By Alexia Clifford, Deputy Marketing Director, Public Health England. Championing digital innovation across government to drive behaviour change at scale.
Alexia Clifford reveals how Public Health England’s behaviour change campaigns have successfully utilised voice technology and innovative partnerships, and where they will be turning to next.
The medtech and healthtech industries are growing rapidly, with transformative implications and hugely exciting developments here now, and on the horizon.
At Public Health England, we work hard to ensure that our behaviour change campaigns improve health across the whole population – we’ve become a leader in providing empathetic digital health programmes that drive behaviour change through accessible digital technology at scale. We’re careful to consider the accessibility of digital applications, to make sure that people aren’t excluded due to limited access or lack of awareness.
Achieving success at a population health level relies on mass communication that’s well targeted and designed to provide help for those who need it most. Our Start4Life campaign had this ambition in mind when it set out to support new mums with information about breastfeeding whenever they needed it. We found that online search activity for breastfeeding advice peaks between 2 and 6am, but mums’ hands are full with their babies at this time, making it physically difficult to search for advice via text. This led to the development of the Start4Life ‘Breastfeeding Friend’, a hands-free digital voice-based technology which is available 24/7 on smart speaker skill and as a Facebook Messenger chatbot.
Voice-activated search has allowed mums to seek advice in a comfortable, natural way while holding their baby. The Breastfeeding Friend is a Q&A style application which provides instant NHS-approved advice and support to breastfeeding mothers 24/7, and is proving particularly valuable when access to health professionals is not possible.
Breastfeeding can be a challenging time for mothers. We conducted careful research for the Alexa Skill to find a voice that felt reassuring and calm, but also authoritative. With voice technology you don’t have the luxury of contextual information such as images and video, and when you’re relying on a simple interface – a single voice – to convey a message and inspire behaviour change, every detail matters. The voice has to be someone you actually want to listen to and converse with. We also made sure the skill was personalised for each mother, providing advice which was specific to their baby’s age. These features of voice technology are exciting, but risk being overlooked. Amazon described our Breastfeeding Friend as their most successful skill partnership yet. We’re continually exploring new areas for voice and behaviour change, and empathy is always important.
We recognise of course that smart speakers can still be a luxury, so we always look at how we complement what we do through tools such as Facebook Messenger bots, that are free and readily available. We’re always focused on accessibility, and start with what’s already available, the user need and how we can bridge the gap.
Open data is another area where we see great potential to make strides in accessibility and digital health. We’re driven by the Government Digital Service mantra ‘Make things open, it makes things better’.
We’ve started working with the Open Data Institute and Sport England to open up data sets through the Change4Life activity finder and help families easily find free activities for children. The ODI had started working on open-sourcing data streams through Sport England. We were able to partner with them on further development of the tool, and to bring that work to the Change4Life audience. This project is in beta and we’re currently exploring how we can work with partners to open up more data sets to give us greater geographical reach.
We’re interested in looking at how we could redeploy this open approach to data for our other behaviour change campaigns, where easy access to information is a real barrier.
While looking at open data sets we can access to improve the information our audiences can get, we’re also mindful that our own information needs to be as accessible as possible. This is why we’re shifting to adopt more open APIs so our behaviour change tools can live on a range of platforms, beyond those that we own. For us, the most important thing is that we’re reaching the right audiences in moments of need. That no longer means just driving through to a single PHE-owned destination. We want to be where our audiences already are, rather than trying to bring them to us. Our partners are receptive to this approach, and we’re seeing some good early successes.
Finding new ways to reach and serve the people who need the information most requires a degree of experimentation. Right now, we’re exploring gesture control as a way of navigating through our tools, rather than tapping or swiping. We’re interested in how this frictionless interaction could lead to more meaningful engagements, or encourage people to interact with our tools in a different way.
An open approach to partnerships is crucial to ensure we’re reaching our audiences with the most innovative methods around targeting and content creation. Our tech and partner platforms are valuable to the work we do, as we need to be where our audiences are. Having close partnerships with tech companies allows us to understand developments and identify where our objectives align and how we can work together. The public health opportunities with social platforms are significant, as it’s where the majority of our audiences spends their time online. We also need to accept that there will be differences to navigate. For example, for our breast cancer campaign we needed to be really open and show the full range of symptoms, but that doesn’t always align with wider platform editorial policies.
Maintaining our autonomy in decisions like this is key, particularly as we’re dealing with sensitive issues around health and positive behaviour change. Trust is paramount. Our role is to make looking after the health of the country as easy as possible regardless of where they live or what technical expertise they have. We will continue to do this by accounting for the needs and circumstances of all people, and making technology work for them.