Explaining how the internet works

As we shared in a blog post last month, Doteveryone is working on an experiment to find out how we can take people beyond digital skills to a deeper understanding of how the internet works. So in partnership with BBC Make it Digital, we’re starting by creating three ‘explainers’ for people using the BBC Weather Watchers site.

A big part of the Weather Watchers programme involves uploading and sharing photos. So as we began creating content for this experiment, it made sense to start there — by testing sample pages explaining what happens when you upload a photo to the internet and what happens when you share a photo.

A screengrab of one of the webpages we tested with users in libraries

We spent a day finding out what people thought of our first iteration of content. The goal of our testing was to measure responses to the content itself: what we were saying and how we were saying it. As a result, we spent a good while structuring and writing the content rather than focusing on visuals.

We also drew up a user testing script that explored how people behaved using the webpages (for example, asking them to read the content and observing their behaviour when we ask them to tell us what happens to a photo first after it’s been uploaded), and asked questions to explore their general thoughts and interests. Not only did we want to see how they used this content, we also wanted to understand if they thought other topics could be explained in this way.

To start examining some of our early assumptions, we worked with a group we knew was interested in building their digital understanding: users at libraries in Croydon and Lewisham, home to our previous work in developing basic digital skills. (We know “library user” and “Weather Watcher” aren’t the same, but since Weather Watchers live all over the country, we decided it was better to test early with a local audience.)

Notes from our review of the user testing feedback

Things we learned

People expect ‘digital understanding’ to draw attention to things they should be wary of.

The fear factor came up a few times. For example, when we asked people what they had learned from the content we showed them, one user replied:

“You have to be careful when you send things, what you’ve given away, what you want to give away and who to.”

But that sentiment wasn’t really conveyed in the content — or, at the very least, it wasn’t our intended message!

We were keen to focus on the wow of the internet, but it turns out wow things like “you’re not on the internet, you’re part of it!” wasn’t what users remembered. Instead, they remembered things that might make them vulnerable — for example, that uploading an image to the Weather Watchers website would also mean uploading it to the wider web.

People who use the internet for pleasure think about the internet in a different way to people who use the internet for transactions.

The users we spoke to who used the internet for pleasure or for a hobby found the content more interesting than users whose experience of the web was more transactional. We found that the former group of users found it easier to identify things they had learned that were interesting and relevant to their experience.

At this point, we don’t feel we know enough about Weather Watchers to say which category they belong to. However, our hunch is that regular Weather Watchers will have a fair amount of internet experience (having built it up through exploring other interests online) and thus potentially more appetite for deepening their digital understanding.

People like visuals… but particularly visuals that tell a story.

The diagram at the start of the first page of What happens when I upload a photo? was off-putting to a number of users.

“From a glance, I would say this is not a simple idea to get across.”

However, they liked the explanation (in colour) further down showing how an image is broken up into pieces and reassembled. As a result, most of the people we tested this image with were able to tell us what happens to a photo when it’s uploaded to the internet without too much trouble.

Much better.

People want less and larger text, with a clearer structure.

The text was too small on the devices we used — a Kindle and an iPad — and there was too much of it. (Asked “What’s the first thing you notice?”, one response was “A lot of writing…”).

However, users found it easy to find content when we used boxes to break text up. The boxes gave additional information separate to the overall narrative — for example, one explained why a link might not work. During testing, we asked users to reflect that knowledge back to us and most of our users were able to find the answers quickly.

People think they should know this kind of information already.

At the root of all these explainers is a big question: whether or not “I should know about this” translates into “I want to know about this”. When we asked people how useful the content was, we heard things like this:

“I need to understand this more… it made me realise that I don’t know a lot about how it works.”

But why haven’t they looked into it before? Are there ways we can present this kind of information that make it more attractive to people? Figuring that out will be key to making this kind of project successful.

What’s next

Moving forward, we’ll revisit the two pages we’ve already done and use more visuals, letting the images do more work. We’ll also cut the length and see how we can add animation to create “life” on the page.

We also talked about:

  • exploring different forms for content — for example, non-linear and fragmented approaches
  • how we could build in more explanation of why people might want to read an explainer in the first place
  • how we could turn fear into curiosity by starting with interesting rather than frightening content
  • including the why as well as the what, and linking off to ‘how to’ rather than doing it ourselves

We’re also going to do some research with users of the BBC Weather Watchers website to understand their interests and do user testing of our second iteration of content for more feedback on the approach.

We’re creating three explainers right now, and we’re going to tackle security and privacy next. However, thanks to our user group, we have a long list of other topics to explore, including:

  • what a digital footprint is
  • what other people can see and what can happen, privacy settings
  • how search engines work
  • how messages get sent
  • abuse of the internet, law and regulations around streaming
  • copyright of pictures
  • zipping files and how compression works
  • how JPGs work

We’d like our content to be openly licensed so anyone can use the explainer approach in the future, so it’s useful for us to capture what people hope to see.

What do you think of this work? If you want to know more about our explainers project, or if you have anything you want to share, please get in touch with us at admin@doteveryone.org.uk.

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