Have you ever received a text from a family member or a friend that read “I’m feeling lost,” or “I need help,” or “I don’t know what to do”? Or have you, yourself, expressed these feelings to someone via text? We may think texting is reserved for more light-hearted subjects and emojis, but it turns out texting when in crisis is more common than you might think. And a growing portion of the population, namely Millennials, prefers it over talking on the phone by over 75%!
Our guest for this episode is UX Fest speaker Sarah Bernard of Crisis Text Line. Sarah has only been with the organization for a little over 60 days, but that’s actually what makes our conversation more interesting. We chose to focus on how she approached her own on-boarding – how she managed to get close to their users in short order and immerse herself in the culture and mission of this non-profit that’s doing great things for people in crisis. As Sarah describes it, “A really great way to focus everybody on one thing is to get them watching and listening to the customer together. Because then they bring all their different perspectives, but they really start to conclude and rally around similar insights.”
Crisis Text Line is about meeting people where they are – text is their medium of choice. They have exchanged over 68 million text messages since their founding in August of 2013. And they’ve learned a lot along the way about how to best use this medium to provide support to a person in crisis.
Crisis Text Line was built from the ground up around technology and data. They are using this data, machine learning, and AI to more effectively and efficiently triage texters by severity and get them the help they need to get to a “cool, calm place.” Ultimately, their goal is to use data to improve outcomes for people in crisis in two ways: (1) internally, to improve the quality of their service, and (2) externally, to improve the crisis space as a whole.
In our discussion you’ll hear Sarah talk about:
- What she did in her first 60 days on the job to understand the company’s mission and customers.
- Using data science to improve the experience for texters and crisis counselors.
- Serving two customers: the texter and the volunteer network of crisis counselors.
- What she’s going to talk about at UX Fest!
If you enjoy our conversation, there’s more to come. Sarah agreed to be a speaker at UX Fest, which is just 4 weeks away! We hope you’ll be there to hear Sarah and the rest of our amazing lineup of speakers.
And yes, she DID mention that it was snowing outside my office during our interview. In April!
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- Learn more about Crisis Text Line
- Detecting Crisis: An AI Solution
Heath: Our guest, this afternoon is Sarah Bernard. Sarah is the COO of Crisis Text line. Welcome Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you.
Heath: And perhaps more importantly, welcome as a speaker for UX Fest this June, we’re really excited to have you!
Sarah: Yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Heath: Why don’t we start where I usually start, which is tell me a little bit about your background and your path through product management into where you are today.
Sarah: Okay. I have a pretty interesting, unusual path into product, but I find that everybody in product has an unusual path into product so, maybe it’s not that unusual. But, I majored in cognitive science in college which is the study of artificial and human intelligences and back in the day, when I was doing it, it was a pretty unusual degree. There were really only two schools that had it as a degree, and I was at Brown University which had a strong focus in the linguistic aspect of cog-sci. What we did was we studied language in the brain and how it develops and how it breaks down in order to apply it to computers and how storage systems and organization systems and computers work. So the whole idea was to make computers smarter by factioning them like the human brain.
So there was neuroscience and some philosophy. A lot of computer science, cognitive psychology, and it was this great systems thinking training that I got. Also, very multi-disciplinary.
Fast forward fifteen years in my career, it took me that long to line my way into product but now, today, cog-sci is actually a pretty strong feeder into the product management role because product management, in and of itself, is multi-disciplinary. But, over those fifteen years before I got to product, I did a lot of operational roles where I owned the operations of B2C companies as well as B2B and learned things like call stander management, a lot of analytics, a lot of forecasting and people management. I was a people manager starting at the age of 23 and all of those roles were really fed into key skills that I needed to lead product groups.
By the time I went into product, my last role had been a general manager of an eCommerce website that was part of a broader media site that was called Baby Center and we were a constant community in commerce so, in the general management role, I actually owned a P&L which also really came into play with product over the years and understanding business models in the financial aspect.
