Lessons learnt developing an online chat service

Lessons learnt developing an online chat service

Simon Stewart

Simon Stewart
3rd January 2020

Simon Stewart is Senior Product Manager (Caller Services) at Samaritans. He has worked on transformation programmes across a variety of sectors and previously trained volunteers for Oxford Nightline. In this first installment of an online blog series, he tells us what Samaritans has learnt so far from the pilots of their new online chat service.

“It is difficult to think of a sphere of our lives that is unaffected by the rise of online messaging platforms. In workplaces, collaboration tools are commonplace. Many of us now organise our social lives and communicate with friends and family using WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and iMessage. And nowadays, if an appliance at home breaks down, lots of people now prefer to get help over an online chat service than speak to someone over the phone.

Funding support online

Last year Samaritans answered 3.6 million calls for help over the phone. Increasingly though, people are turning to us via messaging channels too. In 2018 we responded to 675,000 texts and 330,000 emails. Now we want to be available for people via online chat: a real-time, one-to-one, written word service delivered directly via any web browser. We’ve been going through a long process of research, design and testing to get to this point, consulting academic literature, callers and volunteers and other charities in the UK and internationally.

Nominet is supporting Samaritans to raise vital funds to test and launch the service. Funds raised through new domain registrations will support Samaritans’ work developing online chat from one-off pilots to a consistent service.

What we’ve learnt so far

Our design process culminated in a series of live pilots of the new service over the summer. We’ve learnt several things as we’ve brought the service to life:

Demand is out there: Samaritans is a household name providing to support to many people. With no prior advertising of the pilots, we had a queue forming from people browsing to our site looking for support, averaging around 20 conversations per hour during these small-scale events.

Usability is key: Some people who use Samaritans services are in distress or crisis. While all online services need to be easy to use, we’ve learned that we need to invest in research and design to ensure the service is simple to use, even if people aren’t thinking clearly.

Confidentiality is complex: Confidentiality is at the heart of what Samaritans does, and therefore we have to be very strict about data processes and policies, going above and beyond what is normally required. We need to ensure that we develop a digital service with confidentiality as a cornerstone – an evolving challenge that demands specialist skills in technology, design and creative problem solving.

Equipped with these learnings we are excited to move into the next phase of developing the online chat service.

Nominet will donate £1 to Samaritans for every new, paid for .UK domain registered from 9 November until 17 January 2020. Funds raised through new domain registrations ending in .co.uk, .uk, .org.uk, .me.uk, .ltd.uk, .ltd.uk, .plc.uk and .net.uk, will support Samaritans’ work developing the vital online chat service from pilot stage to launch.

Samaritans is the only organisation that provides free emotional support, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for anyone across the UK and Ireland who is struggling to cope.

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