Designing a chat service for people in crisis

Samaritans' chat service had special requirements - but everyone could learn from them.

There’s a generational shift in how people communicate. Most young people feel awkward talking on the phone. One survey found that 81% of young people reported feeling anxious about using the telephone. They prefer instant messaging.

But it’s not as simple as providing any old online chat service. You have to create a service that people trust.

Exceptional trust

When Samaritans asked cxpartners to help design their first ever chat service it was clear that the level of trust would need to be exceptional.

Getting it wrong for Samaritans could be a matter of life and death. We needed to give the Samaritans confidence the service would work.

  • Would people feel they could open up using the service or would it lose the human touch?
  • Would users trust such a service to maintain their anonymity, privacy and security?
  • What if someone else entered a room and could see the user's screen?

To help us understand the problem, we recruited people who’d used Samaritans services in the past. We listened to their needs and experiences, and asked them to test a prototype service, staffed by Samaritans volunteers.

They emphasised the need to feel genuinely connected to the person at the other end of the line, and the importance of privacy.

Creating a human connection with online chat

We added interactions to the chat so the user felt connected (for instance, seeing  when the volunteer was typing, and buttons to quickly express when they needed time to think).

We found that Samaritans’ ‘active listening’ techniques worked well on the phone, but were awkward and off-putting to chat users. You’ve probably experienced something similar using online technical support - the sense that you’re texting someone who’s not really listening to you.

Working with people who’d been in vulnerable situations, we gave Samaritans the insights needed to re-train their staff to ‘talk’ differently on chat services. 

Better solutions to online privacy

We explored the best ways for the users to hide their screen quickly and experimented with different copy explaining how the service would protect the users anonymity, privacy and security.

Finally, we knew that Samaritans needed to be able to identify users to differentiate acute cases from frequent, less urgent users and (sadly) nuisance calls. Yet we had to maintain the user's anonymity.

Our solution was to use biometric AI. We built an AI that could identify users by the cadence of their typing. No personal data was recorded, no cookies were used, and it would be impossible to link a chat record with a named individual. But Samaritans had a way to triage users, stay true to their values, and protect anonymity.

Within weeks, we took the Samaritans from scepticism about the feasibility of the service, to a working prototype and the confidence to go live.

Learning from people in vulnerable situations

The challenges faced by Samaritans in creating a trustworthy online chat service exist for other organisations, too. But they are often glossed over.

Samaritans couldn’t do that. They needed to get the service just right. That drove them to innovative solutions which others can learn from.

That’s one of the reasons we think all organisations should focus on supporting their customers in vulnerable circumstances.

Our experience is that the solutions we need to support customers in vulnerable circumstances help us to innovate and do a better job for everyone.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.