So it was a little awkward getting into product because I had to learn it from a pretty high role, I was a VP at that point. But it was at a time in Silicon Valley where product was really undefined and we were all starting to define it and I brought my operational expertise and numbers and business modeling expertise to the role.
Also, from my customer service background in operations, I think I brought a strong customer empathy aspect to the roles that I had.
Heath: Well, I think the neuroscience, the cognitive science and the people manager part, certainly come into play with product management. Because I find that it’s as much about managing- perhaps not formally managing, actually, quite the opposite really. It’s informally managing people that are on the broader product team so as to get things done, right?
And that can be, in my experience, one of the most challenging parts about it is trying to herd all of these cats that are different types of cats, I can use a clunky analogy even further. You’ve got the engineering side, you’ve got the design side, the customer side, sales and bringing all those different backgrounds in perspective together around one experience and one product is a real tough thing.
Sarah: Yeah. I think at one point I had a total organization of four hundred people and it was the year that Obama was running for president for the first time and he was getting beat up for being a quote “community organizer” and I realized- so I started using that term to say, well actually, the main part of my role is being a community organizer.
Heath: So you can be president next. Now you know that. Actually, anyone can be president at this point but I’m going to leave that right there.
Sarah: In relation to all those groups, though, a really great way to focus everybody on one thing is to get them watching the customer. And get them watching together and listening to customers together because then they bring all their different perspectives but, they really start to conclude and rally around similar insights.
Heath: Yeah. We’ve heard it said and I repeat it anytime it comes to mind but the customer breaks the tie, is always a nice way to think of it. You know, whenever you find yourself on a product team, trying to figure out- trying to prioritize, what’s next or even to decide where are we going with this product, you can do a lot worse than to just follow the customer and what they need. What their needs are.
Heath: So, today, Crisis Text Line, you’ve been there a robust two months?
Sarah: Yeah. It’s been busy.
Heath: Yeah. I bet. The fire hose analogy, I’m sure is appropriate. So tell me a little bit about Crisis tech line, what do you guys do and for whom?
Sarah: Crisis Text Line is an incredible organization and it was an amazing progression in my career that I got this opportunity. What Crisis Text line does is crisis counseling via text messaging and text messaging is actually an amazing format for people who are in crisis because they can text from anywhere, they can do it- if it’s a kid who’s struggling at home, they can text and no one really knows who they’re texting with. You can do it from school in the cafeteria at lunch time, you can do it on the street if you’re having a crisis for some reason in the moment but the other side of the amazing part of texting, you can capture all the data about the words and the types of crises that people are going through and start to build a pretty robust database around mental health and the things that people struggle with.
So we’re a two sided marketplace, we have four thousand volunteers who take about a thirty hour training with us and then they volunteer on our platform to help these people in crisis and anybody can text the number 741-741 just text help to that number and there will be somebody available to take them from a hot mood down to a cool mood.
Crisis is really defined as something that, it’s very much self-defined but it’s for somebody that’s in a state where they can’t cope. So all types of issues apply to us.
We have, I don’t know if I mentioned this, we have about four thousand volunteers that work actively and we’ve trained thousands more. So I was excited about the opportunity because it’s a non-profit, it has a strong tech component to it and we definitely run ourselves as a tech company even though we’re non-profit. We actually raise money the way that a start up might do it but it’s more instead of going out and getting donations like a typical start up, we do series or rounds and so we’re able to run ourselves and invest our technology and the experience for the texters in ways that might be hard for a non-profit the way that they fundraise.
The other thing that I would say is we are taking the data very seriously. We have a very strong data science team that is working on both improving the texter experience with what we’re learning about the data, but also feeding back the information to academia and the mental health communities about what we’re learning.
So it’s a really exciting organization.
Heath: Well, it’s fascinating me. I read one of your recent blog posts about using AI to detect crisis situations.
