How do you recreate the supportive environment of a Samaritans branch online?

Annika Howard
Simon Stewart, Samaritans Senior Production Manager (Caller Services)

Simon Stewart, Samaritans Senior Production Manager (Caller Services), was one of our expert speakers at this year’s Annual Conference. Simon shared with us his experience of designing and developing Samaritans listening service via online chat.


Samaritans have 201 branches across the UK and Republic of Ireland. Every six seconds Samaritans responds to a call for help. Samaritans' vision is that fewer people die by suicide. Samaritans is now contacted more than 5 million times a year, in phone calls, texts, emails and face-to-face chats.

Online chat with a helpline volunteer

Samaritans want to offer access to their listening service via online chat. The first interaction with all Samaritans helpline services is with one of their trained volunteers but in the case of online chat, there is an interaction with a website to consider. One of the challenges that Samaritans faced was how to make the online environment as supportive as one of their branches?

Discovery phase

It was important that the team understood the profile of the people who would potentially use the service. What would they need, want and be afraid of? What would the service look like and who were the people most at need now and who were the people at the highest risk? They developed personas so they could really get a picture of who these potential users were to help understand their situation, the reasons why they were contacting Samaritans, their potential barriers to contacting the service and what emotional support would look like for them.

User experience

Samaritans identified people who weren’t already served by any of the services that Samaritans currently offered. They set up a series of interviews and focus groups to be able to get qualitative insights to understand if people would use the service. Building a prototype Samaritans were able to share it and see how people actually use it and interact with it.

Learning and refining

By allowing people to use the new online chat the team could see which functions people used and what they didn’t. Features the focus group had said were important, like a big red exit button to quickly close the window, weren’t used by people. It meant they were able to build up a more refined picture of what people will actually do, what they actually want and how they use it.

Five things to take away

1. Take the time to understand your users and their needs.
2. Work with people to co-create services.
3. Try to understand how people actually behave, not just how they say they will behave.
4. You will get things wrong, so try to do this in a safe environment first.
5. Have a plan for continuing to make incremental and iterative improvements once you’ve launched a service.

Thank you to Simon for taking the time to come and talk at the 2018 Helplines Partnership Conference. If you would like to know more about Samaritans and their work, you can visit their website

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