Saltash Library has become the first place in Cornwall to host Debbie’s VOSS – a new Virtual One Stop Shop accessed by chatting to Debbie, a quirky AI who enjoys nothing more than solving problems over a slice of carrot cake.
Two of Debbie’s key resources include a Universal Credit estimator and a jobs and training search. Considering that 87%of frontline library staff across the UK provide ad-hoc digital assistance, and that this is essential to job seekers and benefits claimants, with many UC claimants revealing that without the library they would have been sanctioned, Debbie has huge potential to revolutionise the experience of both library staff and visitors.
The VOSS station has been standing proudly in the entrance of Saltash Library, enticing visitors with its colourful banner and high table,2-in-1 laptop / tablet and plenty of informative leaflets. With Hi9 team members calling in regularly, user feedback has been invaluable, and we are already underway with our third version of the VOSS, ensuring improvements are made as quickly as possible.
The Universal Credit (UC) application process has been described in a United Nations report as a “digital barrier that obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements”. This sentiment is echoed in DWP figures, highlighting that 45% of claimants had difficulties with the online application. In turn, library staff have also noted the drain on staff resources due to supporting people as they move on to the UC system, and the emotional impact of lacking knowledge yet trying to help people in difficult situations.
Whilst claimants still need to go through the online process, there are several advantages to obtaining a UC estimate through Debbie. It prepares claimants for what documents and information they need, it alleviates time pressures on library staff, and offers a more informal, relaxed experienced.
Users interact with Debbie through conversation and natural language, something many of us are already familiar with thanks to chatting with friends and family online and through apps. This idea is increasingly popular across customer service too, with chatbots popping up more and more across different services, such as utilities and airlines. Users can chat to Debbie across a whole range of online platforms: at her website Debbie.chat, on Facebook or on WhatsApp at 07520 645157. However, her Virtual One Stop Shop provides something new – a physical presence.
To ensure Debbie’s new presence is meeting users’ needs, we have been assessing user feedback. Initially, it was clear that the type on the2-in-1 laptop / tablet was too small to comfortably read Debbie’s messages. In addition, rather than the hybrid device providing more usability, the increased options – typing with a keyboard or touching the screen – along with the landscape orientation, made users a little uncertain. To address this, the next version of the VOSS station sees the 2-in-1 device displayed in tablet mode only - without the keyboard – and embedded in a separate stand, this time in portrait orientation to naturally encourage touching the screen and scrolling. We have also added response option ‘buttons’. Users can still type longer responses to Debbie, but if English is not your first language, or for those who find typing difficult, selecting a button will make the experience easier, quicker, and keep the conversation flowing.
This inclusivity and ease of navigation becomes even more significant given the DWP’s decision that claimants must demonstrate they are actively seeking work. To facilitate this, we have created Debbie’s Jobs & Training resource, which enables users to search by commute time or keyword. As part of the search, users can also ‘favourite’ items. If they are on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, they will be able to review these favourites in future conversations and, regardless of platform, they can request an email listing them. Since claimants are required to provide evidence of actively seeking work, by updating the job section of their UC account and communicating with their work coach, chatting to Debbie can now make this process much quicker and easier.
One final, and meaningful, aspect of Debbie’s new repertoire, is that the VOSS reflects the specific people and place it’s in. Public libraries are widely recognised as a foundation for personal connection and community within local areas. For this reason, Debbie incorporates information from as many local institutions as possible, and encourages users to share their own thoughts and suggestions for what she can include in the future.
With more VOSS’s soon to appear across Bodmin, Penzance and Camborne, each will be definitively of that place. Just as libraries provide essential support, Debbie looks forward to becoming an important part of that local lifeline by enabling access to knowledge of all kinds, whoever you are and wherever you come from.