Ami - Bringing people together
Timeline: 6 months, 2016
Role: User experience & creative direction
Developer: Oxford Computer Consultants
Ami is a social enterprise startup funded and developed by Oxford Computer Consultants, with a mission is to reduce loneliness and social isolation by encouraging people to offer support to those around them. Loneliness and social isolation are harmful to our health: the Campaign to End Loneliness found lacking social connections is a comparable risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is worse for us than obesity and physical inactivity.
The challenge was to create a website that allows aspiring volunteers in Oxfordshire to find people in their local area that need help and support and encourage them to participate in low commitment activities like having a cup of tea, helping with shopping, or doing some gardening.
I was present on the project from conception of the idea through to launch, encouraging a User Centred Design approach through fairly informal but extensive research to validate the idea before building anything.
Although we were trying to help people that were socially isolated, the success of the project hinged on being able to more effectively connect potential volunteers with charity organisations - who were already oversubscribed with people looking for help. We needed to understand how to alleviate the pain points between these 2 user groups to ultimately benefit everyone.
We first conducted user interviews with potential volunteers to understand their circumstances, finding a very wide demographic group all of who were comfortable using internet services, often time-poor but looking to ‘give something back’, and struggling to find how or where to get started.
Then I facilitated several workshops with the charity organisations to understand their concerns and storyboard out solutions. I spent a day with a charity in Witney where I was able to observe how the volunteer process worked. It was a real highlight that provided valuable insight into how the volunteer process was managed using a combination of index cards, rolodex, and address books, not touching a computer if they could avoid it.
Our research observations were key to shaping the user experience. Potential volunteers were frustrated because they didn’t know where to begin, and the process of mailing paper forms was slow and cumbersome. For charity organisations, they were concerned about putting the details of older or more vunerable people online, and were reticent to change their own internal processes without good reason.
Our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) had to demonstrate to the charity organisations that putting the process online was a compelling enough experience to increase the number of successful registrations. This was a large task - not least because it required developing a trusted and credible brand from scratch and marketing it locally through unconventional channels to gain traction - but ultimately revolved around 2 key pieces of design: the map, and the registration flow.
The map evolved out of the need to show our users what was available around them and how to get started. Location was key, showing them opportunities that were nearby and easily accessible lowered the barrier to entry and made the process more approachable. Charity organisations were understandably opposed to sharing such information online about potentially old and vulnerable people, but after multiple iterations we balanced these conflicting requirements. Instead of showing the user other lonely people’s locations, we showed them how far away those opportunities were in relation to them, providing additional anonymised information to help users make an informed choice.
The volunteer registration process is longer and more complicated than most, requiring several checks and interviews to be completed over the course of, optimistically, several weeks. Whilst we couldn’t simplify this process because of the legal security checks, we could apply form best practices to make it more straightforward. We split the overarching process into 2 parts, making it more manageable, and then split the first part (which Ami was responsible for) into logical sections. We set clear expectations up-front, show and encourage progress through indicators and personalised messages, and don’t ask for any information we don’t absolutely need.
To streamline the development of these features and encourage design consistency across the site I created the Ami design system. I believe in designing UI solutions to suit the content, not fitting content to the design, so it focuses on foundational elements like text and button styles, a responsive grid for web and mobile, and a component library that can be reused across different patterns and layouts. Ultimately, I handed off mock-ups and assets to the development team who implemented it independently, with intermittent design reviews.
Working on Ami has also given me the chance to do something I have always wanted to do, but have been terrified of. Public speaking.
As part of helping market Ami in Oxfordshire, including creating the leaflets and flyers seen around the city centre, I was asked to speak about the process of creating the website at several UX conferences. You can see a recording of one of the talks I gave below.
I really admire people who can speak in public, and after the initial nerves wore off, I really enjoyed it and would love to do more. I must thank my colleagues for the encouragement and feedback when preparing for the talk, and can’t recommend the Upfront confidence workshop enough in introducing me to some key skills to really get the most out of the experience.
Ami’s core aim is to help reduce social isolation and loneliness. With the MVP, over 600 people have successfully registered to become new volunteers in Oxford, doubling the rate over the same period in the previous year for the charity organisations involved. It has always been important to stress with our partners that Ami isn’t a short-term project, OCC continues to invest in the website and add more partners from surrounding areas.
Ami’s grander ambition has always been to bring people together, and the success of the MVP has led to expanding into more social activities. Soon Ami will launch a set of features that allow people to connect directly through shared interests and activities, including connecting with your neighbours and chatting online to set up events. This is coming to Bicester this year, and will hopefully be rolled out to surrounding counties in 2018.