Heath: Detecting crisis with an AI solution and so, one of the things was so fainting to me is- I read very briefly about what crisis text line was about and it was certainly intriguing to me that you were using texting as a way to receive and listen to people in need and hopefully act upon that but I had no idea of the AI layering on it and the data science layering and to be able to pick out things that people were texting that would give you a sense that what front level are we here? Right?
Heath: So they’re saying- and in some senses, it makes even more sense because you’re only left with the words that they’re saying and not how they’re saying them. Right? So it’s one thing for someone to say I’m fine, right? So you can hear the way I’m saying that, you have to know me to be able to say I’m lying. I’m really not fine. But if I text something and one of the things that always drives me crazy about email and text, it’s hard to infer tone. But you’re stripping that away by its very definition and just looking at the words that are being transmitted to pick out that’s a bad word. You need to watch this kind of thing.
Sarah: Yeah. There’s all sorts of things that we can do with the AI. We know if a call escalades into a very high situation, we can definitely break down all the keywords that were used at the beginning of the conversation or throughout the conversation to start to identify typical words that might be used in that to either help the coach further or just learn from that.
The other thing that we’ve really used it for is to move people to the top of the queue if we’re recognizing, right off the bat that just from their initial introduction in the text, we can understand the level of severity of it and if you’re calling an 800 number, or a typical crisis line as we know them, they really can’t tell that before the agent picks up the phone. And so, we’re able to tell that from the beginning and we can move the really high risk texts up to the top of our queue and service them first before others that have language that we know is a more moderate call.
Heath: So I mentioned earlier, you just passed the two month mark, what have your first sixty days been like? What did you decide to focus on in the beginning. I know that the onboarding experience is valuable and critical for a host of reasons and for some cases, they very much want the new person to direct at and others are like nope. This is your schedule for two months. What was that like for you and what did you chose to focus on first?
Sarah: So Crisis Text Line is extremely customer-centric and we have two customers for sure, one is the texter texting in, the second is our volunteer network of crisis counselors and so, literally, the first thing that I did was go through the thirty hour training so I can get onto the platform and start taking texts and my goal, initially was to get up to twenty conversations and each conversation can take about forty five minutes. The better you get- of course, it’s always dependent on the type of text that it is, but there is truly a curve or a typical pattern to who the conversation will go. And as a new crisis counselor, we’re talking about forty five minutes. So getting to twenty conversations took me about the first two weeks on the job, but I would do it outside of work because I was at the same time, interviewing people and trying to get a sense for the mission, the vision and top level objectives of the company. I was learning that data and the metrics that they watch, I was certainly the experience at being a crisis counselor helped me learn all the system interfaces and get a sense of the architecture.
But the peak of that initial two to three weeks was I did an overnight on the platform so that I can be up all night and experience what the people in crisis are like in the middle of the night and we do ask all of our new hires to go through this because- not the overnights, necessarily, but to get onto the platform and be trained to take these texts because it helps them understand what we do as an organization and I know that there’s lots of companies out there that do similar programs where people will sit on the phones with customer service or work with customers directly and it’s just a great way to learn the business.
Heath: And I don’t know whether to be fascinated or terrified that it only took you two weeks to get up to twenty conversations.
Sarah: Well, it was not- if I had been focused, eight hours a day, it probably would have been a lot faster.
Heath: No, I’m just saying that that need is-
Heath: You have twenty conversations and I think that’s a lot in a short amount of time. I’m probably way off. But the fact that there’s a need for that.
Sarah: We take thousands of texts a day. So there are a lot of people in pain in the world.
Heath: It’s interesting because I hadn’t thought of it this way, but what you just described is really the same as I’ve heard from a number of different CEO’s who, albeit on a much- I don’t want to make one product or one service sound more critical or important than the others, but a lot of tech companies I know of will do something similar whereby everyone takes support calls by engineers, designers, et cetera for all the reasons you just described. Right? No better way to experience what the experiences, good, bad or otherwise, you just happen to layer it on the- the initial layer that there’s a person on the other end that actually needs my help and the help is not with logging into the system, the help is something little.
