How a smart design strategy is transforming mental health charity Mind’s peer support

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood February 16, 2022 Audio mode
Cloud and design thinking from agency dxw has made a support site for people in crisis, Mind, much more effective

Image of the Mind side by side wbesite
(Image sourced via Mind website)

A new vision for improving the visual representation of a major UK mental health charity, Mind, also raised the prospect of better running of a key website and better delivery of services.

This has been achieved, says the team, via working with a multidisciplinary team from a specialist provider of consultancy for digital public service work, dxw. Better hosting has meant true 24x7 availability, as well as a key deliverable of improved accessibility.

Mind is a mental health charity working across England and Wales. Its mission is to provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem. It also campaigns for better mental health services.

‘Side by Side' is the organization's online peer support community. Created to be a safe space where people can share their experiences, connect with others, and give support in a safely moderated environment with no stigma attached, it sits apart from the main Mind corporate website, and historically has had its own distinctive brand.

Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, said a need to redesign the site to make sure it was very clearly part of the Mind offering had become clear. The main priorities with such a refresh were that Side by Side would follow the same new overall organizational brand guidelines. Improving accessibility was also a key need. He said:

Making sure support is accessible to everyone, all of the time, is really important. We wanted to make the user experience more intuitive in general, so the service is as easy to use as possible. We all needed to be on the right page, from the visual side of things down to what we offer to people seeking support. Overall, we wanted to try and make Side by Side a place of positive peer support.

Another priority was to improve the overall user experience, he added. Feedback from users had highlighted that the main feed on the site could sometimes be overwhelming when they first visited, or when they came back for the first time in a few days. There could be hundreds and hundreds of new posts, and some users said they found the posting styles quite difficult to understand.

Such a service would also be likely to become even more necessary, he added:

Addressing the mental health emergency is going to be a long-term effort, so our work to bring people together is really important, especially in a world where it feels like people are more isolated and divided than ever. 

We've seen on average over 100,000 people use the Side by Side support community every year, and so our aim is to learn from the experiences of the pandemic to make sure our systems and processes are as robust as possible, and that we use the full potential of digital to connect people.

‘Great ways to fix the problems identified'

To achieve all the change identified, Buckley conducted extensive interviews with the main Side by Side team about questions like: What does it mean to make better connections with other people through the site? He noted:

We came up with some great ways of fixing the problems we'd identified.

Buckley said dxw was chosen for the work due to a few factors, but that ultimately it passed the ‘chemistry' test. He also liked the consultancy's design-led approach to personalize users' feeds while keeping the proposed new user interface friendly and accessible. He said:

That's hard to find in an agency. Ultimately, they've helped us stabilize and get the product and the platform in a good place. We see the relationship as a long-term engagement and feel they can help us grow and develop the service in a way that really works for us.

Buckley feels that improving the site is already making it clear that Side by Side could be a place people could seek support, as well as help, when they felt they needed it. Experience had shown the team that service users can cycle in and out of crises quite quickly, and it was difficult for Mind to always offer support in an appropriate way. This, he said, has been improved by better hosting and support.

The new site came online during a period of raised stress in society due to the on-going global health crisis. In the last 12 months, there have been 1.2 million posts to Side by Side, and over 21,000 new sign-ups. A big navigation improvement for all those new users through all that content is a tagging feature created by the vendor to help people identify what they are looking for - either in general, or to track down a particular post that they want to find.

This, the Side by Side team feels, has helped people to introduce themselves to the community. It has also, Mind feels, made it much easier for framing content positively, and giving a message of hope and togetherness. Buckley said:

Tags makes it easier for people to identify other members on the site who have similar interests, and who are looking for similar support. This has also helped smaller sub-communities to form based around particular needs. Pressure also isn't now just purely on the staff team or the moderator team to welcome them, which has also fostered a better sense of community.

Other benefits include a set of filters that try to help users manage difficult topics and find relevant posts. The previous filter system was effectively hidden, Buckley pointed out, and so it could take hours of scrolling to find it. Now, filters are accessible and visible, with increased levels of choice available to people in how they can view and interact with the main website feed.

Next steps include even more support for accessibility, like a ‘dark screen' option to give people more control about the colour contrast they want to see.

Summing up his experience, Buckley said that:

The pandemic has increased the scale of need to support the nation's mental health, so we're pleased that, at a time when so many have felt hopeless and frustrated, we were able to make sure people had a safe place to find support, anytime and anywhere.

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