Real e-services for real people

Effective on-line services need websites that are easy for users to navigate, and can cater for visitors with disabilities. Widespread internet access is clearly important, too. But that is not the end of the story, says Karsten Gareis, coordinator of the eUSER project.

Many public on-line services attract only a minority of technophiles, he says: “The extreme example is shiny white public computer kiosks. There’s nothing wrong with the technology, but as for their engagement with the people most in need of support, they might as well be from outer space.”

The assumption has been that people value doing things on-line as an end in itself, Gareis says. That may be true for administrative tasks like applying for a new identity card. But for e-services, such as health and lifelong learning, there is an important social context.

Targeting specific groups
At the heart of eUSER was a survey of ten European countries to find out more about why people use – and, more importantly, do not use – on-line services. The eUSER website includes a searchable database of all the survey results, a set of recommendations, and pilot assessments of selected e-services.

Not surprisingly, the survey found big differences in the takeup of e-services across Europe, reflecting national differences in service availability, internet access and culture. But it is also clear that Europeans do not fit easily into large groups as far as attitudes to e-services are concerned.

“Many older people are very comfortable with ICT, for instance, while others are afraid of computers,” says Gareis. “So, policies on on-line services need to focus on identifiable sub-groups.”

Only half of the users of e-government services reported a positive experience, while many other people do not use e-services at all because they can see no advantage, or fear that they will not understand how to use the services. Once friends or family members have shown them that e-services can be useful, though, even people with little computer experience were often enthusiastic.

The survey also showed clear differences between different types of service. E-health information services are widely used, for instance, while more sophisticated services, such as e-learning courses, are less popular. According to Gareis, this is because many people value the social aspects of face-to-face education, and e-learning is unlikely to attract people who would not join the conventional education system.

Affecting policy
Right from the start, public response to eUSER was enthusiastic. “It was much more positive than is usual with this kind of research project. People clearly thought this was important,” Gareis says.

The European Commission, too, showed strong interest in the results. “It’s not easy to quantify the effects,” Gareis says, “but there are clear signs that ‘user orientation’ – which goes far beyond the traditional focus on website usability – has attracted much more interest in the last year or so.”

“User orientation is at the core of the i2010 initiative and its emphasis on e-inclusion,” he adds. “[Our project] has given policy-makers much-needed evidence that there is still a lot to do when it comes to bringing the information society to all.”

The research has had a useful influence on the indicators used by organisations, such as Eurostat, to measure progress towards the information society.

An observatory to monitor user orientation continuously was not part of the project’s original assignment, but the eUSER consortium is now trying to set one up. “Each new technology will bring fresh questions,” says Gareis. “This issue is not going to go away.”

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