Chatbots for Change: Connecting Vulnerable People to Services

by Linn Vizard

posted on 09-20-2017

Michael-Owen Liston is a designer with a diverse background, having worked as a musician and in social services prior to his career in interaction design and UX. As a designer, he has worked with companies like Nurun, Normative, Bibliocommons and Usability Matters. While completing his masters of interaction design at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, Liston became interested in the potential of using chatbots to help people who are underserved.

The Potential for Chatbot Technology to Play a Role in Civic Life

“It started with my fascination with chatbot technology. I was really curious about the medium and how I could reapply it to have a role in civic life. I figured I could use the platform of automated messaging to connect people in need to services that could help,” said Liston.

Liston was surprised to learn about the challenges that Greenlandic people face in Denmark. Greenland is a former Danish colony, and Greenlanders automatically get Danish citizenship. However, Greenland is completely different society and culture to Denmark which means that when people make the move to Denmark, they can find themselves in over their heads. For example, Greenland has very few paved roads, so navigating an urban environment can be a new experience.

Part of the challenge that some Greenlanders face is that they do not necessarily know about the possible supports that are available to them. Coming from somewhere where they never needed homeless services or community lawyers, the concept of these supports is new.

“How can you even try to search for something when you don’t know that it exists? I started to explore the question of ‘what if you could communicate a basic need to a chat service and get directed to a place where you could get support, without having to navigate an entangled bureaucracy?’” said Liston.

For many Greenlandic people, pride and face are really important, which means there can be an added barrier of stigma in asking for help. This meant that the automated aspect of a service that could assist was important, as it provided a layer of anonymity. Liston chose to prototype an SMS based service that would connect people to formal, governmental services, as well as to the knowledge and experience of people within the community.

Facing Design Constraints and Challenges

“One of the biggest challenges was language – Greenlanders have three major language groups, and there was no guarantee that people engaging with the service would be fluent in the language chosen. It’s also a language built on compound words, which meant there could be a lot of interpretation of the chatbot answers. For example, figuring out the most appropriate way to describe that the service was a ‘robot’ was really challenging!” said Liston.

While SMS is a very accessible platform choice, the technology choice also created some constraints. Working with the complexities of the Greenlandic language and text message character limits proved challenging. “One English word could transform into 15 or 20 characters, which meant instead of sending one text message it became two, and there was no way of guaranteeing they would arrive in the correct order,” said Liston.

All of this meant that Liston had to rely a lot on the participation and kindness of people he met during the design process – staff and members at the Greenlandic House, an organization serving Greenlandic people in Copenhagen. These co-participants in the process helped with research, testing, and translation, among other things.

“Initially when I was doing research, I would tell people that I’m looking at the potential of using a chatbot to connect people to services. I quickly realized that this was a pretty new concept for people and it was challenging to grasp. When I actually had prototypes to test with people, lots of questions emerged, such as ‘Where do these answers come from? How do we know they are going to be right? Is there a person talking to me?’”

TikilluaritSMS Participant Responses from CIID IDP on Vimeo.

These questions informed the experience of the service. Liston wanted to design something that had the right tone. He wanted to create something that was conversational and empathetic, rather than something officious.

“My goal was not to create a bot that could have complex conversations or be a ‘friend’, but instead to push people to a face-to-face interaction, for example at the Greenlandic House, as soon as possible. When I tested the prototype with people, I was surprised at the emotional response people had. In particular, having a service that was in Greenlandic made people feel good.”

The success of the project and service prototype continued beyond Liston’s master’s project. Liston used the work on TikilluaritSMS project to apply to the IxDA student design challenge and was accepted as a finalist. He won second place in the competition and started to think about how to evolve the work he had been doing in other contexts.

IxDA Student Design Challenge 2016 Submission Video: SMS Chatbots for Civic Engagement from Michael-Owen Liston on Vimeo.

From Greenlanders in Denmark to Syrians in Canada

After the design challenge, Liston returned to Canada and worked on projects initiated by the Government of Canada, looking at innovative solutions to meet the needs of Syrian newcomers to Canada. He worked with a project partner from Ulula, Manu Kabahizi. This work led to a project that went into production – a text notification system for family class visa applicants.

“For people who are sponsoring a family member to come to Canada, once they send off their paperwork, the overriding concern is whether that package made it. Questions about this make up 30% of the visa call center volume. The notification service that went into production alleviates this pain point.”

The work that Liston did on TikilluaritSMS set the stage for envisioning the potential of text, chat and voice technology to support those in need. For Liston, one of the key roles UX and design can play is in envisioning what the experience might feel like.

“As a designer, it’s not just about mapping out requirements, it’s about telling the story, visualizing it and making it real. My projects play a role in capturing people’s imagination for what these sorts of services could do. This allowed us to communicate the value of services like the family class visa notification service, which seems simple, but in fact, glues together a longer application process.”

Liston would like to thank all of those who supported his work. He encourages designers to get involved in similar projects that can always use financial support or volunteers. You can explore this topic further on Liston’s web page about messaging services for newcomers.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, Design