Making a manual for support line volunteers

Harry Trimble
May 27, 2020 · 4 min read

Since the beginning of April, the British Red Cross has been running a Coronavirus support line.

The support line is for anyone who needs to talk or can’t access food and medication. Anyone calling the support line will speak with one of our trained volunteers.

Volunteers are our service; give them the tools for the job

How people use our service is by speaking to another human, a British Red Cross volunteer. Meaning volunteers are our service. Therefore our team’s aim is to give volunteers the tools for the job.

One of the first tools we built was the Operator Manual, which gives volunteers information and tools for answering support lines calls. Here I wanted to talk about why and how we built this tool.

Go to operator-manual.redcross.org.uk

Operator Manual

Information to answer calls

Volunteers need lots of information to answer support line calls.

Information such as:

Paper, ring binders and Word docs

The last time we launched a national support line was 2017, in response to the Grenfell Tower fire, Manchester Area bombing and London Bridge attack.

For this service, volunteers would turn up at one of three Red Cross offices. They’d all sit in the same room, answering calls from Red Cross landlines.

The information volunteers needed to answer calls was stored in paper ring binders or stuck up on office walls. Staff would have to reprint these nearly every day when updating important information. Updating information would involve staff having to find, change and save multiple Word documents.

Volunteer roles and responsibilities printed in a ring binder

Our Coronavirus support line operates from volunteers’ homes, using their own equipment. They need to access information from potentially any living room, kitchen or bedroom around the UK. We can’t give volunteers information in binders and on walls in the way we have done before.

Quickly building and learning

We built the first version of the manual in two weeks, using the GOV.UK Design System and cloud hosting platform Heroku. Most of this time was not spent on setting up technology but doing content design.

We worked with subject matter experts in the training team. Breaking down large documents into smaller, more understandable sections and pages.

The support line started taking calls on 1st April (no joke). On the first day of calls, we added four new pages in response to volunteer feedback. One of the things we added early on was a page updates page. The idea for this page came from Lesley, one of our volunteers. She explained the need to keep track of new and updated pages to read before starting a shift.

Making a manual to last

After a few weeks of calls, the manual took a clearer shape. Using and iterating it with a live service we could understand what core features it needed.

The first version of the manual was essentially a prototype. We could experiment and try new features, which was great as we were learning what the product needed to do. However, it was slow and hard to edit its content. Not only that, but I was also the only person who could update it. Requiring me to directly edit HTML files, push to changes to GitHub, where the content would automatically be deployed to Heroku. Some teammates could do pull-requests in GitHub to fix typos and broken links, but this was still a faff.

Working with Julio and Ged, we rebuilt the Operator Manual. Looking at analytics for the manual, we could prioritise which features to build first.

The new version now:

  • Looks like a Red Cross website
  • Has a redcross.org.uk domain
  • Has a search function — something volunteers asked for but I didn’t know how to build

Best of all, the manual has a publishing login. Meaning the whole team can draft, add and edit content. This has made us quicker at publishing and improved our review process for adding new content. In turn, raising the quality of the content we design for volunteers.

Editing service information for the signposting page

Feedback

The manual has had 27,000 unique views since the support line started taking calls in April. Encouraging numbers given the manual is a back-office tool for a service with less than 200 people running it.

The feedback from volunteers has been positive, in particular how the manual is simple to use and access. One volunteer, Helen, even took a selfie with the manual and sent it to us.

Helen, support line volunteer

The feedback suggests we’re taking a useful approach. Starting with needs, responding quickly to them and using technology that makes human-centred design and agile delivery possible.

The manual will never be finished. We will keep improving it in response to volunteers, who support the people calling our service.

Making more manuals

Other service teams have started asking for manuals too, so they can make important operations information instantly available to volunteers and staff. Seeing this demand, we built the manual so the format can be copied around the organisation, opening up the information needed to deliver services.

Digital and innovation at British Red Cross

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