The inexorable rush to digital services — by both government and commercial organisations — is often viewed as a revolution in customer experience. Traditional organisations are embracing ‘progress’ by leveraging their massive legacy databases to improve and personalise customer communications. Not to mention, they’re reducing traditional brick-and-mortar costs by closing branches and making email or chat with their contact centre infinitely more attractive than picking up a phone.

This helps them compete with born-digital disruptors for born-digital customers. However, there is another group of people for whom ‘digital’ does not automatically spell progress and they are in real danger of being left behind.

Together with Dr Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller, an academic colleague at Australian National University, I have been conducting an ongoing study with a representative focus group of individuals over the age of 65 on the effect of the migration to digital services. Our paper was presented to the ACM Web Science conference in New York in June.

Our four key findings are generally positive. The elderly want digital access, they know they need to be confident, they like choice of service delivery and many of them want to learn. At the same time, our study offers useful insights for any organisation considering complete digitisation of services to their existing customer or citizen base.

“I must have access”

We’re working with a somewhat skewed demographic — Canberrans are generally better educated, more likely to be ‘white collar’ workers, culturally diverse and have typically had different life opportunities than many other Australians. That said, we found that 22% of our group do not have access to the internet — the most basic requirement of digital services.

Apart from the lack of a computer, another barrier to internet access for the elderly is lack of a smartphone. Some are using a ‘hand me down’ device from children or grandchildren. Even those with phones only really want to use them to make calls, which don’t warrant a costly smartphone. Poor eyesight and clumsy fingers often frustrate ease of use. For example, two-factor authentication required by banks and government departments is problematic. In fact, reluctance to incur ‘bill shock’ by accessing data and low-usage phone/data contracts often put the internet beyond the reach of even the elderly who do use smartphones.

For these reasons, any organisation or government department should understand that mobile digital services may represent insurmountable difficulties for many over-65s.

The elderly typically accept that they need internet access, but most likely via a computer at home or in a public place. To increase uptake of digital services by the elderly, access will need to be increased – otherwise around one in five of Australians over 65 will be unable to participate.

“I need to be confident”

The data from our respondents shows that older people experience frequent issues online, and often lack the confidence to work though these challenges to a successful outcome.

Somewhat surprisingly, we found that the use of technology during working life is not a reliable predictor of the uptake of online services. Having basic computer skills does not seem to translate to a high level of ‘digital skills’ or adoption of online services.

Another factor which calls for consideration, depending on your customer base, is the degree of ‘elderliness.’ A newly retired 65-year-old may have had over a decade’s experience of email and the web — whereas someone of 85 or more may have never even used a computer or keyboard.

“I want choice”

Early on in our study, we saw that the elderly have a negative reaction to ‘pushed’ digital services. “They just put things [online] whenever they like,” one respondent said. “They don’t care about whether I can use them or not. And there’s no-one you can ask for help.”

One example was a woman who was told she would now need to pay to receive a printed bank statement. “[It’s] too expensive, but I don’t seem to have a choice.” It would be interesting to extend research into the wider topic of ‘forced adoption’ by the elderly — what are the ‘killer apps’ that drive them to use digital technology? For example, would the woman finally appreciate online bank statements when she moved to a care home with limited storage — or if she learned she could access a full three years of bank transactions via a simple online search?

We certainly observed a distinction between the digital services they ‘pull’ towards themselves by seeking them out voluntarily. ‘Pulled’ services include those that offer them convenience or immediacy. The elderly appreciate the convenience of online service delivery which can remove mobility or transport challenges. They also prefer online transactions to lengthy waits at a physical location or on the phone.

It’s the ‘pushed’ services the elderly feel forced to use that cause dismay or resentment. For providers of digital services, this means that how new services are rolled out (and how new customers are on-boarded) is key to adoption rates and satisfaction for the elderly.

Older people overwhelmingly prefer to transact face-to-face. This means that service providers must, at the very least, provide traditional methods of service delivery. If they don’t, they risk disadvantaging some 16% of the Australian population today, and an estimated 20% by 2030.

“I want to learn”

One of the most encouraging findings of our study is that some elderly groups have a strong desire to learn to use online services. This means that uptake of digital services can be encouraged through the provision of training — by community groups or service providers themselves.

Given that all levels of Australian government authorities have digital transformation agendas, the ability of a significant section of the population to access services should be a major consideration.

Likewise, non-government organisations must also consider the potential impact of digital transformation on what may be their longest — or at least oldest — customer base. The consequences for the elderly must be factored into every online shift of additional services.