Peer-to-peer messaging platform

Create a peer-to-peer messaging platform within an online therapy platform that gives customers a chance to learn from each other and another resource to use while waiting for a response from their counselor.

Peer-to-peer messaging platform, main page

About the project

BetterHelp is an online therapy platform. Any potential client can come to the site and get matched with one of over 1,000 counselors on the platform. BetterHelp was a very metrics driven company and one very important metric was of course, retention. We hypothesized that retention could be improved if we had more to keep customers engaged while they were waiting for a response from their counselor. Our solution was what we called Circle, a peer to peer chat platform built into the service.

BetterHelp followed the philosophy - “fail fast”. This meant that all projects were thought up, designed, built and released as quickly as possible. In keeping with this belief, we moved from concept to released product in a matter of weeks.

About the team

For this project, I acted as the product manager, designer and front-end developer. I worked with a back-end developer and a community support specialist to design and build the feature. Our community support specialist had experience running support groups, and we heavily relied on his guidance we tried to recreate the support group experience online.

About the work

Circles was an idea that we had tried before, but felt we could try again in a new way. As the acting product manager of the project, I laid out the following process for us:

  1. Set goals for the feature
  2. Assess where Circles 1.0 was successful and unsuccessful
  3. Create a solution that directly addresses the problems faced in version 1
  4. Build and test the solution with a subset of users

Setting goals

I wanted us to understand our goals for the feature before we got too far into solutioning. My concern was that the first version of Circles failed because we hadn’t established what success meant for the project.

We established the following goals for our redesign of Circles:

  • Give users another source of support - their peers.
  • Give users a place to go to in between messages from their counselors.
  • Create an environment similar to support groups, but more easily accessible.
  • Ensure users feel they are in a safe and secure environment to talk about their concerns.
  • Business goal - Keep users more engaged with the service to increase conversion rates.

Feedback from the first version

Based on our own observations and feedback we received from our users, we established that the main issues with the first version of Circles were:

  1. Most circles had little to no activity.
  2. Any conversations that started were often just 1:1 conversations between users and not group conversations.
  3. Even though they were matched based on the issues they were facing, users in a circle typically seemed to be addressing multiple issues that the others wouldn’t relate to.
  4. Some users were concerned about their privacy in Circles.
  5. Joining Circles automatically sent an intro message, which meant many users sent an intro message but never participated in their Circle again.

Fixing the problems

After considering the issues we had faced with our first attempt, we discussed and sketched out mocks based on the following ideas:

Let users jump between circles, allowing them to address multiple concerns in the appropriate environment. (Feedback #2)

Give each circle a topic of discussion (i.e. Grief, Family and Parenting, Self Esteem, etc.) to aid in identifying the right support group for their needs. (Feedback #3)

Limit the total number of circles to 10, ensuring that there are plenty of available and interested users in each circle. (Feedback #1)

Rather than using the name the user first put into the system, have a user create a “profile”, allowing them to control what information they share. (Feedback #4)

Allow users to browse Circles without forcing them to send an automatic introduction post. (Feedback #5)

Final designs

Peer-to-peer messaging platform, introduction page

In Circles 2.0, users were shown this introductory page before joining.

Overview of circles
The first section of the “Join Circles” page is a quick overview of how it works. I made sure to outline that users would be able to privately browse Circles and encourage them to remain anonymous within Circles.

Create a profile
A user’s profile focused on 3 attributes: avatar, username and description. For the avatars, I chose all non-identifying symbols (food, animals, etc.) and didn’t include any images of people. My goal was to keep users from making any assumptions or judgements based on avatars.

Select a circles
Rather than automatically placing a user in a circle, I wanted to list every circle here to give users an immediate idea of what topics are available. I included the “suggested circle” feature that highlighted specific circles to a user based on the matching algorithm we used to find them a counselor. Circles were also color coded to create a subtle reminder of which circle they were in and make it clearer when they switched.

Peer-to-peer messaging platform, main page

Every available Circle followed the same design, which mapped closely to the way the counselor messaging portion of the site was designed.

Profile box
This block highlights the user’s profile information. The color of the box also reflects which circle the user is in to prevent a user from sending messages in the wrong one.

Current circles
I hid circle selection behind a link to keep it simple and to discourage users from jumping around circles too much. I felt that making it extremely easy to bounce between circles would result in less in-depth participation in a single subject. This link opens a modal with a list of all circles.

Most recent posters
Given that users would come back to circles only once or twice a day at most, I included a “recent posters” section would to show a new user who they are conversing with at the moment.

The messages box follows the design of messages that a client sees on their counselor sessions page. I tried to keep any new designs here minimal so that users wouldn’t have to learn two different interfaces.

Hovering over a message shows a “Flag” button. This was added in anticipation of inappropriate posts. A ‘Reactions’ button was next on the roadmap.

Message editor
While the message editor takes the same general structure that a user sees on their counseling sessions page, I greatly simplified this editor. I made the initial height only one line and removed all editing tools (Bold, etc.) to discourage users from writing messages that are too long for others to digest.

Bringing counselors into the tool

The last step to really making the Circles feel like an online equivalent to support groups was to include a counselor in the conversation. I worked with several counselors and our community support specialist to have counselors browsing through the Circles and facilitating conversations at all times. The goal in doing so was to add some authority to the Circles and encourage positive conversation between users.

What would I do differently?

The list of things I would do differently for this project is unfortunately long, but it all centers around user research. BetterHelp was a purely data driven company, and numbers drove all decision making. Unfortunately, numbers couldn’t tell me what wasn’t or was working about a design. In retrospect, we could have leveraged unmoderated user testing tools to get quick feedback on usability of the tool.

Second, I would pushed to bring counselor into Circles sooner. I think that the professionals who work with BetterHelp are who really keep customers engaged, and keeping them constantly present within Circles could have made a significant difference.