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Unearthing assisted digital needs of employers

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Vanessa Clynes, User Experience Manager for the Employer Digital Service shares some of the challenges she faced when researching the assisted digital needs of business users.

Breaking ground

Researching assisted digital (AD) needs of employers was always going to be a challenge, and when we started the Discovery and Alpha of the Digital Apprenticeship Service in 2015, we found we had to be a little more inventive than usual.

Researching with employers in any capacity comes with its own set of challenges. As Alan Rider describes in his blog following the AD for businesses workshop, we can easily identify employers of all sizes, in all sectors. Getting them to talk to us is a different matter!

We started out with a great network of organisations who could put us in touch with employers; The Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, sector bodies, employer groups within the Skills funding Agency and BIS, plus a large network of apprenticeship ambassadors across the country.

One of our first priorities was to put out a survey to as many employers as we could. We had a good response through our contacts; around 350 employers. It would be easy to assume that an online survey wouldn’t be the best way of finding users with an AD need, but it was actually very helpful. We came out with figures similar to the wider survey carried out by BIS, and even better, we got 22 users who identified themselves as having an AD need and who also agreed to take part in user testing. These were typically users in smaller businesses who were comfortable with basic tasks online, but didn't feel confident with new systems or technology.

Finding needles in haystacks

When it comes to apprenticeships, we're always overwhelmed with large companies who are keen to have their say in the shaping of such a high profile service, but as our survey showed, companies like this are less likely to have AD needs. Our qualitative research told us that this is often because companies like this take on the responsibility of training employees who are less confident online. Large companies are still a good source though; often they were willing to put us in touch with their supply chain, who were more likely to be smaller companies (SMEs) with less money to invest in training.

Through our survey, we learned that there is a small decrease in the assisted digital need as the size of business increases, and there is also a noticeable increase in need amongst sectors like engineering, manufacturing, construction and land-based sectors.

The survey gave us a great start, but we knew from external research that there are 2% of SMEs who don’t use the internet at all. Trying to find organisations within that 2% who also take on apprentices is a bit like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Through our cold calling, door knocking and guerrilla testing, we uncovered some users with very low digital capabilities (one who didn’t even seem to understand the concept of a website), and this gave us enough of an understanding to move forward with.  

Don’t stop digging

As we move into Beta, we’ll need to find more of these people to test our assisted digital approach as we develop it. Our survey has given us a good idea of the sectors to approach, and our contacts have given us inroads into those sectors. Remploy are also a great source of information and advice for all things AD related, and we’ll be building on work we’ve done with them on other projects within the Skills Funding Agency.

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