Our work: Shelter

Conceptualising a bot to help homeless young people

Campaign: Chatbots and voice applications | Experience: Design and prototyping, Research and strategy

Shelter helps millions of people every year struggling with bad housing or homelessness through advice, support and legal services. The charity’s Children’s Legal Services team helps thousands of young people deal with housing problems and homelessness each year, by providing face-to-face, telephone and online advice.


Due to local authority budget cuts, the already large number of young people (aged 16-21) in the UK in need of legal housing advice continues to grow. The Children’s Legal Services team wanted to explore how this kind of advice could be delivered more effectively through a digital product.


Shelter invited us to conduct a five-day UX Lab at their offices in Old Street to research, design and test ideas for the new product. The lab would benefit from the expertise of Shelter’s internal experts from a variety of teams including: Children’s Legal Services, digital, UX and tech teams, and the Shelter Scotland digital team.


The brief required that the product provide easy-accessible and straightforward advice – including guidance on an individual’s legal rights and remedies – on commonly encountered issues for young people: homelessness and eviction, housing issues when leaving care, being a young parent, and leaving home and finding a place to live. While the advice experts initially suggested that the product should be an app, we agreed to keep an open mind on what form the final deliverable would take, and allow it to be informed by insight coming out of the lab.

What we did

Prior to kicking off the lab we conducted desk-based research which included reading background research and reports, and the current advice for young people on Shelter’s website, as well as reviewing the site analytics and inbound enquiries from young people. It quickly became clear that a very complex set of rules, and overlapping responsibilities of various authorities, makes it very easy for young people to get into trouble, and that Shelter’s web content for young people, while comprehensive, is difficult to navigate.

Day One – Immersion

The first day of the UX Lab saw us work with the Shelter team to set a vision for the new product:

“To give young people the information they need to make good decisions around housing and homelessness.”

We then interviewed five Shelter experts to review current online and offline interactions, the target audience, the customer journey, and the organisation’s preferred technology. This helped us establish proto-personas to represent young people in need of legal housing advice and map the existing user experience to find pain points.

We found that very often young people in trouble with housing aren’t aware that they need legal advice and are often passed back and forth between Children’s Services and their local authority housing department. The critical need for a digital product would be to triage the most urgent cases.

Day Two – Young Person Workshop

For the second day of the lab we were joined by two young people who were representative of our users, so we could glean insights into their digital behaviours and preferences. We found that young people in difficulty find it very stressful to have to trawl through large amounts of information to find the advice that’s relevant for them. Another important consideration was that young people looking for housing legal advice often need to use computers in public places, which can make them feel awkward.

Through further discussion with the Shelter team, we were able to distill the problem down to this:

“What can we do to help young people access the information that’s relevant to them – and cut away the rest?”

A group sketching session provided initial ideas on what the product should include, regardless of platform, and, after further discussion, helped us compile a prioritised list of desirable features. By the end of the day we had a basis for our digital prototype: a chatbot that could quickly understand a young person’s circumstances, and their needs, and provide them with relevant help in the form of a factsheet – with curated, concise information, recognising their location and relevant services for further help.

Day Three – Prototype Creation

The third day was a hands-on day for prototyping our new product. We explored a number of scenarios and the content they would lead to (for example, benefits advice was deemed too complex, and a scenario where it would be better to direct users to an external resource).

Our prototype would be built around two initial scenarios: one where a young person was undergoing a crisis and needed urgent help; and another where a young person needed support with an ongoing problem.

The day was spent creating some example scripts for the chatbot, video demos of how the chatbot could potentially look within Facebook Messenger, an interactive prototype for the chatbot (using Axure), and some sample factsheets representative of the kind dynamically generated by the chatbot.

Day Four – User Testing

On the fourth day we tested our prototype with two young people. First we them played an animated demo of a Facebook Messenger chatbot mockup, showing a user being presented with a tailored factsheet and contact details for support services. We then asked them to play out a different scenario using our prototype.



Both users were very impressed with the tool, saying “they’d wished it had existed when they were looking for information.”

The rest of the day was spent exploring how the chatbot would work, how it should look and feel, what topics and questions it would cover, and how the factsheets could best be delivered to users.

How it went

Our debrief with the Shelter team showed general agreement that the user testing session had been a great success. The young people had been very excited about the chatbot, they’d quickly grasped how it could be beneficial to them, and had interacted with it exactly as we’d hoped.

Along with the prototype and the extensive user insight from the UX Lab, we also provided technical guidance on how the bot could be realised, helping the Children’s Legal Services team make a case to the wider organisation for funding the new product or test the approach in a different context.


How this helps us on your project

We’re able to rapidly prototype concepts to prove their potential impact for an organisation. Our expertise in user experience design extends far beyond the web and can help you engage audiences across a variety of technologies and touch-points.

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