Designing a new communication channel — the Food Bot

Kenya blog 2

WFP/Lucia Casarin

After missions to several field locations (including Nigeria, Haiti, and Kenya) aimed at assessing the feasibility of deploying chatbots in WFP’s operational contexts, the mVAM team concluded that they offer great potential for both the sharing and receiving of useful information on food security. It is now time to take a step forward and actually build a chatbot for WFP — the Food Bot!

In case you haven’t been tracking our work on chatbots (about which you can learn more here and here), here’s a quick refresher. A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users over the Internet; imagine an invisible robot living inside the Internet asking you questions.

Tailoring the chatbot to its users

The first step needed in designing a new tool is to garner a strong understanding of its users — who will be using the chatbot and for what purposes?

In our case, we are working simultaneously on two levels:

  1. Chatbot builder tool: this is an interface where WFP staff will be able to design, deploy, and manage customized chatbots. The primary users of the chatbot builder tool will be WFP staff in the field, who will use the platform to design contextually-appropriate chatbots for their location. As you can imagine, each WFP Country Office envisions using the chatbot for a specific purpose. In Kenya, for example, colleagues are eager to deploy a chatbot to share updated information about WFP food and cash distributions as well as other programmatic details. In Nigeria, on the other hand, staff want to share details on how to use nutritional supplements provided by WFP.
  2. Contents within the chatbot: this refers to the information the chatbot provides and the dialogues between the chatbot and its users. Targeted users for the chatbot are people living in marginalized and food insecure communities who can use the chatbot a to receive information from WFP. They can also ask us questions about WFP’s programmes in their area and provide their feedback and complaints. WFP will develop different chatbots for different locations and target populations.
Kenya blog 3

WFP/Lucia Casarin

To get to know our users better and start defining the design of the Food Bot, WFP and our technical partner InSTEDD (who has extensive experience designing innovative mobile tools) travelled once again to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, located in Western Kenya, where we spent a few days collaborating with WFP staff and refugees to understand how to create a user-friendly chatbot to meet their needs.

We first worked with a small group of refugees to better understand how they use the chatbot technology. To do so, we employed a popular prototype technique called ‘Wizard of Oz’. Under our supervision and guidance, refugees were asked to visit a Facebook page and start a conversation with what they believed was a WFP chatbot. Instead, they were actually chatting with our colleague. Through this type of human-centered approach, we were able to quickly learn what types of information the Kakuma refugees were interested in receiving as well as how they were asking questions. During the field test, we also confirmed our hypothesis that chatbot conversations need to be as light as possible (not using many pictures, menus, or emoticons) in order to minimize data charges and make conversations possible when network coverage is weak or the user is employing Messenger Lite.

We then spent some time with our WFP colleagues in the Kakuma and Nairobi Offices brainstorming the ways in which the chatbot could complement existing activities and provide useful information for our work.

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WFP/Lucia Casarin

An iterative design approach

We are now dedicating the next few months to developing the chatbot builder and refining the chatbot contents for a larger pilot project in Kenya. Building a new platform will require a lot of trial and error, and we know that we’ll not get everything right on the first try. For this reason, we have now begun an interactive, iterative design approach, meaning that we will carry out multiple field tests along the way to further refine our product. This will allow us to collect valuable feedback from users at each stage of development so that we can mitigate potential issues early on.

Stay tuned during the coming months as we share additional information on the development of our very first Food Bot!


Originally published at MVAM: THE BLOG.

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