HelpLocal: A tale of success (and unexpected outcomes)

How can a branding and digital agency help small communities?

What do you do if you’re a branding and digital agency that splits its time between London and a small rural community in the Highlands of Scotland and a global pandemic hits? How can you help?

This is a question we asked ourselves at DOT. It was early days and the pandemic was gurgling away. Nobody quite knew what would happen, would it come to anything? Would there be a lockdown? Would it all just settle down and we’d all forget all about it?

It was your standard Monday morning meeting, coffee and yawns, myself and James mulling over and organising the work for the week ahead. Finding ourselves with a few minutes spare, we decided to walk through what we could do if the pandemic forced a lockdown, how could we help people, what could we do with our skillset, and, more importantly, would could we do in a very limited time frame?

With a small timeframe and limited budget we decided our best bet would be to concentrate on the area around our Scottish office, where I (Mike) am based. James is generally based in our Chelsea office and therefore it looked impedingly obvious that he wouldn’t be able to get in there for a while if a lockdown was put in place. It was reasoned that it is also easier to deal with the smaller populations of a rural Scottish community, that lists its numbers in 1000’s, rather than the population of London (measured in multiple millions).

With a timeframe set at one week from idea to launch, we were being tough on ourselves, but we both agreed that time was of the essence, we couldn’t control the spread of a virus, nor could we influence when and if the government would introduce measures to control the said virus, all we knew was that we (probably) had very little time in which to get something set up, out the door and helping.

The solution and core values

HelpLocal login and register home page
HelpLocal login and register home page

After a few chats, and making room in the diary, we happened upon a phrase that is mentioned to us a lot “I’d like to know what’s going on but I don’t want to join Facebook”. As various social media platforms have grown in popularity, they’ve become bloated and packed with more and more features. Data privacy has also been an ongoing issue and many people are not comfortable with the amount of this personal data they’re being asked to invest.

With our research in hand we nailed a few core fundamentals that we needed to stick to for our proposed project to actually be of use to the target audience.

  1. Lightweight: Much of the area around the Scottish office is highly rural. Miles and miles of unspoilt (largely) wilderness, but this comes with an issue, miles and miles of very poor or no mobile phone, data or internet access. Many residents rely on satellite internet that can have very strict and very expensive data caps, and some user can only get internet if they travel to other villages for supplies.

    This all made the speed at which we could get information to the users one of our top priorities, it’s no good having an app/website with an aim to help people if those people can’t actually access the app/website in the first place.
  2. Free: Charging a fee never sat right with either me or James. We were looking at creating something to help others, not turn a profit. Ads were also off the table. One of the biggest consumers of your data, and a big bloater of any online development, is adverts. Ads would directly go against points 1 and 3. Ultimately it was deemed necessary that DOT support the venture directly and allow our users’ unfettered access for free at a time when everyone was getting hit hard financially.
  3. Private: One of the biggest complaints about mass social media, is the amount of private data they slurp up and sell on. This is an evil necessity of free to use services, but again, not one we were willing to partake in. From day one we promised that all user data entered into the system would be 100% private and absolutely never sold on. By the very nature of the service, it was almost impossible to anonymise the data, but what we could do is have a very strict data policy in place, a selling data clause and a promise that all data and records be deleted if the project was to come to an end (more on this below).
  4. Easy to use: Many of the residents of the surrounding area are elderly, many do not already use social media, and some hate the internet (really). Our solution had to be as easy to use as possible. No bells and whistles, easily relatable, with top-notch navigation. The whole thing couldn’t confuse new users nor embarrass the tech-savvy.

The DOT Solution – HelpLocal

Within the week we’d designed, branded and developed a platform based on top of WordPress that would allow people to signup and either post or fulfil requests. Based on the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle, we wanted to take this simple process and concentrate on doing it well.

What we developed was a platform where anyone could sign up for free, and take one of two options. Either ask for help (dog walking, medication delivery, grocery shopping and so on) or offer to help on someone else’s request. The user flow was simple.

HelpLocal User Flow

No messing about. No ulteria motives. No dark patterns. Plain and simple. Login (or register) > Take selected action > Leave. We had no reason to encourage people to stay. Once you’ve seen what is available, there is very little reasons to hang around, and there’s zero reason for us to encourage you to stay.

On the first day live, HelpLocal saw a fair amount of interest, on day two we had over 200 signups! Considering the small population of the target area, we were very surprised. By the end of it’s run, HelpLocal had achieved 400 signups and over 90,000 hits, most of these within the first couple of months of operation (this is the interesting point we’ll get to).

Sounds good right? So where is it?

It’s gone, at least for now.

“But I thought it was a success?” I hear you cry. It was… at least, in more ways than we thought it may be.

HelpLocal saw a massive decline in use after a few months. The available tasks, and those willing to do them dropped sharply. At first we were worried that the site just didn’t work for some people. May be it was confusing, may be the whole idea was terrible. May be people just hate each other? A quick chat with some of the residents (and now ex HelpLocal users) cleared up the issue, and it was quite an eye-opener.

You see, it turns out when you start connecting people in an easy to use, de-bloated, privacy-aware way, these people find other ways, better ways, ways that may suit them better, to stay connected.

We discovered that If person A is shielding and person B finds them on HelpLocal because person A needed their medication delivering, then there’s a good chance that person B would offer to pick up their medication on a weekly basis. Effectively removing two users from the HelpLocal platform. This was a recurring theme. People were initially connecting on HelpLocal and then continuing that relationship outside of the platform. This reduced the amount of users on the platform, reducing the amount of traffic, and after 4 months, HelpLocal was effectively userless.

At DOT, we couldn’t have been happier.

This was never about making money (ultimately it cost us time and money). This was never about creating a succesful platform we could sell on at a later date, it wasn’t even about data (we didn’t collect any). It was about creating connections between people. It was about supporting people through a time of crises using the skills that we possessed. Connecting and supporting other humans is one of the most glorious things we can do, and the fact that HelpLocal achieved that in abundance makes us very pleased to have dreamt it up in the first place.

Although HelpLocal isn’t open to new signups (and any data it kept has now been destroyed as per our oath to protect privacy), we still keep the platform and the original ethos, in the DOT family. It was an experiment that achieved more than we ever thought it would, in a completely different way than we thought it would.

What it comes down to, and the same can be said for all projects, is number, viewers, traffic, they not the only way to measure the success of a project. Pay careful attention to the real outcomes and even though your project ultimately failed in the traditional sense, did it really? Really?

You can see more about HelpLocal on the HelpLocal project page.