Heath: More serious than that, but it’s really what you’re describing is, okay. I’m going to immerse myself in our platform so I can experience what it’s like to experience it from both of our customers. Our internal, I guess, you’re internal volunteers and your external, the people who are in need of help.
Sarah: Yeah. In the process, in a way, this was great consumer research for me going through that, because I started to see how we manage the lifecycle of volunteer, what the key milestones are and in their experience with working with volunteering with Crisis Text line essentially.
And so, I came away with a ton of ideas and a ton of excitement about building this ideal lifecycle experience for the crisis counselor and that kicked off- and certainly, crisis text line was thinking of all these things before I came in but it kicked off a lot of conversations and work around the types of products that we’re building, the types of goals that we have as an organization. And then, we went into a board meeting in the middle of my first two months and so there was a lot of work that I did to help prepare our share outs with the board and then just yesterday, two months calumniated in an offsite that I thought would be a Zech team for us to-
It was really to plan Q3, but what we really did was layout a good working plan for the whole company for the next six months or so. So certainly I jumped right into planning and organizing.
Heath: From your stint on the phones or on the text line. Was there an “ah-ha” moment or what were some of the discoveries that you stumbled upon right away?
Sarah: My discoveries probably spanned, laying out a clear lifecycle that a crisis counselor can go through was one big ah-hah. Another big ah-hah is we’re still very small and we’re still very much a start up, so a lot of our systems are on a first version and we’re starting to get to the point where we could envision new interfaces that create a much more connected experience between the crisis councilors, the coaches, the supervisors on the platform. I haven’t mentioned, we have a fabulous work force of supervisors on the platform who have degrees in mental health and they’re supervising multiple conversations going on at once so that every conversation is being watched by somebody with an expertise and they’re actually the ones that would get involved if we end up doing an active rescue for somebody.
So they have sophisticated systems that they’re working with to watch these texts going on between the crisis councilors and the texter, and so I think we have probably in the summers sometime, we’ll do some envisioning of our total architecture, and the technical architecture and the designed experience that we want to create for everybody that’s using it.
Heath: This is your first non-profit?
Sarah: It’s my first non-profit, but early in my career I worked for an organization called Working Assets which was a full profit reseller of credit cards and long distance and we were one of the first affinity services where if you bought your long distance, or had your credit card with us, we would donate money to political causes on your behalf and we took 7% of our revenue, it wasn’t profit, so we really committed to this and donated it to our members choices of causes.
So it was very politically oriented but it was for profit and I believe now they’re probably one of those B corps that is for profit company for good. So, that’s the closest that I have been to non-profit world.
Heath: Okay. Any major differences, so far that you didn’t envision or?
Sarah: Well, I think everybody is- we’re hyper cost conscious because we know that every dollar that we spend takes away, potentially from the program, and so we try to keep our overhead costs extremely minimal and I think there’s more scrutiny, certainly on the financials and auditing of a non-profit for a full profit.
So, there’s a lot more rigger around some of the choice and decisions that you make financially and certainly the tracking that you do for how you’re spending your money. But outside of that- the other thing that I would say is, everybody is here because of a very high-order need that they need of helping a cause that’s bigger than themselves, and that’s really powerful for employee engagement, for our volunteer engagement, and in for profits, you’re always looking for that unfair advantage that you have and then on top of it, to create employee engagement, you’re looking for a bigger meaning for employees because everybody wants a bigger meaning in the work that they do every day and when you work for a non-profit, that bigger meaning is built in.
So, it’s a little gift that you get that I’m really enjoying us being part of the job.
Heath: Yeah, you kind of check that box right off the bat. The bigger meaning part.
