Designing for people in crisis: online chat service design for Samaritans

2018 Talk


In 2015, 6,639 men and women from across the UK and the Republic of Ireland took their own life.

Suicide remains the biggest killer of people aged 20 to 34 and men under the age of 50.

Samaritans listening service responded to more than 5.7 million calls for help by phone, email, SMS, letter and face-to-face last year. That’s one contact every 6 seconds from someone that needed someone to turn to.

But people’s patterns of communication are changing. Increasingly, people are turning to real time, text-based chat services such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger as their preferred method of communication.

So, how could Samaritans meet the changing needs of their callers, and make their services more accessible to high risk individuals whose needs are not served by traditional technology? The 70% of children and young people who committed suicide without making any service contacts, and the 33% who never expressed suicidal thoughts to anyone.

We will share the challenges we faced in designing Samaritans online chat service and the techniques we used to overcome them.

• How do you design a service for vulnerable people in an extreme state of mind?

• How do you make design decisions when getting it wrong could have such terrible consequences?

• How do you safeguard the welfare of your research participants and team?

• How do you use a technology to quickly establish real human connections between people?

• How should the chat experience feel? What reassurances do you need to provide before, during and after using the service? And how does that feel for the volunteer providing the service?

• How do you maintain confidentiality for service users, yet manage misuse that could jeopardise the service?

• How do you measure whether such a service is actually helping people?

We will share our approach to research and design, our service prototyping techniques and how we used the creative application of technology to solve the biggest challenges facing the development of the Samaritans online chat service.

About the speaker(s)

Neil Schwarz is an Experience Director at cxpartners, one of the world’s leading innovation partners, based in the United Kingdom. With more than ten years experience, Neil has worked with organisations such as the BBC, Marriott, Disney, Nationwide Building Society and TUI Travel to help them have meaningful interactions with their customers. Most recently, Neil has lead multi-disciplinary teams that tackle the most challenging problems facing cxpartners’ public sector and charity clients. Including their work with Samaritans to increase the number of volunteers and expand their reach to new areas of society.
Simon is the IM Product Manager at Samaritans, helping the organisation explore the digital delivery of its listening service. He sees it as his role to ensure that services deliver outcomes in line with stakeholder expectations. This takes up most of his time at the moment and provides him with a good balance of opportunities to be overtly precise and subtly vague. Previously he has been a volunteer and trainer for Oxford Nightline and worked in business change, data and analytics and product development. He is now almost fully incapable of speaking to someone without trying to stick something on a wall. If you are inclined to do so, he encourages you to visit to find out more about the movement and opportunities to volunteer and donate. If you don’t have time for that you can text SUPPORT to 70123 to give a gift of £3.