For seven months, David Bill, Miranda Hoffman, and I have been exploring the world of the military family. Our goal was to learn about their challenges and explore opportunities to address those challenges through the creation of a product or service. One particular issue stuck out to us.
Every year, a third of the military moves. They call it PCS (Permanent Change of Station). With each move, families are leaving behind the network of people they deeply rely on. This is especially problematic for spouses, as they are often left to take care of things on their own while their partner is away.
To illustrate the importance of this network, let’s look at the story of Rosie, an Army wife. She told us about the last time her husband was deployed. While he was gone, she got incredibly sick and doctors discovered that she had a mass at the top of her brainstem. She had to travel back and forth from Fort Hood to San Antonio to meet with neurosurgeons and for treatment, and she couldn’t take her two-year-old in with her during the MRI. She had to rely on her friends to step up—to travel with her, emotionally support her, and care her son. Because her husband couldn’t be there, these friends really became her family.
“You rely so strongly on those friends—they really become your family. To be able to build those relationships is really important.”
Unfortunately, military spouses are up against a myriad of challenges when finding friends. FRGs, or Family Readiness Groups, are officially sponsored and branch specific spousal organizations. They are meant to be places for spouses to come together and to socialize and support each other. However, these groups are often disorganized and unresponsive, providing little value and gaining a reputation to be avoided. Also, spouses who do try to get involved often encounter judgment and alienation due at least in part to the military’s rank structure creeping into social dynamics.
Spouses have responded by heading online, Facebook in particular, to find friends. However, as effective as Facebook can be for sharing and communicating online, interactions on Facebook rarely lead to spending time together offline where friendships are built. When reaching out, the response is too often, “You can ‘friend’ me!”, but plans are never made to come together in-person.
To address this issue, we’ve created Oh-hi, a tool for military spouses to make new friends. Here’s a rundown of the important features that we have incorporated into the vision for Oh-hi.
We heard time and again how hard it is not only to find someone, but to find someone you click with. Oh-hi gives users access to other military spouses across the entire duty station regardless of unit or rank. They aren’t limited to those in a particular FRG.
To provide information about themselves, spouses are able to share details that are important to them. Additionally, beyond the basic profile information, Oh-hi allows spouses to have their friends provide references for them. Every step of the way, Oh-hi must be a place that military spouses trust and where they can build trust with each other. Friend references are an essential component to that building of trust.
Another key aspect of building trust is allowing users to ease into relationships with each other. By suggesting low-pressure activities, like going for a walk or getting a cup of coffee, users can feel comfortable reaching out and meeting up. To lower the barrier even further, Oh-hi takes the awkward back-and-forth out of deciding when and where to meet up by offering suggestions based upon mutual availability.
Most importantly, every decision that’s gone into making Oh-hi has been made to encourage military spouses to meet in-person. We believe spending time together in-person is the foundation of building friendship. By making it easy to identify, invite, and meet up with spouses who are also interested in making new friends, we believe that Oh-hi has the potential to help military spouses thrive.
Testing Impact of the Design
We started out with evidence that military spouses were willing to use digital tools to reach out to potential new friends. What we needed to learn was specifically what it would take to ensure would be willing to actually meet in-person. To test our ideas for enabling this behavior, we started with a minimal feature set and implemented a website that allowed users to invite each other to meet up. We ran a pilot at Fort Hood (one of the largest Army bases in the country) for four weeks. Through a combination of marketing efforts—email, a Twitter campaign, and two trips to Fort Hood—we were able to recruit 21 users. The response we received was overwhelmingly positive. People were excited about the idea.
“Oh my gosh, this is something I’ve been looking for! It’s so badly needed!”
While it was extremely validating to hear the excitement, the version of our system that was implemented for the pilot was unsuccessful in spurring users to take action.
No invitations were sent, so no one met in-person. We followed this up with user testing to help identify issues that might have presented users from reaching out. Based upon the user testing, we made changes to the system, creating a more robust set of features that gave users more control over their interactions with each other. The results yielded some clear insights that we can apply to future tests.
Trust is the most important element for us to keep in mind with this system. Beyond trust in the system itself, spouses must be able to trust each other, and they can only build that trust if they are able to interact with each other in the same ways they are comfortable with in real life. Here are the areas we feel we should focus on moving forward.
Because the military community is closed and very protective, it was difficult for spouses to trust us as civilian outsiders. For example, we were kicked out of a Fort Hood Spouses Facebook group because they thought we were trying to sell them something even though the group’s administrators were aware of our project and purpose. To successfully engage with the military spouse community, we found it to be extremely valuable to have someone who is a part of that community speak on our behalf. We have already begun to build relationships with individuals at Fort Hood who believe in the value of Oh-hi.
A tool like Oh-hi often requires potential users to hear about it several times before they are willing to use it. We have identified a variety of ways to drive awareness. In addition to the voice of advocates, spouses have responded positively to the idea of hosting events to offer users another way to interact with each other. Because military spouses are very active on social media, continuing to build out valuable messaging via those channels could be another effective strategy. Finally, once we are able to generate activity, we would like to gather case studies that speak to Oh-hi’s potential to help build friendships.
During user-testing, we found that users were looking for key phrases or visual cues to help them identify those they were interested in meeting up with. We will be working on ways to encourage users to share the right level and types of information that would help them identify each other successfully. Secondly, we found that users had particular expectations around how both messaging and invitations would be displayed. If we are able to match these expectations, users would feel more comfortable with, and in control of, their interactions with each other. Finally, users identified friend references as one of the deciding factors in being able to identify someone they wanted to reach out to. We will need to find a way to successfully encourage users to get their friends to provide them with references.
While the potential for scale is there—there are around 1.1 military spouses whose partner is currently serving—it is not our immediate goal. Our goal now is to demonstrate that Oh-hi is able to build the connections vital to their ability to thrive. If you have any further insights to share or know of others who may be interested in helping us, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.