Understanding online behaviour
In March, the results of research into how New Zealanders manage their online identity were published by Professor Miriam Lips, the first Professor of E-Government at Victoria University of Wellington. The research revealed some interesting aspects of online behaviour.
To start, you’ll want to check out the report, which is titled “Kiwis Managing their Online Identity Information – Final Results & Recommendations”. You can find:
And this tells me…?
The focus of my work is online engagement and the projects I’m involved in are user-centered, so I went to a presentation Miriam gave for the public sector about this research. What I learned was:
- Online behaviours are dynamic: people are still learning what to share, when to share and how to protect themselves.
- The more experienced and confident a person is online, the better they are able to make choices to protect themselves.
- A bad experience – eg identity theft − will affect a person’s behaviour.
- Young people tend to be digital by default. However, all age groups still value offline, face-to-face transactions.
- New Zealanders tend to fit in one of four privacy behavioural types:
- Pragmatist: sees privacy as a commodity; you provide information to get something in return, including convenience.
- Victim: considers that loss of privacy is inevitable and do not think there is a choice when providing their information; they will stop using a service when it becomes too intrusive.
- Optimist: is happy to continue a risky behaviour (such as letting a website save their credit card information) until something bad happens.
- Fatalist: thinks loss of privacy is inevitable; believes that there will always be a power imbalance.
- People use a variety of strategies to protect themselves online from using different passwords to pseudonyms. In this study, younger people and Asian communities are likely to use a pseudonym; older people perceive this as lying so are less likely to do this.
- Behaviour can be influenced or affected by circumstances or context. For example, people are more likely to trust a transaction with an authoritative government website (eg paying taxes) than they are to trust their bank details to an unfamiliar retailer.
I talked with Miriam about the research and have to admit that I was a bit surprised to find out that she considers the results to be pretty location-specific because of New Zealand’s cultural context. This breaks down to a couple of key differences between New Zealand and other countries since:
- public trust in government is high – according to Transparency International, New Zealand rates 2nd internationally as the ‘least corrupt country’ scale in the most recent report; for comparison, the US ties for 17th place along with Barbados, Hong Kong and Ireland
- all the participants in the study were very ‘privacy aware’
- there are a large number of Kiwis who were born overseas (25.2% as of the 2013 Census) that tend to compare New Zealand to their home countries ie they trust the New Zealand government more than they do their country of origin
- there is an expectation that the laws apply equally in New Zealand
- government provides comprehensive, no-fault personal injury cover for all residents and visitors (see Accident Compensation Corporation for details about this program, which is pretty unusual). Basically, if you’re in the country and have an accident, the medical system will take care of you at no charge. This translates into an expectation that government is usually watching out for you, including in the online space.
- there is little fear of terrorist activity.
I think these insights can help the public sector in New Zealand provide better people-focused services. And, despite the differences in context, there are some lessons for other locations.
Let’s start with why this might be useful to you. If you read the section of the report about the behavioural archetypes – pragmatist, victim, optimist and fatalist – I think that the descriptions are valid in other cultural contexts.
In my experience in the US and New Zealand, these archetypes seem pretty universal. I am curious about whether there would are differences in the percentages of each type in other settings. In other words, would urban Chicagoans have a different mix of pragmatists vs optimists compared to rural Minnesotans? Or to New Zealanders for that matter. What about regional vs urban? southern vs east coast? gender, education or age differences? Once you know the demographics of the services you’re offering, you could finesse those services to fit the people who use them.
For New Zealand and others, this research gives us insights into how we can provide better online services by understanding people’s pain points around digital transactions. And, as public servants, it’s a good reminder that real people, with their experiences and concerns, need to be assured that interacting with government online is safe and secure.
Miriam sees that the information gained in this research could emphasize the need for public servants to focus on outcomes – eg people successfully completing online transactions – instead of outputs – eg a shiny new digital service that isn’t built to meet people’s needs.
Also, it’ll come as no surprise to retailers that have both digital and physical profiles that people research what they need online, but commonly want to handle the actual transaction in person.
As a result of the research, a number of recommendations were made. Here are a few that may be of interest:
- Promote increased transparency and reporting on how organisations, apps, websites collect, process and use information. There is a lack of transparency about what is being stored where and when – or if – it’s given to third parties. This also fits with the Open Government Partnership. Both New Zealand and the US are participating countries in this initiative.
- Promote increased transparency on people’s digital footprint and offer advice on how to manage it effectively and securely.
- Introduce the option for people to interact with government agencies online at all stages of the service transaction.
- Promote an online two-factor authentication mechanism (in New Zealand, this is RealMe).
- Make sure digital service design assumptions are closely aligned with actual user needs or experience. Recreating an online version of a badly-designed paper process doesn’t count as providing a digital service.
Ultimately, experiences will be different depending on whether you’re interacting with government or the private sector. After all, you can shop around for people-focused companies to sell you a widget. But government services are usually a monopoly; there is only one source. Despite being the only providers, we can still provide stellar digital services that exceed expectations. The key to that is understanding our customers.
By the way, Miriam is keen for someone to replicate this research in other locations, so get in touch if you might be interested.