Felix Macpherson, Product Manager at Samaritans, has every reason to be buoyant that his work of the past two years is now about to be launched. “It’s been challenging at times, but I loved the process of talking to people, understanding their unmet needs, then finding a way to help them using technology,” he says. In this case, people who find it difficult or impossible to discuss their feelings with others needed help to take care of their emotional health. The charity’s new Self-Help app hopes to meet these; a new pathway to emotional support suited to our digital times.
The launch of the app – which has been funded and supported by Nominet – has been timed to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week but is the product of many years’ work. This time included a period of research which identified the reasons why some individuals may have found it difficult to access Samaritans support:
“Historically, we’ve always been best known for our listening service – and of course we will always be there for anyone who needs us – but verbal communication doesn’t suit everyone,” explains Felix. “One example is autistic people, who may find it hard to communicate how they are feeling. And there are many other people who sometimes find it distressing to talk through a challenging situation on a call and feel pressurised by knowing someone else is on the line. We needed to make sure these people can still access the support they need in a medium that suits them. And we live in a digital age – Samaritans needs to be keeping pace with how society is changing and accessing help and information today.”
Samaritans’ Self-Help app is unique partly because of the strong reputation the charity has with the public as a source of trusted information and guidance. “It has given us an opportunity to review, approve and signpost resources that can help people to learn healthy coping strategies,” says Felix. “There is also a mood tracker which helps the individual identify what support they might need.” The challenge, of course, is that the app needs to cater to a wide spectrum of severity, from those in full crisis to those experiencing milder distress.
“There is also the tone and the language,” points out Felix. “We need a tool that doesn’t come across as overly clinical or medical but is still safe and accurate. Samaritans is known for human contact and we wanted to be warm, encouraging and supportive, but without being patronising. It’s a delicate balance to strike.”
Fortunately, a wide variety of people have been involved in the development process, from designers to clinicians, with early versions being tested by users to allow refinements to be made based on their feedback. “It’s not set in stone, even now,” stresses Felix. “We will keep making improvements based on the user experience and we envisage this as a dynamic tool, updated with fresh content and a steady stream of new resources to cater to specific challenges. I’m excited to see how it grows!”
The launch of the Self-Help app is a digital milestone for Samaritans, but it also represents a personal one for Felix. This is his first role as a product manager and the experience has cemented what he’d hoped: this is the career he’d been searching for in the decade since leaving school.
“Like most teenagers, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life,” he explains. “I enjoyed languages and had sort of planned to go into translation work, but it’s incredibly hard to make a living out of that. And being a translator involves a lot of isolated working, which in hindsight just wouldn’t suit me. I really enjoy working as a team to tackle a project.” He studied Modern Languages at Oxford University before getting a job in hospitality, his options restricted by the financial crash. “It was when dealing with customers that I slowly began to understand the power of speaking to people and the value of small connections, how the user experience was important and yet so complex to improve and manage,” he says. It also gave him a small way to make a difference, something he’d always felt driven to do: he has volunteered throughout his life, starting with a night shelter when still at school.
He joined the Civil Service and, while on a fast track stream, recognised the power that technology had to deliver impact and help people. Eager to take his enthusiasm back to the third sector, joining Samaritans was the dream role – and the reality has lived up to it. “I truly feel I’ve found the job I was always looking for,” he says, “and I am so passionate about the work I do. I’m helping to create something that will be used by someone in their darkest moments. It’s a huge responsibility but it’s also hugely fulfilling.”
Life has also given him opportunities to maintain his passion for languages in his spare time: “I’m currently involved in this transnational literary project, translating a chapter of a Portuguese novel, which has just been a great experience and quite a good way to use all the extra time we have during lockdown.” He has also been enjoying digging his new allotment, recognising the benefits gardening has for his own wellbeing. “There’s just something about the repetitive activity, the physical exertion, that I find really calming. It’s good for my mental health, I think.”
It serves as a counterbalance to his work, which has been intensive in the weeks leading up to the launch of the new Self-Help app. “It’s been busy but there is a great sense of camaraderie across the whole team as we pull together to deliver this exciting new product,” he says. “I think we’re all really proud of what we’ve achieved and hopeful that it will make an impact on people in need – at a time when we all need kindness and support more than ever.”