Earlier today, Health Minister Lord Bethell said, referring to the UK Government Coronavirus tracing app:

It is the human contact that is the one most valued by people. And in fact there is a danger of being too technological, and relying too much on text and emails and alienating or freaking out people because you’re telling them quite alarming news through quite casual communication.

I’m not denying that this is what the trials have shown. I’m sure that Lord Bethell is not wrong in his assertions.

Putting politics and my thoughts on the contact tracing app aside, I do however believe that this is the wrong conclusion: that people are feeling alienated by technology, instead of empowered by it. That people prefer to speak to somebody on the phone rather than a cold and complicated bit of technology.

I haven’t seen the app, nor am I privy to any of the findings spoken about, so I’m going to talk in very general terms here.

There are people out there who prefer to use an app

It’s not unusual for people to dislike phonecalls, especially unexpected phonecalls from an unknown number. In fact, I’ve heard many stories about people who refuse to answer the phone if it’s from an unknown number, or if it’s unexpected.

It might be for an any number of reasons: people may be too busy. They might struggle with anxiety when on the phone. They might be hearing impaired. They might be doing something important that you’re disturbing. Or they might be asleep.

I’m not denying that there are people who struggle with technology who would prefer to use the phone: what I am saying is that there are people who struggle with the phone who prefer to use technology.

An app is often better than a phonecall, anyway

I don’t think that an app can be easily dismissed as an electronic version of a phonecall. If you want to give people important information — especially when it comes to health messages — an app can be better than a phonecall for a few ways.

You can control the message

Humans are… human. They make mistakes, and the message they give to your customers may not be what you expect it to be. By sending an email, a text message, or an in-app alert, you know what the message said.

You may not be able to control the feeling of the person receiving the message, but you can certainly make sure that the messenger says it in the best way possible. Indeed, I’m sure that the people making the phonecalls are reading off a script, anyway. So why not better control this by making it a pre-prepared email?

You can give tailored information

An app message doesn’t just have to be just “You have had significant contact with someone who’s been tested positive for Covid-19. You should stay at home”.

It can contain all sorts of information. It can give links to a FAQ page, or give you up to date health information. It can provide details of local places to contact if you need support. It can give you an opportunity to get in touch through email, an in-app message system — or even a phonecall — if there’s an unanswered question.

A mobile device is such a powerful tool, which can be tailored to user preference, location, and accessibility settings. It can show video, it can show long-form text. It can remind you of things. It can give you directions on a map. A mobile device can do so much that even a phonecall can’t do.

A phonecall can be a scammer

A mobile device can also have better security. Phones are notoriously easy to use for scamming: you can fake the phone number, and if you sound convincing enough you can make people believe you.

An app can’t be 100% secure, but it’s more secure than a phonecall or text message. If you get a message through an app that you’ve already installed, you know it probably came from that app.

It gives people time to process that information, and come back to it later

When someone tells you something over the phone, unless it’s being recorded that information has gone. It’s in your (fallible) memory, and it can’t be referred back to it.

Particularly if the information is distressing, it’s very likely that you will forget something important.

If a message is sent in an app, it can be kept and referred to later on. If you need time to process, you can take that time and come back to it. You can show it to your partner, to your friend, or someone else.

Give people the choice

Some people might prefer getting a phonecall, and that’s fine. Phonecalls absolutely still have a place in our society.

But people should be given a choice. If I want to contact my healthcare provider and ask them about something, then I should be able to do that through an app if I want to. I bank with a challenger bank: I can phone them if I want to, but I can also send them an email or use their in-app chat support system.

It’s that choice that’s best. It’s that choice which is more inclusive.