Designing assisted digital with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

We’ve started a project with the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design about how assisted digital support can meet the needs of older people. Peter Ziegler is leading the project and is a specialist in design research in older people and technology. The concepts he develops will inform the wider work we are doing on assisted digital, including our work with the 25 exemplar services.

My name is Peter Ziegler. I am a design researcher from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD), part of the Royal College of Art, working with GDS on a project on assisted digital. As part of the project, I will design assisted digital interactions and interfaces to get digital by default services to the 18% of the population that are not online. I’ll do this through intensive research and testing with older people. By focusing on this group, I hope to develop design outputs that address the needs of a broad range of assisted digital users.

Where I come from

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (HHCD) undertakes design research and projects with industry that contribute to improving people's lives. Our approach is inclusive and interdisciplinary, with our work organised in three research labs:

Observing how older people new to web technology interact with a computer.
Observing how older people new to web technology interact with a computer.

I work in the Age & Ability Research Lab at HHCD. A really important aspect of what we do in this lab is to consider people as equals in the design process, with an emphasis on working closely with diverse groups of older, younger and differently-abled people. My work over the past few years has focused on a rapidly ageing population, and I’ll be working in the spirit of the lab for my research with GDS.

What I’m doing on the assisted digital project

I’ve been working on the assisted digital project for a month so far, and have been conducting research with users at the Age UK Hackney computer centre. The centre’s users are aged between 50 and 64 and represent a range of ethnicities, income brackets and digital competencies. The centre specialises in two services:

  • providing computer and internet access to people who do not have it;

  • making classes and tutoring available to people on using computers and navigating the Internet.

My research has been a very fruitful introduction to the problems older people may face when accessing digital products and services. There have been two key early observations that keep coming up:

  1. People who do not have much confidence in their digital skills are more comfortable conducting a one-way search query than a two-way personal information transaction.  For example, people may very well be confident with searching the Internet for a shop’s location, but they would not feel comfortable going to that shop’s website to make a purchase to be delivered to their home.

  2. Older people who do not have access to computers or who lack the skills to confidently navigate the Internet are concerned about where they will get help to access the services they need. As services are increasingly administered online, there is a requirement for assisted digital provision to be in place and be adequately publicised to ensure these people know where to go for help.

Next steps

Next, I’ll be developing ideas and use cases that address the above observations and also tackle some of the more idiosyncratic issues raised through my research. I’ll communicate these ideas to users at a follow-up session at the Hackney computer centre, and use the feedback and discussion from this session to refine my ideas and develop them into final design concepts. In this way, I can make sure that the final concepts are created in collaboration with the people they’re being designed for. I'll be conducting the project in an agile way through this process of initial research, ideas generation, testing, and refinement, which I’ll repeat several times throughout the course of the project.

It’s a real honour to be part of such a transformative effort and new standard in the way that government presents itself to citizens. It’s enormously promising and hopefully a trend in how governments can use good design as a principle, going beyond design as process or methodology in the future. I must add that it’s a great opportunity to be able to use design to have such a direct impact on people’s lives.

Please feel free to comment below with any thoughts or curiosities about myself or the goals of this project.


  1. petergoodwin

    I work in community centres in Nottingham and Derby teaching the target group you are aiming at.

    I have found that one of the biggest barriers older people face is that the bigger players like gmail, microsoft yahoo etc are constantly changing their interface so it is a bit like trying to learn to drive in a car which has a dashboard redesign every week. For IT users this just annoying for users lacking confidence it can be a main block to usage.

    What is needed is a simple interface with no advertising, consistent in appearance and without clutter. As there is no incentive for the private sector to provide this it may be an area where public intervention is needed, surely a good use of some of the £4bn savings digital by default will generate.

    Peter Goodwin

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  2. Carolyn Williams

    Hi Peter, my name is Carolyn Williams, I an Head of Digital services at the DVLA in Swansea. I am very interested in the work you are currently doing with GDS on your target audience. Over the last eighteen months we have worked on Siver Surfers events and Digital Unite in partnership with Swansea City council, Swansea university, Libraries and schools. In April we held an "On Line for beginners " event at our Development centre at DVLA where we empowered people to get on line by providing Digital tasters on Laptops, Tablets and the Internet. This was extremely successful and we received a "Highly commended" from the Spring Online 2013 event. We are currently working on our next event later this year. I would love to get together to discuss what else we as an Agency to promote and help older people becoming more familiar with Digital Technology. Please contact me on the e mail address below to discuss further. Many thanks

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  3. Alan Rider

    Peter. Good to meet you at the last Programme Board and looking forward to seeing the outputs of this fascinating piece of research. I often think its very tempting to assume older citizens cannot use the internet, whereas these are experienced people, many of whom have previously had a full working life, often in complex roles, so its not necessarily true that they will always struggle to cope. They are as diverse a bunch of people as anyone. Very interesting project.

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  4. Andrew Johns

    I think it's great that this sort of campaign/programme exists to complement the action by the government to revamp the curriculum in schools. However, as a parent, a son, and an IT professional, I notice that there is also a major problem in another group that is often overlooked.

    The Generation Y aka Millennials or "Digital Natives" have apparently been brought up on technology. These are usually the first port of call for the silver surfers (their children/grandchidlren) and the people most likely to be passing down skills and habits to a younger generation. And yet, they are fast becoming a problem.

    It's assumed they know enough about the technology they are so comfortable with to use it efficiently and safely but my experiences tell me differently.

    How many people do you know who:

    * get caught out by phishing emails?
    * get caught out by Facebook scams offering free prizes if they like and share a page?
    * share posts that are false alarms or hoaxes?
    * struggle to find up-to-date legitimate information using search engines and confirm sources?
    * actually understand and apply privacy settings on Facebook?
    * Purchase goods and services online, and can determine if the dealer is reputable and secure?
    * understand how to convert information/data from one place to another?
    * understand copyright issues relating to use and citation of material found online?
    * understand social etiquette in a public environment - can't grasp that saying bad things on the internet is no different to saying it in public?
    * understand their rights according to privacy and data protection act?

    These are concepts that escape a vast number of supposed digital natives, who are now passing on bad habits to their own parents and their children. At some point I suspect it will also impact on their chances of jobs in the future workplace.

    These programmes aimed at school children and silver surfers will help, but the Gen Ys definitely need help as well. The problem is how to target them and make them realise they are in need of help, something I've not quite resolved yet.

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  5. Doug bell

    Peter, when do you expect to complete your research and be in a position to
    share? I work on the Single Tier Programme which will introduce a new pension
    using a digital service offering in April 2016. Any insight you have to share
    would be greatly appreciated to aid our understanding and design.

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  6. Vernice Halligan

    Hi Peter
    Fascinating research! Will you be also looking at people in remote/rural areas such as the some of the farming community?

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  7. Mark Burrett

    Hi Peter, this research sounds very interstering, Remploy are currently researching what it would mean to become a digital business and we be very intrested to know more about the developmnets of Assited Digital provsion for both older people who may also be Disabled ? I am helping Remploy with this resesrch and would very much welcome the opertunity to conect with you and disccus this futher?

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