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Demonstrating the value of digital signposting

Imagine a world where every young person has the information and support that they need when they need it. At NPC, we believe that good signposting is key to making this a reality.  

This report, created through the programme Signpost+ with funding from Nominet, highlights good signposting practice through the innovative work of our programme partners: National Support Network, Mind Of My Own, Chasing the Stigma, and The Mix, aligned with the research of Promising Trouble. 

We have identified six areas of good practice that we believe are essential to delivering digital signposting well: 

  1. Listen to the needs of young people. 
  2. Make signposting services accessible. 
  3. Continually collect and analyse data to better understand the needs of users. 
  4. Develop clear data quality processes and protocols to ensure that the information shared with young people is relevant, useful, and up-to-date.  
  5. Build strong partnerships to work closely with service providers and share your signposting services with a wider audience. 
  6. Develop and build wider data infrastructure to share learning across sectors so that youth services match the needs of young people. 

Signpost+ is a collaborative programme working with communities, data folk, the social sector and beyond to ensure that young people find support when they need it most.  

Categories:

1: Listen to the needs of young people

To effectively meet the needs of young people, it is important to try to understand their individual preferences and experiences. Every young person’s journey is unique, and support should be designed around their needs. Taking the time to understand the types of support they want, and their preferred method of communication and accessing services, is crucial.

Many young people aren’t sure of what they need, where to go to find help, or what their issue is. They often resort to starting their search on Google. Signposting services can play a key role in helping them to iteratively explore, understand themselves, try things out, and narrow down the options available. Signposting plays a pivotal role in informing and equipping young people to learn and have agency over their own circumstances.

Asking the right questions and providing a useful taxonomy of services with well-written supporting content are all useful.

Once a young person has developed a clearer understanding of what assistance they need, they should have the autonomy to choose the most suitable option for them at that moment. Offering related services may be beneficial due to the interconnected nature of support issues.

Meeting the needs of young people involves continual interaction and collaboration with testers from the target audience, iteratively refining services based on their feedback and that of other users. Ultimately, the goal is to empower young people to discover the support they need at every stage of their journey towards improved outcomes.

We ran three test and learn sprints, iterating on the objectives we set ourselves and the techniques we used each time. We conducted observations, facilitated focus groups, and collaborated with the group. We had eight fully engaged participants aged between 18 and 25 years old who identified as male (2), female (5) and non-binary (1).

In the first sprint, we concentrated on the usability of signposting services; how usable do young people find the partner sites in one fictionalised scenario?

In the second, we moved on to considering the breadth of services offered by signposting sites; how helpful do young people find the partner sites across a range of issues?

For the third, we focused on the group’s experience of each of the sites; they were asked to share a positive and negative for each tool based on their knowledge across the previous sprints.

From numerous rounds of testing with our youth group, we identified five main themes:

Theme 1: Focus on their issues

Research by Mind found that young people are still building their understanding and knowledge of mental health. They often don’t know what terms to search for when searching for support or services. Our research showed that young people find an interface more usable when it talks about what their issues are, rather than simply listing services that the site has available. Features beyond signposting services, such as guidance articles or other means of support, were welcomed by young people. This also helps them to ‘focus on their issues’, as content surrounding services often discusses examples of the issues young people face rather than just listing services. Not only that, but such content can also fill gaps where services are not available to signpost.

Theme 2: Speak their language

There was a mismatch between the words that young people were using to describe their issues and the words that websites and services used. This is important because it made it harder for them to find what they were looking for. Young people may not understand sector-specific jargon and if they cannot understand what is written about a service, they’re less likely to use it. They can feel overwhelmed when there is too much information. This issue is magnified for websites populated by content from other organisations, which can create issues with content consistency and word length.

Theme 3: Help them explore

Young people will explore through multiple categories and subcategories to find the right services.

It seems that sometimes they are not sure which words to use, so using the categories helps them to reflect on what they need. They do use the search function, however, they are frustrated when they are presented with too many options that are not relevant.

Theme 4: Deliver on your promises

Young people were disappointed when a site didn’t deliver what they thought it would from the signpost. This applied to signposts that had too little and too much information. Too little, and a young person didn’t know what to expect, too much and the website gave nothing extra. It was most frustrating when sites gave links that led to error pages.

Theme 5: Say when you cannot help, and do it well

Young people were often not able to find what they were looking for. Sites that promise local provision, and then list services tens of miles away, or show categories with no content in, are frustrating to use. They often felt that the services they were being shown were not relevant. Some said that they did not know where to go next or that they would give up and look elsewhere. Visitors who end up disappointed need to know what to do next if what they need is not there.

