Monday, September 17, 2007

Another digital divide

When activists and policy makers talk about the digital divide, they are generally referring to economic, social and educational barriers that prevent certain segments of the population getting access to and benefits from digital technology. (More info here and here).

But I’ve been doing user-experience research with a number of different professional populations recently and noticed that there is another digital divide, which is less a social problem than a communications challenge. The barrier here is not (or not only) socio-economic but rather a factor of the mobility required in their daily lives. These people simply don’t spend their lives in front of a computer all day.

Some of these professions are obvious: skilled tradespeople who work with their hands in the field as well as hands-on professionals of all stripes, like doctors and nurses. I know that both these groups are increasingly bringing computers into the field but they still don't use them like people who work at a desk. When you they access a computer in the field, they tend to be hyper-functional, with very little down time and zero tolerance for distractions.

This groups also includes, perhaps more surprisingly, college students. We tend to think of college students as hyper-wired, checking their Facebook pages every three seconds. And while they are active users of certain applications and programs, they also tend to be highly surgical in the usage, tapping into a site at a public-use computer before moving onto to the next meeting. The majority of their lives not spent in class is spent in circulation around campus.

This, of course, should be obvious to anyone who thinks for a few seconds about their targets, but judging by my experience, sometimes we overlook the obvious if only because it is so intuitive. Most of us who work in the marketing business tend to spend a lot of time in front of a computer, so much so that its easy to forget that a lot of other people just don't. Not because they don't know how to, just because their work and lives require a different set of activities.

And the consequences of this fact is not always so obvious. While mobile marketing is making big promises about how it will reach mobile populations, reaching them doesn't mean they will pay attention.

As I suggested above, people with access to online computers in the field tend to use them very differently than people that work at their desks. When they need to take a break, they don't check on their Ebay auction or the plane fares to Cancun. Engaging these people requires a deep understanding of their daily schedules so you can reach them not only when they are online but when they are receptive to messaging, whether or not it is online.

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