With Headstrong, we built a platform for creating personified chatbots, available 24/7 on Facebook Messenger. We created a group of teenage ‘personal trainers’, unique avatars users could interact with. Each was made to be as relatable as possible for young people in Aotearoa. Not super athletes or cool kids, just relatable friends teenagers could feel comfortable with. One of these avatars was Aroha, who became the face of the project when it was adapted by the Auckland University clinical experts to address the mental stresses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here is how it works: A chatbot simulates a conversation and allows people to interact with a digital guide as if they were communicating with a real person. The app was designed to make it easy and engaging for young people to learn techniques for supporting mental health and wellbeing via short interactions with the chatbot. Characters use stories, motivational whakatauki (proverbs), audio tracks, infographics, mini games and more to make the content more relatable.
Not a silver bullet
Within Headstrong, rangatahi can choose one or more chatbot courses, including Paparahi Foundations, quick tips, and Hiki Taumahatanga Stress Detox.
While the characters can behave like a friend, it is important to note the limits and how this was built into the design. There are constraints to how much support Headstrong can provide for a young person in severe distress. When a risk keyword or phrase is detected in a message, the app can ask if real life assistance is needed. The contact information of relevant mental health services is provided, and while personal data is private and secure, external support is just a click away.