According to Mind’s research, young people can be negatively impacted if they are turned away from support because it does not match their needs, which can prevent them from trying again. Providing support also means being clear about what is on offer, what is not on offer, and who it is for.

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2: Ensure that the signposting service is accessible to users

Accessibility is a principle and practice. In principle, a service or product should be accessible to anyone who needs to use it. In practice, every organisation needs to think about how an individual might be excluded and put measures in place to mitigate this.

‘All users will have different needs at different times and in different circumstances. Someone’s ability to use a service could be affected by their:

Location – they could be in a noisy café, sunny park, or area with slow Wi-Fi.

Health – they may be tired, recovering from a stroke, or have a broken arm.

Equipment – they could be on a mobile phone or using an older browser.’

This requires a lot of thought before offering a service or developing a product. Digital signposting should cater for individuals with a wide range of needs.

We identified three core accessibility areas that need to be considered when offering any kind of service, especially signposting:

Digital accessibility

Digital accessibility means developing websites, tools, apps, and technology that are designed so that anyone can use them. All digital products and content should follow the accessibility standard

set out in the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines are widely accepted and endorsed on an international level.

Given we are talking about digital signposting, any organisation providing support in any capacity online must adhere to the WCA guidelines. All our partners are working towards being fully WCAG compliant, to differing degrees.

  • Gathering feedback to improve service delivery —Mind Of My Own’s product, My Best Life, focuses on providing ease of administration so that information can be easily updated by professionals. They adopt a user-centred approach to design by regularly gathering feedback from young people to improve their experience.
  • Consider the impact delivering a service online may have on specific conditions, particularly those with photosensitivity —Chasing the Stigma have specifically focused on providing support for people with epilepsy, considering how they can prevent triggering symptoms so there aren’t any adverse effects to their conditions when accessing information about services.
  • Factor in adjustments that need to be made—National Support Network continues to improve accessibility further with additional digital accessibility support adjustments available to users including contrast, text size, and making content dyslexia friendly.

Service accessibility

Service accessibility considers how an individual accesses physical services. There are no clear guidelines that outline how to ensure that services are accessible to everyone. Some factors that need to be considered include providing alternative communication options for people with disabilities, ensuring ease of access to buildings, and offering tailored provision where necessary.

Service accessibility should involve implementing inclusive policies and ensuring that support staff are trained to cope with the unique needs of service users. For example, providing information in advance about accessible entry points for people with disabilities.

Partner Example: Hub of Hope offers support for people who are deaf and blind. They identified that people in the criminal justice system often face difficulty accessing support services and are frequently turned away. So, they recently expanded their services to include support for those in prison, probation, and their families.

Language accessibility

Language accessibility can be either digital or service related. Providing the option to access a website in multiple languages and ensuring that services employ multi-lingual staff that can support young people is essential.

It’s important to note that young people have varying reading and comprehension levels. Jargon should be minimised by using clear plain English that can be easily understood by anyone.

Partner Example: The Mix offers an option to access their AI chatbot in multiple languages. They found that this feature is popular with their young people with 35 different languages being used.

Partner Example: Mind Of My Own offers an option on the My Best Life app that allows young people to access the site in multiple languages. This feature ensures that young people who do not speak English are included and has received positive feedback.

 

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3: Continually collect and analyse data to better understand the needs of users

Data is vital in our digital world and when it is used correctly it can provide evidence for continuous improvement of signposting services. Currently, the internet is primarily designed for commercial use, and data is frequently utilised to attract consumers. We share the perspective that data should be utilised to broaden knowledge about the most effective ways to reach young people and the type of information they need to make well-informed decisions to access services when they need them most. The right data can also help identify service gaps and demand.

‘Intelligent use of data can significantly increase the effectiveness of charities. This isn’t new: most—even all—charities use basic data in some way.’

There is a wealth of data available from signposting services that can be used to develop services for young people and ensure that the needs of young people are being met. However, organisations need to understand what data to collect, where to get it from, and how they are going to process, analyse, and ultimately use this data to make necessary changes. It is also vital that all data is collected ethically with informed consent and privacy by design per the Data Protection Act and GDPR guidance.

Most of our partners shared the limitations of using Google Analytics data—it doesn’t tell them enough about their users and how they might improve their service.

Data is useless if it is not used. Data should be used to better understand a service and the changes that may need to be made.

During phase 2 one of our partners, Chasing the Stigma, conducted research of their own to broaden their understanding of which search filters were most used and how closely services were to their users.

Data could also help organisations to learn more about:

  • Common search locations.
  • Search terms used and common topics searched.
  • The level of engagement to the length compared with depth of service information shared.