Heath: For all the haranguing and making fun of millennials that we like to do, that does appear to be the one aspect that is getting a little bit more play that it’s not that they’re so needy, it’s that they either want a bigger or a different meaning. They don’t appear to be associating enjoyment or workplace engagement with pay as much as some of us grew up in the 80s. I blame Regan and Carter and all those patients. So, just a-
Alright, well let me cut to wrapping up with a little bit on UX Fest, can you tell me a little bit about what you’re going to be talking about at UX Fest?
Sarah: So design has imported into me over the years, pretty consistently as a head of product and it’s been quite a path. When I first started in product, design was all visual and visual designers, I can’t believe it’s snowing outside your window, by the way.
Heath: I know. You had to bring that up.
Sarah: It’s April. Sorry. But we have visual designers and then we had interactive designers and the interaction with designers were totally scientific and a big part of their job was documenting all the exceptions to a page or what would happen if the user clicked or had an error and they would do the wire framing and then, the visual designer would come in and really provide a lot of flexible usability for the page.
And we saw value in both of those roles. A huge amount of value, as often as a product leader, you had to go to bat to grow your design team and over the years what design has looked like working with product has completely evolved and grown out of itself into a new field and it’s truly the most competitive job in Silicon Valley, in New York, it’s very difficult to find great user experience designers and I’ve seen a difference between the west coast design work in interactive products than the east coast and how east coast approaches design.
Sarah: So probably going to put together a talk about the evolution of design and product in the last fifteen years.
Heath: Awesome. That sounds exciting. I hadn’t thought about the east coast, west coast thing. I know I’ve read a lot over the years, certainly recently on the differences between the east coast and west coast as it relates to VC, investment behaviors, threshold and for risk. What constitutes success metrics in the VC world. But hadn’t thought of the experience design sense so. That’s interesting.
Heath: Like I don’t know why it would be any different, right? It’s different for a lot of things so it makes sense. You’ve been back since Brown or is this your first time back since Brown.
Sarah: Yeah. So, after college, I spent my whole career in the west coast in the last, gosh since 1999 so almost twenty years which, is crazy in tech, in the Bay area and then in 2016 I relocated to Hoboken to join Jet.com and be part of that startup, which is now part of Walmart and so, I got- jet was really my for way into the New York product and design. Markets have a think about it and then I helped to get started, the Women in Product chapter in new york and from that group, I really gotten to know the New York product scene.
Heath: Okay. That’s what I was thinking about earlier that I forgot was the Women in Product comment so, we have a series of what we call Product Hero that we’ve been doing for the better part of year and I did an interview and in the midst of the interview, we realized, wait a minute, this is our third either founding member or contributor call it to the Boston Women in Product.
Sarah: Oh, great.
Heath: So I got them all three back into the office and said, okay. We’re going to do a podcast about Boston Women in Product.
Sarah: Oh, awesome.
Heath: So, I expect all three of those women to be at UX fest so I’ll have to connect to you. I’ll connect to you beforehand, but we did an interesting podcast with Boston Woman and product and I asked them about, one of the things that stuck with me, I asked them what comes after 2018, and to me it was interesting, because I said, well we have a good meetup series that we keep to for roughly at a monthly basis, but one of the things that we’re trying to do this year, I’ll have to check back in and see how they’re doing, is to try to create subgroups within and in particular they were trying to target, first and foremost, the product leader group.
Heath: Because it’s all well and good to have meetups about how to get started in product or road mapping or- product managing, real product manager challenges, but it’s a different set of challenges and a different lens if you were to say the chief product officer or lead peer product or CMO or something like that and so they were trying to carve out these smaller groups to be more hyper specific on- it’s just a different conversation.
Sarah: Yeah and I think that New York is certainly- we realized that we needed to do that, the National Woman and product is also starting to realize that they- you know they have subgroups within their- they have seven thousand members, I think at this point and it was all founded two years ago. So that’s great to hear that, that’s where they’re going because the leaders definitely have different challenges from people just starting out.
Heath: We’re really excited to have you at UX fest, looking forward to it ,and now I’m going to go shovel my driveway.
Sarah: Very exciting.