everything has gone digital without considering the users of the service, and keeping some of the service nondigital to accommodate people who just don’t do digital very well hasn’t crossed the service designer’s minds.

You know what this is? It’s digital disenfranchisement. If your solution to a problem starts and ends with “online only” or “build an app”, and you launch the app in a fanfare and get dreadfully excited because it handles 80,000 queries in its first week (and ignore the long tail off, because you’re onto the next thing) then you can bite me. Local authorities are desperate to save cash, so stop sending out letters or printing forms (plus paying people to input that data) and tell people to use the website (hey, they’re paying for the ICT function anyway, they might as well get some value from it), forgetting that although we say that 94% of the country are connected to the internet huge swathes of those people are only connected because it came free with their cable TV package, or was bundled in their phoneline, or they only use it for Netflix or streaming services because it’s rolled into an easy-to-use interface, often the TV.

When you put up a barrier to participation people stop participating in the thing. If you don’t care and you’re a casino or bookie, then fine, whatever. If you’re a local authority with a duty of care to your constituents then you should bloody well care, though. Think about the whole service, the whole user base, the point of what you do. Create the app, lovely, it makes headlines that nobody reads in the local press and employs developers and DBAs, but never assume that your job begins and ends with this. Assuming that because you can use a website everybody can is the worst sort of privileged thinking and frankly it is unworthy of a service designer who is winning government contracts.

Be human. Think about what that means to everybody, and keep humans part of the process. And for goodness’ sakes stop assuming everybody uses the internet.