Promising Trouble’s research on digital support found that pushing services at young people is not effective, but designing support with them ensures their needs remain at the heart. In our last session with the young people from our user research group, they shared their ideal template for service information on any signposting tool. This may not directly help organisations to understand individual needs, but it highlights the need for consistent information.

They felt the most necessary information is:

  • When the service is available and can help people.
  • Age ranges the service might help with.
  • Distance of the service to you.
  • A video description of the service.
  • Specific things the service might help – depression, self-confidence, anxiety, etc.
  • General things the service might help – mental health, money, career, etc.
  • Form the service takes—phone, face to face, etc.
  • One sentence description of service.
  • The sort of organisation that runs the service—voluntary, faith-based, public, private.

Additionally, signposting organisations can work with direct service organisations to meet the needs of young people by creating new services where needed or ensuring existing services appear in search results.

Partner Example

Hope in the Community Westminster is a programme led by Chasing the Stigma in collaboration with Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust (CNWL).

Hope in the Community provides third-sector organisations with a free space to run services, activities, and groups that focus on wellness. It is open to anyone who lives or works in Westminster borough, and offers young people free services and activities.

When Hub of Hope data revealed that 96% of people in CNWL service area look for support from the Voluntary, Community, and Social Enterprise (VCSE) community, while only 4% of people specifically search for NHS support, CNWL decided to play a part in empowering local VCSEs to co-deliver with NHS.

An opportunity emerged with the initiative to repurpose the Gordon Hospital in South Westminster. Chasing the Stigma carried out a comprehensive assessment of available services within the area. Hub of Hope and CNWL identified the most frequently searched terms within the catchment area.

The data analysis helped to mobilise and bring the right VCSE services to Hope in The Community Westminster, and informed the tailoring of communication and assets to the target audience.

 

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4: Develop clear data quality processes and protocols to ensure that the information shared with young people is relevant, useful, and up to date

Data standards and analysis play a pivotal role to guarantee that signposting is delivered well. By utilising data, organisations can build their understanding of current mental health trends and the most prominent needs. This can help them to improve youth experiences by ensuring information is useful to them when they search for help. This information must be kept relevant, up-to-date, and accurate to prevent frustration and ultimately young people becoming discouraged.

Signposting organisations also need to ensure that information is safe and reliable. This is why data standards are important. Developing a clear methodical process to update and validate the information on any website should help teams perform frequent validity checks. There is a capacity requirement, but we must stress how integral this is to accessing information safely online. Without a clear data quality policy, the information provided to young people can easily cause more harm than good and can quickly become out of date and unfit for purpose.

Data standards ensure the accuracy, reliability and relevance of the information provided. They should include an audit of the accuracy, authenticity, reputation, relevance, and accessibility of information. Across the consortium, each partner produced a different set of policies to audit their data. We have collated and produced key general points that might help other organisations that support young people.

Data quality principles

Data quality principles should ensure any service listed is suitable for young people to access, appropriate for the identified need where stated, clearly represented, and accessible. Information that is collected and shared should be checked against Charity Commission registration, the British Medical Association if providing medical advice, website links, and suitability for need.

Data validation

Organisations could adopt a five-stage process for data validation, which includes executive review checks by peers. The process may include auditing the source of data in line with data quality principles and standards and a detailed quality assurance policy that includes frequent checks of information.

Stakeholder management

Perhaps the most important feature of a healthy ecosystem is the relationship management that should exist between different stakeholders. ‘Interoperability’ is a term frequently used with regards to information technology and the health system. It is crucial to the effectiveness of multiple actors working together in one system.

Building relationships with charities, community organisations and institutions that support young people can help build efficient, accurate, and up-to-date service listings. In an ideal world, different stakeholders in the ecosystem will share and update live information.

Testing models of digital signposting

We conducted test and learn sprints on our partner’s existing websites with our user research group, to show the importance of good signposting through different models. They also developed key areas related to signposting with the grants we provided through this project. Everything we learned has been the basis for this report.

Tool development

This is an overview of the tools our partners have developed and are developing:

The Mix developed an AI chatbot to accompany their helpline and The Mix connect (their signposting tool). The chatbot is designed to offer a new pathway to support young people.

The Mix trained the chatbot on data they collected through services like their helpline, so that it is able to respond as a person trained by the Mix would. The chatbot is intended to provide 24-hour support. Chatbot data is analysed regularly to understand the questions people ask and ensure the right answers are provided.

Mind Of My Own continues to develop My Best Life. With funding from Signpost+, they have enhanced the user experience for professionals within Local Authorities tasked with maintaining the content. They can quickly and easily publish events, services and resources by enabling them to update information quickly, easily and efficiently. This will hugely benefit young people to access accurate and up-to-date information tailored to their needs.

