In brief

In this Joining the Dots blog, Shift’s CEO (and dad to a 3 year old) Nick Stanhope explores ways in which digital technologies can help – rather than hinder – us putting relationships at the heart of what we do, bringing warmth to unnecessarily empathy-starved services

Nick Stanhope

Nick Stanhope

CEO at Shift

Nick is founder and CEO of Shift – the research and design charity from which The Relationships Project has grown. 

The invasion of digital technology is often cast as the enemy of human relationships, warmth and empathy within services. We imagine a cold world of automated interactions, gradually overwhelming a warm world of face-to-face contact and connections.

But I don’t believe this. Or rather, I think that this assumption is unhelpful. Yes, the role of humans is being reduced and replaced by machines all over the place and, often, this replaces warmth and connection with automation and anonymity. But, this isn’t necessary or inevitable.

I believe that, overall, digital technology is a critical part of providing the time, intelligence and trust that we need to build stronger, more meaningful relationships into services.

When that isn’t appreciated or, worse, when it is rejected out of hand, we limit our potential to provide services that understand and meet both practical and emotional needs.

 Here’s an example from my own experience…

When my daughter was about 6 months old, we had a fairly minor issue that we needed regular advice on. Neither the noisy disagreement of the internet nor the long delays of getting in touch with a GP were helpful. Our best source of support was via the parent helplines. Over one pretty intense period, I was in touch with a particular helpline about 10 times in a couple of days. I spoke to 6 different people, which was understandable and inevitable – it was a busy helpline, run by a number of staff and I couldn’t expect to speak to the same person every time. But on 9 of those 10 occasions, I had to talk through the issue from scratch.

This was incredibly frustrating and sometimes pretty stressful. It wasted my time and theirs, probably doubling the length of every call and halving the number of people that they could help. It reduced the quality of the support. It made it almost impossible to form any kind of connection with the person that was helping us and it replaced warmth and empathy with a robotic, slightly rushed interaction.

This is an example of a service, like many others, where a consistent relationship with one person that builds increasing understanding, trust and warmth over time – the best kind – wasn’t feasible. However, a consistent relationship with one service, which achieves the same overall effect, absolutely was.

How it might have been different

The basic use of tech and data could have allowed that service to build an understanding of me very quickly and then over time. I would have felt understood by each person I spoke to, which would create the conditions for human warmth, connection and empathy: time, intelligence and trust. A more sophisticated approach, which used data-driven segmentation and machine learning, could have achieved even more of these things – the service could have predicted my likely needs and preferences and, after a few initial interactions, it could have followed up with increasingly personalised tips and advice. It could even have recognised early signs of significant issues and offered well-crafted early support – all of which open up time, build trust and provide intelligence.

The consequences in this case, for someone like me, with fairly minor needs, plenty of bandwidth and lots of sources of support, were modest: some wasted time, a little frustration and little or no feelings of connection at a time of some vulnerability. But multiply this across hundreds of services and millions of parents and you have two massive problems: first, huge, systemic inefficiencies that bleed services of precious bandwidth, which are desperately needed for relationships to thrive; second, it disproportionately affects the parents that are at greatest risk of feeling misunderstood, that need to build trust with services that they may feel instinctively judged by and alienated from, that have the least emotional and practical space and that have the greatest needs for the empathy, warmth and connection.

Creating the conditions for relationships

Digital technology and relationship-centred practice are two sides of the same coin. Or rather, the front and back stage of the same service. Behind the scenes, we should use every tool at our disposal to find efficiencies; build deep intelligence about people’s needs, risks and preferences; systematically learn about what is most likely to work for whom; build collective awareness across systems of support and facilitate interdependencies; equip ourselves to reach the right people, at the right moment, with the right message and tone of voice, through the right channel. Front of stage, we then have the time, trust and intelligence we need to bring every ounce of warmth, empathy and human connection.