Breaking the barriers to a ‘digital-first’ world

Gina Lockyer | February 16, 2022

Graffiti stencil reading 'For All' on a concrete wall

We can create digital content and processes that work for all. Image by Jon Tyson / Unsplash licence

Think about the last time you filled out a document or form. Perhaps you were applying for a job, joining a club, or paying a parking ticket. You were taking care of ‘life admin’ to get ahead, connect, or comply with rules or regulations.

It’s likely you did this online. It’s faster, easier, more convenient. Right?

Not always, not for everyone.

We’re going digital to get the things we need — but what happens when we can’t?

Increasingly, we’re moving to digital processes to access education or income support, meet our legal obligations, or find a place to live. We’re relying on digital connection and literacy to meet these basic needs. But imagine…

…your internet access is limited

…you’re filling out a hefty form on the only device you can afford, a small smartphone

…you have 10 minutes left on the library computer but you’re only halfway through the task

…you use speech recognition software, but the webpage isn’t compatible and you’re missing a chunk of information

…you’re in a stressful, emotional situation, and your mind is racing

…the words on the screen are a blur of jargon and phrases you’re unsure of

…you’re asked to scan a document and attach it as a PDF… but how?

It’s enough to make you give up.

This is the reality for thousands of New Zealanders who experience digital exclusion. The push for forms, processes, and procedures to go digital risks many people falling behind. This means missed deadlines, missed opportunities, or missing out on essentials.

Read the Citizens Advice Bureau report to find out more about digital exclusion on their site

Plain language can play a role in digital inclusion

At Write, we’re passionate about plain language. Plain language is one tool to help people feel included, empowered, and able to participate. People who are digitally excluded tell us about their experiences. They prove that words matter, and so does how we present them.

Read Rhiannon’s blog about why plain language is a social good

We believe in a human-centred approach to writing resources or content. Humans come with different skills, challenges, experiences, and preferences. When we understand people as they are, we can tackle our writing accordingly.

Digital exclusion is a big issue, and we need all hands on deck to solve it. If you’re developing content, forms, or procedures for the public, there’s plenty to consider.

One way you can help is to look closely at your writing — keep it plain, simple, and intuitive. Here’s how.

Use precise, familiar words — and take the time to explain what you mean

A report on digital exclusion in New Zealand shared the story of young people asking, ‘What does a full name mean? What is DOB?’

Read the Out of the Maze report for more examples of digital exclusion on the Workshop website

When we’re familiar with a topic or process, it may be tempting to use jargon, complex phrases, or abbreviations. We may also overestimate how familiar our readers are with the topic.

We can show care for people experiencing literacy or language barriers when we take the time to explain what we mean. Swapping jargon for a more familiar word or phrase can help too.

Make your content work in different ways

Being inclusive means providing different ways to read, understand, or use your content or resource.

When offering a digital resource, think about how compatible it will be with software used by people with disabilities. Have you provided captions on video content, or produced alternative text to describe images or labels?

Read our blog about New Zealand’s web standards for accessibility

Even with the best accessibility features, digital resources might not be the right fit for everyone.

Many people who face digital exclusion, including those with disabilities, are looking for paper-based options, a phone call, or a face-to-face conversation.

Write clear, well-structured instructions

Online tasks with multiple steps are even more complicated if you have limited wifi, an older device, or a literacy challenge.

When designing a process or form, keep these circumstances in mind. Consider the purpose of your form or process, then look carefully — are any steps unnecessary?

When asking your reader to do something, keep your sentences short and use familiar verbs. Test your instructions with a diverse range of people, to be sure they’re easily understood.

Read Emily’s blog about writing instructions

If we must go digital, let’s make sure we keep our customers, clients, and the community at the centre. Take time to create content and processes that meet their needs and circumstances. Livelihoods, wellbeing, and dignity rely on it.

More information

Learn how to develop simple, intuitive, human-centred content with Write

Business Writing Essentials will teach you to write create clear, purposeful documents that connect with your audience and get results.
Instructions and Procedures will give you the skills you need to write clear, engaging, and well-structured manuals and instructions.

Insights, tips, and professional development opportunities.