In mid-2020, as COVID-19 started being more pervasive and local communities started locking things down, most NGOs were faced with the challenge of not being able to reach their beneficiaries. They had to re-evaluate how they would conduct their programme without field workers. Favouring digital media to talk to their beneficiaries, NGOs turned to the most ubiquitous communication platform in India, WhatsApp.
I remember convening with the team, pandemic in the backdrop, learning from NGOs how they were grappling with the situation. The world was talking about not having the right solutions for a better response to such a situation. In areas as basic as communication? In our age when tech touches every aspect of our lives? And yet, the problem had presented itself and the problem extended to our entire population. Would I be a part of this mission? A thousand times over.
WhatsApp was an easy choice because it’s free, almost every smartphone in India has WhatsApp installed on it, and most of the households carry a smartphone, even in the most vulnerable communities. So getting things off the ground was very easy. But, while WhatsApp is a great tool to communicate with friends and family, it becomes very cumbersome when an NGO has to communicate with thousands or tens of thousands of beneficiaries every week. WhatsApp limits the number of groups you can create, and the number of members in a group so as the target audience grows, you have to employ unusual measures to manage conversation with thousands of beneficiaries. This is where Glific shines. Glific lets NGOs easily talk to hundreds or thousands of beneficiaries and also provides NGOs valuable insights such as messages exchanged, most requested services and beneficiary usage patterns.
Inspiration and journey
While Glific now seems like a lightbulb solution, I can’t say it was a lightbulb idea. It has manifested itself in the strong will to empower the inspiring work done by NGOs, as I recall Lobo and Sanjeev often say. Laying the vision for this product, they bring immense experience of the social development sector. For me, approaching the problem of two-way communication at scale and designing a solution was made much easier with such a wealth of knowledge they brought in to support various design decisions along the way.
To top that, we received constant feedback and advice from an Advisory Board composed of NGOs such as Dost Education, Saajha, Leap for Word, Slam out Loud, Digital Green etc… who use WhatsApp and other communication channels in their programmes. We would get on a call once a month to review the product demo videos and how the features were coming along. We would check if they had any suggestions to improve it further. This gave us a unique insight into usage patterns that informs the intuitive user experience and makes Glific richer and full-featured.
We’ve also conducted monthly webinars to get as many people as possible to ask us questions. Infact we have one in the coming week on Dec. 16th at 10 am IST or, in the U.S., Dec. 15th at 8:30 pm EST. We’ve responded by strengthening our communication collaterals and the product. Building a solution with a community spending their valuable time and giving their valuable feedback is irreplaceable.
Glific has become a platform NGOs can use to stay connected with beneficiaries over WhatsApp. Glific is designed to use “WhatsApp Business API”, a mode that WhatsApp provides businesses to talk to their customers. Glific uses a combination of highly intuitive user interfaces, Natural Language understanding and Machine learning to automatically respond to certain queries, very similar to a Voice Response system when you call a bank.
Stories of use
Glific enables NGOs to send and receive messages via WhatsApp; NGOs can also send and receive multimedia messages including text, pictures, docs, videos and audio files. This was especially helpful for one of the alpha users of Glific – Slam Out Loud(SOL) an NGO that works towards building creative confidence among children. Children learn various creative exercises such as visual arts, poetry, theatre etc… Their programme began with live engagements with students, but the onset of COVID made them look for alternative ways to continue the programme.
This gave way to apply WhatsApp as a method to reach out to the students. WhatsApp didn’t involve any extensive onboarding process of making users download new apps. The solution was ready to implement. SOL started the programme with sending creative activities on WhatsApp to all the students in bulk. And the students would write back with their activities at a designated whatsapp number where the SOL team could check the responses. However, this process of maintaining responses on one number and sending messages with another made it cumbersome. There also wasn’t much extensibility to the process in terms of generating analytics and reports. Enter Glific.
SOL uses Glific to send a new activity to their student beneficiaires every alternate day which students can work on, respond and receive feedback/gratification without operational challenges. Sending the activity is automated via Glific. And SOL has visibility to how the students interact and respond to their programme.
SOL and ILP who are the alpha users have contributed in making the product robust with their feedback and testing it on the ground. The product has reached a stable state with support from their real-world use cases.
About the creators
I have the privilege of working with seasoned professionals who have proven experience in building scalable complex systems (Yahoo!) as well as building large open-source software systems (CiviCRM) and people with different backgrounds and timezones. Moving along with a responsive, collaborative collection of people has been a humbling, fun, intense journey so far. We often joke about feeling like we’ve been building it forever, though we’re serious about seeing its impact last forever.
Abhishek Sharma is a Product Designer who believes that a lot of the tech adoption challenges in the impact sector can be solved with design. He is currently designing and managing Glific (glific.org) — with a thorough conviction that right conversations at the right time can move and uplift the world. He heads design at ColoredCow.