Research shows that the human touch is critical to the design of online charity services, say Amir Raki, Dr Ilma Nur Chowdhury, Dr Marzena Nieroda and Professor Judy Zolkiewski.
In response to the pandemic many charities moved their services swiftly online to keep functioning in the face of the lockdown. A perfect example was Caritas Salford which provides educational services for refugees, and which we as a team happened to be studying as part of a research project at the time COVID-19 struck. Indeed, just as the charity moved its services online, so we adapted our own research design to their new mode of delivery too.
Much to our surprise during the first couple of weeks of online delivery the attendance rate of learners increased and, interestingly, new learners and volunteers joined the programme even from beyond the catchment area of the charity.
Moreover, freed from commuting hassles and time-consuming distractions at the workplace, frontline practitioners told us that they had more time for their clients and greater ability to focus on their actual service delivery.
However, a few weeks into lockdown a survey by the charity showed most learners preferred a return to face-to-face delivery where possible. Although more learners were attending classes online, and their instructors were supported by more volunteers and able to offer more time online, learners were now expressing greater dissatisfaction with their online service experience.
Which led us to a wider question. Namely, what were we missing here in terms of online delivery?
To explore how to improve the online experience of charity service users, our team took advantage of a funding call and was awarded a research grant from the Digitally Enhanced Advanced Service (DEAS) NetwrokPlus in 2020. We were excited to work on this project as it was very close to our hearts because, as academics, we faced the same challenges in moving our teaching online and adopting new delivery modes when the pandemic struck.
Our DEAS-funded research enabled us to interview service users and see how they evaluated online service delivery and the challenges they faced when using the services. We realised that most users found their social and emotional needs unmet while using online services. The learners explained their experiences of online services as “less humane” compared to face-to-face services because they could not derive socio-emotional value from online interactions with the charity workers and their peers.
For us it was evident that digitalisation had changed the quality of human interactions to the extent that it no longer could satisfy the complex needs of service users.
Whether online or offline, service is not a single transaction. It is everything a user needs to achieve a goal or satisfy a need. For example, an online charity service is more than digital tools and interfaces, and encompasses people, interactions, content, processes, and outcomes.
It was clear that the charity service users needed digital experiences to feel humane and be empathetic. Ultimately humans require the kind of interactions that only other humans can provide, so retaining humane interactions is critical when building a digital charity service.
Our research suggests that charity service users assign more value to an online service when they can experience warmth and friendliness, have opportunities for mingling and spontaneous dialogue, and be recognised and valued as individuals.
In short, the human touch is critical to the design of online charity services. It is a unique quality of human interactions that entails showing empathy, making people feel acknowledged as a human, and offering socio-emotional support.
Our research project aimed to find a solution for Caritas to design and deliver online services that were driven by, and met, the needs of their users. To do so we consolidated our research findings into an online toolkit Digital, Yet Humane developed in collaboration with Imago, The University of Manchester’s student software company, and funded through the EPSRC IAA Consultancy Scheme.
The toolkit introduces the main challenges that charity practitioners may encounter when working online with socially or emotionally vulnerable groups. Practical actions are suggested for each challenge to facilitate human interactions over online platforms. In the case of Caritas Salford, using the toolkit and augmenting the human touch added a unique dimension to their online service, improving its effectiveness and users’ satisfaction.
Ultimately the digital transformation appears irreversible. Therefore understanding the opportunities and challenges surrounding human experiences in online environments, particularly for vulnerable groups, will be a priority for the service sector.
Online service delivery removes the barriers to accessibility and can increase the reach and impact of charity services. However, the success of digital transformation in the charity sector is also contingent on finding ways to balance high-tech and high-touch.
Offering a high-tech service seems to be the easy part in the light of continuous technological advancements. But we believe that the sector also needs to develop the required capabilities to create high-touch online services that put human relationships and the socio-emotional side of interactions at the core of their design and delivery.