Written by Humairaa Mahomed, Associate Product Manager
Developing and deploying a new, modern, omni-channel contact center platform at a child helpline is not easy, but is especially difficult in the midst of a global pandemic. Tech Matters was fortunate to partner with ten national child helplines across the world over the past year to develop Aselo, an open-source, cloud-based contact center platform with phone, text, and social media capabilities.
Lifeline Childline Zambia became the first helpline to adopt Aselo at their operations center in February 2021. Counselors now use Aselo to manage cases reported via phone calls to the 116 toll-free number and provide counseling services via WhatsApp, Facebook, and Webchat.
Because Tech Matters is committed to user-centered design, in any ordinary circumstances our staff would have been in Zambia (and visited other Beta helplines) to see how counselors were interacting with the system, help train counselors on the new software, and get direct feedback. Instead, we had to resort to email, Zoom meetings across multiple time zones, and questionnaires. Two and a half months after adoption, we were incredibly excited to have the opportunity to visit the helpline center in Zambia to help train their staff on Aselo’s newest features and take a closer look at what the user experience is like under real conditions. Here’s what I learned during the week I spent there.
Counselor supervisors at peer-learning training session for Aselo.
Meeting the Zambia team
Throughout the week, I spoke with a wide range of people to understand their specific work, motivations, and concerns. I met with the CEO of Lifeline Childline Zambia, Ms. Florence Nkhuwa, Field Operations Manager Beenzu Mweetwa, and Centre Operations Manager Ernest Chilufya, as well as monitoring and evaluation officers, program reporting analysts, and counselors. It was heartwarming to see that every person was thoroughly welcoming, kind, and excited to have me with them.
A single office, based in Lusaka, services the entire Zambian population. Here, counselors provide services to both adults via the Lifeline service and to children via the Childline service, with cases often regarding child forced marriages, sexual assault, rape or harassment, male circumcision, and poverty-related challenges. For each case, the helpline assists by sharing information and directing individuals to organizations that can assist with their specific need (for example, medical organizations or social welfare for financial support), as well as providing counseling to local social centers that attend to urgent cases near them.
It was clear that each of the people I spoke to has a deep commitment to serving their fellow national citizens and concern for vulnerable groups—women, children, and, really, for any person in difficulty, as well as their fellow counselors. One conversation struck me in particular, emphasizing this deep dedication and level of empathy. Ms. Fridah, a counselor who lost her eyesight 10 years ago due to adult measles shared that her most ardent distress since living with her impairment is when an urgent case is reported and she is unable to take immediate action without the assistance of another counselor.
These personal stories are what drive our development: We want the software to actually be useful to the counselors in their work, and this experience emphasized the role of empathy, availability, and mindful language in interacting with and learning from users. When I arrived at the beginning of the week, I had only a professional relationship with a few people. I left with a profound relationship to the organization, cause, and our users.
Our team of product managers, designers and engineers were interested in understanding how the platform is being used; identifying which users benefited the most and which not enough; validating any assumptions we made when designing the platform; seeing how Aselo works with the helpline’s existing toolset; and, equally important, understanding the environment and needs that are specific to that helpline. We used a combination of techniques, including interviews with staff of varying roles; observations of task completion, feature navigation, and data completion within the platform; interactive training with the entire user base; and user journey mapping with management staff to understand strategic applications for Aselo features.
I was able to confirm that helpline counselors generally used a notebook and pen to record data, and have to rely on different management systems for different types of data. For example, Lifeline data entry is done on one CRM system, while Childline data is stored in another, while MS Access sheets are used to enter data for the Metrics & Evaluation team. Once Aselo is fully implemented for both helplines, counselors will have a single platform, reducing the number of systems requiring separate logins, while making the data more accessible to the management teams by easing their ability to report and verify the quality of the data. The staff were also excited about Aselo’s support for multiple communication channels within one system. They would rather focus their time on counseling rather than (duplicating) data entry and having to navigate multiple systems.
The training sessions, during which I demonstrated Aselo’s functionality and the built-in tools that could help make counseling easier, also saw a great deal of active engagement, which in turn provided insights for future improvements. Based on the feedback we received, we are actioning new iterations of feature building, updates to our training framework, and reviewing designed features that we discovered had low usage. Not only did these sessions help challenge our assumptions and inform our feature development, but the time spent has also helped strengthen the foundation for a direct relationship between the Aselo team and the end users across Lifeline Childline Zambia.
Visiting the office in Zambia was an essential step in making sure the product we are developing is truly simplifying the workflow of counselors, ultimately enabling them to be more available and responsive to children in need. It was also a way to reinforce the bond between partners working towards a common goal. The helpline personnel extended a deeply heartwarming welcome and memorable hospitality throughout my stay. From attending to my transportation needs, treating me to lunch each day, to each helpline member personally greeting and welcoming me, the reception was both touching and helped make the training sessions more honest, informative, and genuine. This was reflective of the humanity and kindness of the Zambian people, who have left a lasting impression on me. And for that, I share my deepest gratitude to the team at Lifeline Childline Zambia.