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Parent Talk three years on: As many users in one day as the first five months

How many times have you heard ‘start small, iterate, scale’?

In 2017, we began two separate projects to digitally support parents of 0–5 year olds. As a response to cuts in funding for in-person services, we looked at how we could support parents online with an information, advice and guidance service.

But ‘start small, iterate and scale’ is the dream. In reality, this isn’t always the case. What tends to happen is good intentions fall away as we rush to get something up and running to help people in challenging circumstances.

Image shows Henrik Kniberg’s agile illustration and what this often looks like in reality

Read on for a summary of what our reality has been, and what start small, iterate, scale has meant for us on the Parent Talk project at Action for Children.

How we started

Back in 2017 we started two separate projects looking at how we could digitally support parents of 0–5 year olds. This problem space was identified due to funding cuts to services for these parents, and from these projects, we developed Dots (a website) and Talk (an early intervention service).

Dots was essentially an information, advice and guidance website for parents of 0–5s, providing trusted, legitimate advice and signposting to reputable sources. Talk was a 1:1 chat service, designed as an early intervention service for families who didn’t have, or didn’t want, access to universal family support services, and therefore didn’t have access to a Family Support Worker on a regular basis to check in with. Without this support, issues in the home may have escalated or remained hidden, resulting in poor outcomes for the child, and more serious intervention being needed later on. You can find out more about the background of Parent Talk in this blog, Parent Talk: supporting parents when they need and want it most.

We piloted both Dots and Talk as separate projects and shared insights and learnings between teams. We launched a small scale version of Dots and Talk was only available in three areas of the UK. We were constantly iterating based on the insights and feedback we gathered along the way.

How we scaled

After three months of the limited Talk pilot, we scaled it nationwide. We were able to control reach and demand by adjusting our marketing to meet the resource within the service. We continued to iterate the platform based on feedback and observations.

At this point, we received some much needed funding which enabled us to develop two other information, advice and guidance sites. Based on our research, we had identified two needs: one for parents worried about their teenagers’ mental wellbeing, and another for parents experiencing conflict. We launched these websites and tested integrating the 1:1 chat functionality. It was still piecing together our various services which meant from our side it was a clunky delivery model but it was a fairly straightforward experience for the parents and proved to have an impact.

Over the last year we’ve been steadily iterating and growing the service, gathering feedback and researching with parents. Our next step was to integrate into all of the puzzle pieces into one parenting advice service — creating a better experience for parents, more accessible, coherent messaging, brand awareness. We had this planned for the second half of 2020/21.

Enter….a global pandemic!

If we refer back to Henrik Kniberg’s agile illustration I’d say pre-pandemic we were very much a scooter with plans to progress to a bicycle. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit we saw demand for the service soar pretty much overnight — parents had no choice with little to no face to face support. You can find out more in more detail exactly what we did in these blogs:

Essentially, we sped up everything we had planned, which we were able to do by building on our existing successful pilot. As we were ahead of schedule and had a lot of pressure to scale the service we launched an MVP of our integrated 0–19 service. The blogs I link to above talk about how we prioritised what content we migrated and how we identified new content as we responded to rapidly changing needs.

Alongside the platform itself, we worked on scaling the 1:1 chat service delivery. We went from 3 staff members to 32 and we worked with several local authorities to provide a local premium version of the service. This was another pilot in itself.

In June 2020 we launched our MVP service for parents of 0–19 year olds — Parent Talk. We were 9 months ahead of schedule which included a media launch. There was one day in August during our media campaign where we had as many 1:1 conversations in one day as we had in the first 5 months of the pilot 3 years ago. If that’s not starting small and scaling I don’t know what is!

We’re not finished…

Writing this in November, I’d say we are now a bicycle — with stabilisers! We started as a very small skateboard and have scaled over time, when we were ready (with a gentle shove from a global pandemic) and were able to do so because we have learned so much about our users and their needs, wants and behaviours over the last three years.

But we’re not finished yet. We’re still running the 1:1 chat function on the service off our pilot software and the majority of our recording, reporting and impact assessment is incredibly manual. But this is ok, both of these systems and processes were designed for a small pilot and have been tweaked as we’ve scaled but not yet had the proper TLC that they deserve. It’s been a necessary evil, we’ve had to prove that the service is worth the investment and has an impact on families before we invest money and resource. This project has just kicked off and we’re really excited to be working with our amazing design and tech agency, Super Being Labs, again.

The information, advice and guidance we provide on Parent Talk is also having a makeover. When we launched the MVP, we were only able to migrate some of the existing content. Since June we’ve been adding reactive content based on the most pressing needs of parents that we’re identifying during our 1:1 live chats, social listening and research with parents. We’ve got a brilliant Content Designer joining us to evolve this amazing universal part of the service that now supports hundreds of thousands of parents.

We know there’s so much more to do in terms of diversifying our user research. If we truly intend to be able to provide universal and tailored support to all parents across the UK we need to ensure that we are designing the service more inclusively. The service does already reach a whole range of parents and carers — single parent, grandparents, the seldom heard, LGBTQ+ parents, the unemployed and parents with SEND/parents to children with SEND. But our research has predominantly been with who we can get access to — though we have tried to be inclusive. So if I’m being honest, the service has mostly been designed around a relatively small set of needs, wants and behaviours. So to ensure that the service works for everyone and aligns with everyone’s expectations and behaviours we need to do more to diversify our user research and testing.

So that’s our three big projects for the remainder of this year, you’ll be hearing from my brilliant colleagues who are leading on these three areas over the coming months.

My top five tips for scaling effectively

  1. Be cheap and cheerful. Don’t sign up for big expensive licences that will tie you in for years. Hasty decisions to get your solution live could cost you more with the inability to flexible and adapt. Speak to peers to see what exists that you could utilise.
  2. Measure reach and impact from day 1. Even if your numbers are low to start with, doing this from the very start and communicating milestones and achievements is really important. In order to demonstrate impact when scaling, having something to compare with and benchmark against can be gamechanging.
  3. Safeguarding processes need to scale with you. Probably the most important point I’ve made in this write up. Safeguarding your users is pretty much your number one priority. Continue to review your process and make necessary changes. Before this year, we had 3 staff members delivering the service and had a robust safeguarding process which was regularly audited and praised. But we were always wary of what would happen if we scaled. And then we scaled dramatically in quite a short space of time. At the same time, the level of need in our service users was rising. We acted on this immediately by prioritising safeguarding above pretty much everything else. We identified a safeguarding lead within our delivery team who we took off the daily 1:1 conversations who is responsible for the recording, referrals and follow ups.
  4. Build a team of experts. Over the last three years we’ve worked closely with children’s services, policy, fundraising, brand, media and practice improvement. As you scale, everyone’s expertise will become even more vital. Buy in from the start from stakeholders will help when you’re scaling.
  5. It’s never too early to think about sustainability. Don’t wait until you think your service or product is ready. If your MVP is meeting needs that you can demonstrate, sell it already. Early adopters will both help you keep your service running and help you refine your business model(s).

So that’s it! It’s been three years of rapid scaling to meet increasing parents needs, no doubt accelerated by the temporary closure of face-to-face support services. As a result of funding and prioritisation, we were able to launch our integrated service 9 months ahead of schedule and reach hundreds of thousands of people in need. We hope to continue to develop the service further and iterate and scale to be more inclusive and more accessible than ever. We’ll continue to focus on sustainable solutions, respond to needs and ensure safeguarding is the number one priority. By supporting parents, we’re changing the lives of children.

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