Chasing the Stigma carried out comprehensive user research and discovery activities to better understand how young people engage with their platform, what they need and how they can provide more tailored support.

They are using the research findings to improve the interface and inevitably reach more young people. They have also tested internal processes and workflows which contributed to improved service development and quality assurance practices, resulting in increased quality and diversity of services on the platform.

National Support Network (NSN): Funding from Signpost+ enabled NSN to further develop new user-friendly Support Hub website and widget solutions, including Insights Platforms for their partners to access new insights into the support needs of their communities and outcomes from platform usage. NSN delivers these innovative services to a growing number of partners including colleges and youth charities such as The Prince’s Trust and the Nightline Association.

 

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5: Build strong partnerships to work closely with service providers and share your signposting services with a wider audience

Throughout this project, we learned the importance of building relationships across the consortium and understanding the integral relationships they built with direct service providers. We discussed and shared the key challenges, learning what is useful in building a sense of collectiveness and aligning overall motivations for the project and beyond.

Collective responsibility requires a collective vision and a collective goal (to transform the digital and data ecosystem so information is shared freely). It takes time for organisations to engage.

At the end of this phase, we learned how beneficial it would have been to involve project teams rather than solely working with project leads, which would bring in different perspectives and expertise. This highlights the need to create space for exchanging ideas and addressing innovation and development with experts, frontline, and strategic staff.

Collaborative working presents an opportunity for infrastructure and youth organisations to work more closely together, benefiting from each other’s strengths. Our partners have different areas of expertise that they brought to the project. Our user research group’s insights showed that no organisation did everything perfectly.

Collaboration is needed to share expertise, knowledge, and create the best products for young people. But in the social sector, competition breeds fragmentation. Collaborating can be hard when organisations are competing for funding, and it can be easier for organisations to work in silos than together. It is essential to develop an ecosystem that values signposting and youth provision expertise for the benefit of young people.

Without effective infrastructure, the sector is restricted to making bets on individual organisations while working in the dark. Perhaps even more importantly, infrastructure is required for us to achieve greater equity in the youth sector. Digital and data inequalities are growing. The youth sector will fall further behind as new technologies like generative AI advance, which will result in fewer opportunities for those without privilege, access, and digital skills.

Young people with privilege have more access, support, and contacts to help them obtain the best opportunities. Young people without that privilege need the infrastructure to help them find what they want and need, and to level the playing field.

Most of our partners (3 out of 4) agreed that working together enhanced their capacity to embed innovation in their design processes and that we can achieve more together than on our own. This is a message that has been preached many times but is no less relevant for that. No one organisation can do it all. So, it is vital that, where possible, signposting organisations work together to share data, support, and ideas. Our user research group had positive and negative things to share about all of our partners, which emphasises that every model has its pros and cons.

 

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6: Develop and build wider data infrastructure to share learnings across sectors and build youth services that match the needs of young people

All of our partners work with external stakeholders to deliver support to young people.  Each partner has a different approach depending on the scope of their work. Data collated by signposting organisations through search results can provide rich information to understand the needs of young people, the demand for different types of services, and results in geographic areas.

While this is useful for signposting organisations to improve user journeys, it is vital for the wider sector. It can help local councils, youth organisations, and NHS Trusts to adapt to demand and need. This data can also help funders to better understand service gaps and uncover where funding is needed most.

Partnerships facilitate greater collaboration and innovation, allowing organisations to co-create solutions that address the evolving needs of young people. Our Signpost+ partners utilised a combination of licensing models and contracts (with local government and the NHS). Two of them developed partnerships with direct service delivery organisations to reach a wider population. Working closely with service delivery organisations, information directories and signposting platforms to get up-to-date or real-time information on who is accessing the service can:

  • Help drive improvements in usability and engagement.
  • Provide feedback to service providers so that they are aware of demand, and emerging needs.
  • Save time that frontline workers spend searching for data and trying to understand if it’s trusted, accurate, and reliable.
Case Study: Glasgow Clyde College on National Support Network

As a large urban FE College with a community focus, we deliver learning and teaching to almost 17,000 students and support an incredibly diverse student population. We offer a range of bespoke support services and have partnered with NSN to provide our students with an accessible information service on support that is available on a local and national scale.

This is particularly helpful for students who are unsure of what support they need so they can search and discover services, or they can look at available support information independently if they feel nervous about talking to a member of staff. There are a range of assets that are customised for us, and this has allowed us to publicise the service for both students and staff.

Our experience tells us that students all have different needs and we have found that using NSN to complement our face-to-face support and internal online resources provides greater information on available support networks and services for our students.

 

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