Small projects, big progress: growing CALM’s online toolset, one month at a time

Sam Hodges

After launching their new website in 2022, we’ve experimented and iterated together with the Campaign Against Living Miserably on new digital product features. On a monthly basis, we’ve helped them grow their community and deepen their service, and it’s helped us to become better designers. A great example of this is our latest feature launch, Offload Your Thoughts.

“We’ll be a nightmare to work with”, they told us right at the start.

CALM don’t behave like a charity. They also don’t think of themselves as a brand. They are fiercely ambitious, which for some, can be hard to keep up with. They are so engaged with their cause, and they’ve been using design as a tool since Day 1. In our eyes, they’re pretty inspiring.

That’s why, after 18 months spent refreshing CALM’s brand and building their new digital platform, we didn’t feel it was time for things to end. For CALM, launching a new website was the transformational next stage in a stream of initiatives, projects and ideas. But having enough people to make that happen was another matter.

So we developed a way of working with them on an ongoing basis. A small paid retainer, alongside two days of design each month delivered pro-bono, to continue the work we started, and push forward what CALM can do beyond the initial project cycle. This was exciting. What could we spend that time on? Where should we begin?

A variety of needs

The projects vary. One brief was to simply increase the number of donations through the website. Straightforward, except CALM hates asking for money. It’s a contentious area for the team because it’s a typical charity trope, but providing a life-saving service isn’t cheap. So we’ve been testing big and small ideas which have impact, but don’t cost CALM their soul. We’ve also been helping to evolve CALM Clubs into Communities. That means designing the narrative through community pages which encourage people to get involved.

One brief was to simply increase the number of donations through the website

The most fascinating work so far has been a project called Offload Your Thoughts. CALM are always looking to build out resources and tools to provide support outside the helpline hours (5pm–midnight). We were asked to explore an experimental new service feature which, if tested successfully, could get permanent residency on the website.

Offload your thoughts

I’m exaggerating a bit, but the briefing went something like this:
“So, we want to let people write down their issues, feelings, etc. into the website.”
“Okay, what will happen after that?”
“Nothing. They delete them.”

Was I missing something? We were asking people to confide things they’ve perhaps never told anyone — on a website. Would anybody even use this? I checked myself, and recognised it was a great idea. CALM really know their audience, and they never underestimate them. They’ve built a huge amount of trust with their community, and always led by example when doing that. Writing as a therapeutic tool is nothing new, and CALM are giving their audience a safe space to try it out.

We developed a small product, where writing is the key action. You’re told upfront that nothing you write is stored or cached, and then given helpful prompts to get started. The goal is to get people comfortable with the idea of just getting something out their head and onto paper the screen. When they’re done, they clear it. A satisfying confirmation affirms that their writing is gone.

Try offloading your thoughts here

We developed a small product, where writing is the key action.

Working it out

We began, as many projects do, with questions. So we let these guide the early exploration. The first one was about expression. How might someone want to express themselves? Will it always be in writing, or would some people want to draw? Should we frame the experience as one big stream of writing, or multiple small notes?

We looked at how people might want to express themselves

This provoked two important insights with the CALM service team. First, assume people are feeling overwhelmed, possibly in crisis, so reduce the ask to something as small and simple as possible. Second, working with prompts at some capacity would lower the barrier for people to get going — the service team confirmed this from their work on the helpline.

Our second question was about trust. How heavily do we need to reassure people this is a private experience, where their data isn’t stored or captured? Our assumption had been that people wouldn’t open up without a strong confirmation it was 100% private. So we prepared a user journey that began with this messaging front and centre.

The user journey needed messaging around privacy, front & centre

The least loud option

As we reviewed this work with the CALM team, they chose the least loud option, which I was surprised by. But I’d forgotten how much reciprocal trust there already is between CALM and their audience. This isn’t a B2C product. CALM is a devoted cause that supports people through their darkest times. Such a loyal community isn’t seeking reassurance, they already have it. So we agreed to message the privacy clearly on the page, removing all obstacles.

The third question was about guiding. Do people want to be heavily guided through this, or given lots of autonomy? We explored how prompts could frame the experience. Should they be light and passive, or completely dictate the writing you do? How much was too much?

We explored how prompts could frame the experience

We landed at making prompts very light, and active only at the start of the experience. CALM don’t assume to know anything about what people are going through, so prompts are only there as a means to begin. After all, someone who’s decided to try this tool probably already has something to say.

Our final iteration allowed for a longer-form writing experience. We learned at the beginning it’s important to start small. The blank page can be intimidating to anyone. So we built a full-screen toggle, which people can reach for if they get into flow and start to run out of room. It’s not something we’re actively pushing people to do, but it’s designed so those looking for it will find it.

The final iteration allowed a longer-form writing experience

The power of letting go

This act of putting your thoughts into words, then discarding them, is surprisingly powerful. So we’re happy with Version 1. But if this gets enough engagement, we want to push it further. We want people to be able to not just discard, but destroy what they wrote. Could this extra nice-to-have detail be more cathartic? We believe so.

We’ve already explored different ways the writing could be destroyed at the end. Our design intern Zack has sketched dozens of storyboards. It’s a challenge to nail the tension between ‘satisfying destruction’ and anything too violent or triggering. But we hope, in time, some of these ideas will come to fruition.

We want people to be able to not just discard, but destroy what they wrote

We’ll be eagerly waiting to see how the project pans out. Our retainer commitment allows some creative risk-taking but, with no user data being recorded, it’ll be interesting to work out how we can even measure the effectiveness of the tool. Clearly, it’ll need to be qualitative, from speaking to the people who use it.

Rewarding commitment

Retainer work doesn’t have to mean mundane work. These post-launch briefs aren’t something you can just throw onto a pile of UX/UI to-dos. I’d argue they require a deeper understanding of how the CALM brand behaves. That makes Output and CALM’s relationship so valuable when it comes to the digital work we do together. We created the brand, and the digital experience, together.

We’ll continue to challenge and be challenged by CALM. They’re a fiercely opinionated organisation where everyone’s input is equally valid. And so are we. That makes for some very open conversations. But it’s refreshing to recognise the quirks we share and the huge respect we have for each other’s work. Our job as designers is to challenge clients, and it’s so affirming to be challenged back in return. To see this relationship turn into something sustainable shows the value of staying involved.

In an industry where budgets, briefs, and tasks are becoming increasingly fragmented, having a consistent and dedicated partner has become more valuable to organisations. If you have a strong relationship with your agency partner, that’s a great reason to invest in longer-term engagements.

If you’re interested in learning more about this work, drop me a message.

Sam Hodges

The experience of very different studios gives Sam (he/him) a unique perspective. As Digital Design Director at Output, he brings experimental thinking together with a deep understanding of product usability, to ensure the experiences we create are as functional as they are beautiful. He shares the ‘how’ behind our work, while exploring the potential of technology, sustainability and creativity.