The website will see you now …

The website will see you now …

Are you as fed up as I am at continuously being told to “refer to our website”?  Whether it is a doctor, the local council, an airline, one’s insurer or more-or-less anyone one is trying to get hold of, one needs to be tech-savvy.  And incredibly patient!  There is an expectation that you will own a smart phone, that you will have easy access to wi-fi, an online computer and the ability to search the web and input data into a website.

I am not alone in getting incredibly stressed in filling out the forms necessary to go to the theatre, or travel to another country.  When we travelled for a short trip to Greece last year and I had to get to grips with the Passenger Locator Form both to enter Greece and then again to come back home into the UK I couldn’t upload the various documents I was supposed to upload, or the Covid Vaccine QR codes or whatever, and it led to some very tetchy and stressed moments at the end of our holiday as I tried to tick all the boxes.

Last night when I tried to call my health insurer, I was told there were “56 people” in the queue before me so “please refer to our website”.  When we were ill with Covid and tried to call 111 and our GP, again we were told to “refer to the website” for information.  As a member of the older generation, it seems to be a minefield and we are all expected to have learnt to deal with issues by computer rather than simply by talking to a human being – which is often far more efficient and helpful.

These systems are often set up by young people.  Very clever young people, I acknowledge.  But, being young, they don’t realise that one’s eyesight gets worse as one gets older so one often can’t read the ever-so-cool tiny print they design, and may not know how to enlarge it.  They don’t realise the stress it causes to be told that you have been locked out of a bank account or online service and that they have sent an authorisation code to your mobile – which is two stories upstairs and getting up there to retrieve it isn’t easy for those with bad hips or knees.  Then when you finally get the phone and hobble back down, slowly, step by step, to the computer, the allocated time for entering the *** authorisation code into your computer has run out.

But it isn’t just the older generation who have a problem.  It is those who have less money and therefore less access to a Smart phone or to a computer at home.  There is a rather arrogant assumption by those setting up these systems that everyone will abide by them and be happy with them.  But we aren’t, necessarily.  It might make life easier for the service provider, but it often doesn’t make life easier for the client or patient.  It just adds to one’s stress level, which reduces one’s immune system, which makes one’s problems or illness even worse.

I can remember the day not so very long ago when one could book a face-to-face appointment with a doctor without trouble, or call a bank without having to wait an hour or more in a queue to talk to a human being.  And very often a human being who can sort the problem out in a few seconds.

But I am not a complete Luddite.  I do see that technology can be of enormous help to us as we go through life and age.  In fact, I am surprised we haven’t got further with it by now as when writing the book AGE MATTERS, I was talking to several tech companies years ago about how technology can be used to alert people to health and other problems.  Of course, the Apple watch and other gadgets are available but again they are often expensive so those who have less money are unable to afford them.  These watches and other such gadgets can detect whether you have a fall and call the emergency services, can see whether you have atrial fibrillation, low oxygen levels, or are walking asymmetrically. It seems to me we should by now be able to offer, either on the NHS or very cheaply, gadgets that can detect movement or non-movement, so that if someone living alone has not gone to the toilet or boiled the kettle it sends an alert.  Or analyse one’s urine or stools in the toilet to identify any health problems.  I know that these gadgets are available, but many don’t know about them, and they can be expensive.

So, I guess my plea is that tech developers take these factors into consideration as they design new systems.  Consider that people contacting a service provider may be frail, blind, disabled or not that tech-savvy.  Or may not be able to afford the computer or phone required to do so.  In the coming era of AI this will be increasingly important so can those in the industry please consider those of us who find some of these online forms difficult and stressful and provide more help, and simplicity.  And as they develop the technology that will be supporting us by our side in the coming years, make it as human as possible – eg capable of adapting to those of us who struggle with it. Oh dear, this probably sounds like Grumpy of Kew!

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  • Liz Newnham on Jan 13, 2022 Reply

    Completely relate to all you have said confirmed by yesterday’s experience trying to track a delivery which hadn’t arrived. The website guided me to web chat in order to state the problem. This I duly did only to press send that didn’t send! The conversation then cancelled as I had waited too long to ‘send’..! Eventually I found a phone number, spoke to charming person who sorted it all out and my goods arrived promptly! Relief! I really find this modern age of digital and everything on line extremely stressful.

    • Helen Whitten on Jan 13, 2022 Reply

      Yes, I had a similar experience over a subscription service where I keep getting reminders to pay the bill and that I am no longer a member of the service despite the money having been taken from my bank account. The story? “It’s the computer. We’re trying to fix it.” Is it’s name Hal, I wonder??

  • Matt Fernand on Jan 12, 2022 Reply

    You raised some really interesting points about context there. There are any number of meetups conferences and training sessions about web accessibility. There’s also a really well-developed ecosystem of tools to test websites for testing things like font size and colour contrast so there’s no excuse for creating websites that don’t work for everyone.

    But the commitment ends with the website, there’s often not a lot of thought about what happens off-line – like your example of having to go upstairs to get a mobile. The Civil Service does put a lot of work into thinking things like that through, but a lot of commercial companies just design for the majority.

    I think some of this is what I call ‘institutional stupidity’ where you get a bunch of individually smart people together and collectively they make bad or baffling decisions. Then we call get blessed with their badly thought through services and incomprehensible excuses like ‘we can’t stop the computer’ that Clare highlighted.

    But there is definitely some very cynical cost-saving going on at our expense. I often find myself on hold to a call centre thinking ‘When exactly are you *not* experiencing an unusually high call volume?’ What they generally mean is ‘We fired all the customer service staff to save money so you basically have no choice but to use our terrible website’.

  • Shirley Conran on Jan 12, 2022 Reply

    I used to irritate my tech-savvy relatives and friends by saying that the internet and computers are not yet very well developed – they are still at teething stage. Computers are now at the same level that Henry Ford was in 1907 when he introduced the Model T Ford motor car. And in 1907 you had. to crank the engine from the front of the car, there were no adjustable windows and no heating, etc.

    Now, those people are no longer irritated because they see what I mean every time they have an exasperating computer glitch.

  • Clare M Ferguson on Jan 12, 2022 Reply

    No it feels like 100% right. The world is getting so hard to navigate and the anonymity of websites and lack of human contact is perfectly horrid. Yesterday I got a Disconnection Notice for non payment of sewerage charges in respect of a building that the issuing authority removed the Sewer 2 years ago. Different department you understand. I get reminders every 2 weeks and despite the account being suspended because they acknowledge that the error is theirs the computer cannot be prevented from threatening to disconnect the water as well. ‘ we can’t stop the computer’ was the answer they gave me

    Mad? Yes indeed but them not me.