We're piloting a real-time written word service to help support people in a way that works for them.
Personally, if I was deeply distressed, I’d go for a live chat until I’m ready to actually open my mouth to speak to somebody.
Kush, 41 - Caller persona identified in user research
The way people communicate is changing. Mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous, yet traditional voice calls are on the decline. Younger people in particular are more likely to be communicating via chat, messaging and social media, although older generations are also increasingly using the same means of communication.
These changes pose challenges for Samaritans. We want to be there for people any time, day or night, in a way that works for them. As long as we don’t provide a real-time written word service, we won’t be fully serving people who would prefer to contact us in this way.
However, as the providers of the UK's first round-the-clock helpline, we're used to innovation. We've been answering the phone since 1953, responding to emails since 1994, and text messages since 2006.
When people speak to you by phone it gets to you, when it is written it’s easier to say things.
Sonya, 22 - Caller persona identified in user research
Samaritans’ approach to the development of this new service has required us to recognise and build upon this innovative spirit.
It’s true that lots of organisations – like shops, banks and government departments - provide chat or messaging as a communication channel.
But people who use our listening service aren't communicating with a normal organisation – they’re reaching out for support from a trained individual who will support them at a very difficult point in their lives.
Our volunteers provide human contact and non-judgmental emotional support. Our service must provide the trust that allows for a conversation with a stranger to feel like a conversation with a trusted friend.
What does this kind of service look like in a world of the smartphone and social networking? We've been ironing this out over the past couple of years.
Starting small, we ran some experiments with volunteers and staff. We used off-the-shelf technology to understand the potential opportunities and challenges of providing support in new ways.
We then went out to speak with people who had used or might be likely to use our services. We worked with Snook, a service design agency, to run a series of interviews and focus groups to understand what people might need from a new service. Paper prototyping, collaborative sketching and communicating through personas helped protect participants while surfacing deep insights into severe emotional states.
What we learned
A clear finding from this research was that there is no one-size-fits all. Different people have different preferences depending on their individual emotion state at that time. We can't accurately predict someone's state based on the way they choose to communicate. Or their demographics.
How do we design a service for everyone, when people's needs and preferences differ? And how do we increase access to support for the people at highest risk of suicide who are least likely to engage with existing services?
The short answer is that - we don't. We provide a range of ways for people to get in contact and receive emotional support. And we know that even this service portfolio may not be enough. During the research, we found that some people may not want, or be ready, to receive emotional support from a volunteer. With support from Nominet and the Peter and Teresa Harris Charitable Trust, we're working on an online self-help service for these people too.
The output from these research phases was that a webchat service on our website, rather than a chat app for a particular messaging network, would be the best way to start our journey with real-time written word communication.
While many people trust us with their confidential information, some don't feel the same way about big technology companies. People we spoke with said that they might be put off by the idea of their conversation with a Samaritan appearing alongside conversations with friends and family.
Going with webchat means that rather than creating a service for users of Facebook, Discord or Instagram, we can create a service for everyone. We can provide a low-friction in-browser journey from all these touchpoints at once, without tying the relevance of our support offer to that of platforms which might change over time.
But this strategy of using webchat on our own website produces its own question: How do we re-create the supportive environment of a Samaritans branch online?
I don’t find school to be particularly supportive or understanding. I’ve self-harmed quite badly and often feel depressed. My mum doesn’t know any of this. I’ve told a friend, but we don’t message about it as I regularly text someone else by mistake on my phone, so I don’t want my mum to find out by accident. ‘Cause of this, I prefer using my laptop and websites for support rather than my phone. I plan to tell mum soon, when I’m ready."
Morgan, 18 - Caller persona identified in user research
We used the analogy of visiting a branch for face-to-face support (Samaritans’ first ever service) which was useful as we set out to design an end-to-end online service journey.
Our approach was to run a series of design sprints. We ran them with CX Partners, a design agency, following the Google Ventures process with iteration in response to observed behaviour.
Samaritans volunteers joined the team in person to help with sketching screen layouts, and remotely to provide feedback on our prototypes. They also joined for the last day of each sprint, where a little bit of magic from a creative technologist allowed us to have two-way conversations. This meant we could test the service in usability labs with members of the public before bringing a development team onboard.
Rapid prototyping gave us the space to test a wide range of ideas. And then with the minimum viable product (the first version of the service), we took the principle of "maximise validated learning with least effort" seriously. All the while, we were realistic about what we could expect to achieve. Clearly, we cannot ethically create the states in which someone would use this service in a testing lab. Nevertheless, you can get pretty far with tactics like providing links that don't do anything, and then asking people what they expect to find and how they feel about it.
By observing people's interactions with these prototypes, we could see where there were user needs that were different to what had been articulated in previous research. For example, while people had said they needed special “hide window” buttons, in fact they continued to use the default browser controls. And while some had said they wanted things to do while they waited for a volunteer to become available, mostly, they in fact did not use these.
Instead, we found users keen to get straight through to expressing themselves, even if they had to wait for a volunteer to become available. Where we had expected a significant content design challenge for the ‘waiting room’, we found instead that notifications and the ability to start writing an initial message were more likely to be valuable to users.
Following the design sprints and testing in the usability lab, we felt ready to move from prototyping to developing. Since then we've been working with a cross-functional team at Torchbox on the caller experience, which has been integrated with a new contact centre platform which volunteers will use.
Working in sprints has given us something to test every two weeks. We've been able to continue to learn from volunteers and the public and bring that learning back into the design and build process.
We've now come to a point where we are ready to test our new real-time written word service in a live environment. To do this, we’ve trained a few hundred volunteers in providing the new service and arranged a series of pilots with volunteers at branches across the UK.
Over the next 6 weeks, we'll be opening the service for a few time-limited periods to continue learning about and improving the service.
We’ll look to answer questions that we can’t in the lab, such as:
- How long is the average chat?
- When does waiting time begin to have a significant impact on abandon rate?
- What level of commitment can we make to this service given our current capacity?
- What did we get wrong, where do we need to improve?
We ran the first pilot last Tuesday, showing the service to a small proportion of the traffic on our contact page. Some of the callers in the first pilot had not contacted us before and all who left feedback said they would use it again.
What happens next?
If the pilots are successful, then we intend to start making the webchat service regularly available to the public, with reliable opening hours. To do this, we’ll need to train and support many of our current volunteers – and recruit and train many more. We’ll gradually scale the service, with the aim that eventually it is available 24/7 every day of the year, just like our other channels are.
Every year we receive millions of contacts on the phone or by Email or SMS. A significant proportion of these contacts could soon be over webchat, our first digital service for people in distress and crisis.
At that point the service will have moved into a new phase: live and operating at scale. We’ll need to continue to listen to people’s feedback - and make constant improvements – so that it meets the ever-changing needs of people who need our support.