The 14 lessons designers need to know from Ofcom’s report on ‘smartphone by default’ users

Smartphone user

Last month Ofcom published a report on smartphone by default internet users. These are the people who rely on their phones as their main way of accessing the internet.

The report is essential reading for anyone involved in digital. Mobile is becoming increasingly important as people’s main method of accessing information. One in six UK adults now rely exclusively on their phones to get online. That is up from just 6% last year. So smartphone by default is a big trend that is happening right now.

These smartphone users also include some of the most marginalised and vulnerable people in society. For designers interested in accessibility and inclusiveness, the findings of this report are especially vital.

mobile-phone

Ofcom conducted in-depth ethnographic interviews with 26 individuals from a broad range of social backgrounds and locations, all of whom relied exclusively on their smartphones to get online.

The range of people included in this study is broader than many usability tests would encounter. Ofcom’s findings have given us all a valuable insight into how a wide variety of people are using smartphones in the real world.

I would highly recommend you go and read the whole report. It provided me with a lot of food for thought. Here are my main takeaways.

1. Some people feel like they no longer need their laptops

Keyboard gathering dust

The study found a group of people who had come to rely on their smartphones because of the way it simplified their lives.

One 60-year-old participant was surprised to find that her laptop ended up sitting “in the corner gathering dust”. Eventually she replaced her old laptop completely with her smartphone.

Another participant raved about how useful her smartphone had become:

The only thing we were missing was using Netflix, but we just got Chromecast so now we can do it from our phones onto the telly – so we really can do everything now!

However, this group of people could still gain access to more sophisticated devices if pressed. Not everyone is so lucky.

2. Many mobile users have no access to another device

Ofcom found people that are reliant on their smartphones not out of choice but because of their life circumstances. Financial and other personal constraints mean that these people have no access to other devices. The report refers to this category as “smartphone by circumstance”.

They further found a category of particularly vulnerable users. These people became smartphone by default as a result of difficult situations such as homelessness or refugee status.

Some designers have been guilty of thinking of mobile as a particular context. You may have imagined the busy professional using an app at the bus stop.

Often a mobile version of a website has certain features and content removed in an effort to simplify it. This is often done on the assumption that users in need of more complex functionality can complete their task on a desktop.

This Ofcom report explodes that myth. Many users — some of whom are the most vulnerable members of society — are unable to turn to a desktop. These people have no choice but to use their phone to access services.

So the lesson here is: don’t remove features from your mobile interfaces. For many people, mobile is the only way they can access your services.

3. People are relying on their smartphones to run their business

Ofcom uncovered a number of microbusiness owners who are constantly on the move and need to rely on their phones. But even those who don’t need to travel around find themselves relying heavily on their phones.

One business owner reported that her business phone is always left at home for security reasons. It makes me wonder why she doesn’t use a laptop instead, but clearly this is what makes her comfortable.

4. People really can’t use Microsoft Word documents on their mobile devices

Excel Mobile close-up with stylus

Good designers should know this by now. But in case you don’t, this is the deal. You should not be delivering important content or forms as Microsoft Word documents.

We already know that it is a proprietary format that is not fully supported by many devices. But Ofcom’s report confirms what many already suspected. Using Word documents on a mobile device is almost impossible for most people.

This posed a particular problem for “smartphone by circumstance” users. When it comes to applying for a job, many people run into difficulties.

I haven’t got Word on my phone; it’s just too hard to use and takes up quite a lot of storage. That’s why I went to the library to type up my CV.

If you are an employer who is serious about equal opportunities, you should stop making people to use Word documents to apply for a job.

5. Public computer terminals are not always a suitable alternative

Kelly Library Public Computer Center

The report highlights the stigma attached to using a public computer terminal. But this is just the start of the problems of relying on libraries for internet access.

One job hunter who depended on going to the library to complete these more complex tasks was discouraged from applying for jobs because her local library computers were only bookable for an hour at a time. Another participant was wary of looking up health information in a library because of the private nature of her queries.

As a result of issues like this, one 18-year-old reported that he travelled 90 minutes each way to use his girlfriend’s friend’s laptop to submit job applications.

6. Mobile interfaces probably need to be even simpler than you think

Despite the improvements made by Gov.uk to simplify government services online, many users report having difficulties. Ofcom found that many of the participants had attempted to register to vote, but gave up due to the complexity of the process.

For example, an 18-year-old attempting to register to vote became frustrated after being asked to input her national insurance number on the third page of the form.

I need to register to vote but it didn’t tell me I needed to know my National Insurance number. I’ve already used up too much of a data doing the form in the first place.

Another user, in Northern Ireland, was presented with a PDF. This was designed to be printed out and filled in by hand. But the user didn’t realise that. Instead, she repeatedly attempted to user her phone to input the information in the PDF.

In both cases, the users were so frustrated that they gave up. These people have been disenfranchised by bad design.

7. Manipulating photos and videos is now easier than writing a document

MSC 2014 Smartphone-Audience Mueller MSC2014

Smartphone technology has brought about a remarkable transformation in perceptions of usability. 10 or 20 years ago editing a document on a computer would have been seen as a basic of computer literacy. Meanwhile, working with photographs and videos was mainly the preserve of professionals.

