How trauma-informed is your chatbot?

| minute read

Many citizens increasingly expect to access public services digitally. While digitising core services to meet these emerging expectations, many public service providers are acutely aware of the barriers that some people face in accessing and using digital services effectively.

To mitigate this, they are procuring independent support services that can coach citizens through accessing online services, or enable them to access help by non-digital means.  

But what if, despite all this effort, some barriers to access have not yet been fully addressed in some of the most sensitive areas of public service provision? In addition to addressing the changing nature of the digital divide, we also need to consider the barriers of trauma that service users may be experiencing. We also need to consider how services can be adapted to better acknowledge these human needs and circumstances.

Over the last year or so Sopra Steria’s Experience Design team have conducted thought provoking work across Justice, Policing and Victims’ Services. People in contact with the Justice system are often experiencing acute life events: divorce or custody dispute; the aftermath of crime/s; or a challenging medical prognosis that necessitates legal planning of future health and financial decisions. These are times when providing swift support, or maintaining contact with an individual, matter most profoundly, but also times where it can be most challenging.

Our recent work suggests a number of key considerations in designing complex sensitive public services.

Keeping in touch

It has been assumed that the problem of digital exclusion will reduce as more users grow up digitally native and as network coverage expands. Yet, as many as one million people cut off their broadband last year for reasons of affordability, according to Citizens Advice - individuals with active accounts with public sector bodies who may now be losing access or experiencing reduced touchpoints.   

Fluctuating levels of digital access are common in Justice, with some users experiencing the least ability to access services at times when they most need help.

  • A victim of domestic violence or coercive control leaving an abusive partner will need not only access to justice, but also support in re-finding accommodation, employment, education, and other services. This could be at a point when they may also need to change their email address, phone number, erase their social media, and perhaps change devices to cease contact from an abuser. All of which greatly affects the ease with which they interact with digital services.
  • Those who have experienced online fraud may need to change key details and devices at a point when this kind of crime may have severely impacted their confidence in using any sort of online service.

Providing effective digital services to citizens with the most complex and dynamic needs requires public service providers to continually learn about how their live services are being used. Integrating ongoing, iterative research that generates hypotheses can help providers explore new ways to support users as well as identifying when something’s not working as expected.

Such feedback loops should be systematically built into services by default. This would help service providers monitor current dynamic levels of access and, when necessary, route them to alternative avenues. This approach will ensure continuity of access even when life changes may be reducing their access to digital services.

All of the content, all of the time

From 2020-22, Sopra Steria worked closely with the Scottish Government on the design of its scheme seeking to provide Redress for Survivors of Historical Child Abuse in Care. This service created an avenue to justice for a group of individuals who had been repeatedly let down by public institutions and whose trust in government had been greatly damaged. Through this work, we learned about trauma-informed approaches and collaboratively developed a set of principles with researchers, consultants and psychologists that we are now applying more widely.

While many public service providers will be working to ensure that their website is accessible and their forms are in plain English, we’d argue that it is just as important to consider the content that is not online. What are all of the ways the public may access or engage with your service? The paper forms? The notice letters?

With a continued focus on public services being accessed through a browser, there are often areas that slip between the cracks of digital and traditional service provision.

For instance, have your call centre teams been provided with the same understanding of user journeys that have been built up in designing your digital channels? Or how many organisations really consider compassion in the tone of their chatbots? Or how to phrase some more sensitive questions with both brevity and empathy? So, really, how trauma-informed is your chatbot? 

As public services seek to widen the routes by which citizens can contact them, applying content design approaches to each channel offered ensures ALL of your service remains accessible. No services should be built on mere assumptions, but systematic testing is especially critical when services need (or claim to be) trauma-informed.

Switch it off, switch it on again

It’s not just a user’s digital access that can be dynamic – their capacity to engage with services evolves too. Especially if the service has an emotional or traumatic experience tied to it.

Sopra Steria undertook a unique cross agency piece of work in the Scottish Criminal Justice Service, mapping both the victim’s experience and the flow of data across the various processes and agencies that make up the Scottish justice system.

A victim of crime often needs to re-count a painful experience multiple times to different agencies as a case progresses. From report to the police, through investigation, prosecution, court case, sentence and potentially release – often these processes can take place over months and years.  

A key request from service users was the ability to reduce repetition of the same painful facts, to be able to take a short break from the process, and for some particularly acute touchpoints to have choice as to how they interact with public services.

Users drop out across Justice services – whether that be choosing not to support an ongoing criminal prosecution, or completing a Lasting Power of Attorney but not registering it.

Service design needs to better account for the emotional and mental challenges that users are contemplating when accessing services. In complex multi-agency processes taking a more blended omni-channel approach might enable users to control whether some aspects of the journey are undertaken digitally, or where they might need some verbal or face to face support; or enabling users to take a short break from a painful process and set a time frame and a channel by which to return to it  when they’re feeling more resilient.  

Rather than asking them to repeat, to switch off and on their story, their emotions, their experience, the systems could be shaped around them. Given the complexity of the criminal justice system, the multi-agency nature of the data journey, this could be a priority area for co-designing public services with citizens.

In summary

The nature of crime is changing and the way that we as citizens engage with Justice Services is evolving. Building continuous ongoing user research into services, facilitating more blended access routes across multiple channels, and designing services around citizens rather than agency structures, will be critical to overcoming some of the ongoing digital and emotional barriers in accessing justice.





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