Now those situations have swapped over. And that is not just for particular groups. Ofcom was clear that this trend was seen among all groups. “[P]hoto and video sharing was seen as a simple task, both in terms of software design and individual ability.”

Meanwhile, writing a document is now seen as so complicated that “only a few participants had attempted this kind of task.” Some even viewed the idea as “irrelevant to them and their lifestyles”.

This partly explains why highly visual social media platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat are taking off, while more text-based formats such as Twitter and blogs are in decline. People don’t like reading online, and smartphone users are even more averse to writing text.

8. The smartphone by default trend raises concerns about wider digital skills

Related to the perceived difficulties of writing a document on a smartphone, the report highlights a number of instances where people appeared to lack wider digital skills that might be needed in the workplace.

For instance, some smartphone users had not developed good typing skills because they had rarely encountered a computer keyboard.

One 40-year-old had described how she had handwritten her CV before going to the library to type it up. The typing took over an hour for her to do.

Meanwhile, a 20-year-old was aware that she was a slow typist, but was convinced that it didn’t matter.

9. People use screenshots as their filing system

Mobile user taking a screenshot

Many users have not discovered efficient ways to store information for future use. For instance, Ofcom found that few people were aware of bookmarking functions on their phones. So instead, people take screenshots to keep track of things they need to know.

Other users found taking screenshots a useful way of getting around data restrictions. Users emailing themselves was another common way of storing information. It was also found that many users did not know where their downloaded files were stored on their device.

Ofcom concluded:

Almost no one had a clear system for managing documents on their smartphone… [F]or most people, photographs rather than Word documents are the most intuitive means of storing and managing information.

It seems as though there is great scope for phone manufacturers to make it easier for people to save snippets of information for future use, rather than making people take screenshots or email themselves.

10. Smartphones are hard to use, and people find it difficult to learn how to use them

The report is sprinkled with anecdotes about the difficulties people generally faced while using their smartphones.

For instance, one user had accidentally turned down the brightness of her phone’s screen. Instead of investigating how to fix it, she simply lived with it and resorted to switching her lights off to see the screen.

Data anxiety was widely reported, yet many participants had little idea what would cause them to go over their data allowance. Few knew how to check how much data they were using, even though the information can be found within the phone.

As a result, data-conscious users found themselves rushing tasks unnecessarily or switching off their phone whenever they weren’t using it. Some liked to get straight to face-to-face interactions to get their task done. This avoided them fretting about using data to fill in an online form.

Many users were not using their phone to its full potential. This was often because they had not experimented or researched to find out what it could do.

Few participants critically reflected on what they could do with their smartphone, or pushed it to work for effectively for them.

Good designers are always striving to make their products as easy to use as possible. Some of the examples outlined in the report are shocking. This underlines just how much work is to be done to make digital products intuitive.

11. Many users have a poor understanding of mobile security

It was found that most users were aware of security issues. But many were found to have a poor understanding of what precisely they should do to protect themselves.

For instance, some users reported being wary of using mobile banking apps. But many were not aware of the risks of using public Wi-Fi.

This is especially worrying as many of the vulnerable individuals interviewed relied on free public Wi-Fi to get connected. Yet they were not aware of the security and privacy risks this brought.

12. People without internet access become socially isolated

The internet has become an essential day-to-day communications tool. We all need it to keep in touch with our friends, family and communities. When that access is taken away, it can isolate and stigmatise some people.

Some may be tempted to think of messaging services like WhatsApp and social media platforms like Instagram as dispensable luxuries. But for many, they are a vital means of communication.

One 18-year-old in Glasgow who found himself without access to his smartphone had this to say:

When my phone’s broken I feel cut off from the world! I can’t cope without Instagram. I’ve been so quiet. My last Instagram was four weeks ago – I feel socially cut off!

13. Smaller retailers face an uphill battle to gain the trust smartphone users

Some people may rely on their smartphones, but that doesn’t mean they find them easy to use. Ofcom found that people were often wary of using small businesses’ websites. Instead, people preferred the slicker, expensively developed apps offered by larger retailers. Here, the “experience was perceived to be better designed and more trustworthy”.

Ofcom noted that the best hope for smaller businesses was to use an existing marketplace such as eBay or Etsy to sell their products. But for those truly trying to go it alone, businesses are at a disadvantage compared to big names who can invest in their digital products.

14. People struggle to trust search results

Mobile search

When Ofcom set their participants some search tasks, users expressed concerns over the trustworthiness of content on the web. But few people had a method of determining how much to trust a particular source.

Instead, users take a blanket approach. Either they trust everything, or they struggle to trust anything.

When searching, users rarely look beyond the top three results. They have difficulty when search results are contradictory.

Ofcom set one user a task to search for whether vaccinations cause autism. The top three results contradicted each other. As such, the user struggled to interpret the information.

They’re all saying different things. I’ll just go with the top one. There’s got to be a reason it’s at the top.


Ofcom’s report has underlined to me just how much work is still to be done in terms of improving our digital designs. The insights into how vulnerable groups can be adversely affected by poor design were particularly shocking and eye-opening.

Will you change how you design to avoid these pitfalls?

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