How can we support young people – as well as their families and supporters – in navigating a complex social and community services system, and empower them to make decisions and take positive action?

A digital service that gives young people in a range of crisis scenarios the information, tools and support they need to make positive decisions and actions on their future.

This is the story of Ask Izzy, a service created by Infoxchange that helps connect young people in crisis to relevant support services. From its beginnings five years ago as a service focused on homelessness, Ask Izzy is now helping those experiencing crises of many forms and origins. From the domestic violence epidemic to the coronavirus pandemic, the team behind the digital service have stopped at nothing to help those who need help, and they’re still pushing forward.

As of 2020, we all know a little bit about what a crisis is like. The coronavirus pandemic locked down our lives to varying degrees and we suffered the consequences. For some these were the financial challenges of making mortgage or rental payments; for others they were emotional challenges borne out of social isolation or adverse domestic situations.

Sadly, experiencing a crisis is the norm for many young people, and it often carries compounding effects. Consider homelessness. More than presenting only uncertain living situations, it is a scenario for many that is also characterised by dysfunctional relationships, drug abuse and mental health issues.

Ask Izzy was created five years ago to provide assistance to those in exactly this kind of predicament. Its ambition was to assist those experiencing homelessness to find food and shelter. Fast forward to today and this digital connector, powered by participation in the Telstra Foundation’s Tech4Good Challenge, is providing assistance to young people in all kinds of troubling situations. This isn’t the usual tale of a digital product pivoting towards new market opportunities, it’s the story of a team who feel compelled to open their services up to anyone who needs them.

As their team explained in their latest project report: “An app that started 5 years ago with a focus on people experiencing homelessness, and that had already seen expansion into areas like family and domestic violence, was now faced with the possibility that we were in fact for everybody.”

What the team is grappling with now is the requirement to build an Ask Izzy that is accessible and adaptable to different needs of different people in different circumstances (types of situations, degrees of crisis, levels of digital accessibility and more). Suddenly, it’s complicated. Or more complicated than it was, we should say.

The response, when faced with complexity, involved product design experiments and proposition pivots as might be expected. But the real breakthroughs were in how the design team began to work more effectively together. By committing to working more openly and collaboratively, which are key tenets and teachings of the Tech4Good Challenge, the team has now laid down the cultural foundations for what product lead Ben Shaw calls a ‘full product design practice’. From a group of designers and developers hammering away on individual tasks to a truly galvanised, elite unit.

We realised the real task is team building. Creating product features is not as important as establishing the culture and practices of continuous learning, testing and iteration.

-Ben Shaw, Ask Izzy

The product of this teamwork is one that has evolved through various iterations and is still being shaped by continuous user feedback. Initially the team was exploring a voice-based interface that could deliver a more personalised experience. However following user feedback, they understood that a conversational interface, though innovative in its use of technology, was not likely to deliver the optimal experience nor outcomes for users.

And so the focus for the Ask Izzy team has shifted from delivering a high-tech interface to creating a truly valuable user experience. The product is now anchored in the delivery of relevant, accurate results; in clear navigation and a smooth user journey; and in helping provide solutions for users.

The results of this commitment to teamwork and the user experience speak for themselves. Ask Izzy continues on a growth trajectory in terms of its overall user base and the number of audiences it serves. As of April 2021, over 10,000 people use Ask Izzy every week to find help and support. A beta platform that seeks to gain feedback on new ideas across different audience groups has engaged 950 users over 1,400 sessions.

Through Ask Izzy’s work with young people, and with the arrival of the pandemic, there has been plenty of reflection on its definitive social impact objective. What the team has landed on is less an objective and more a question to be answered, if not one that demands to be answered: “How do we reduce barriers to seeking help for everyone?”

From an initial focus on homelessness, Ask Izzy has expanded its view and carved for itself a bigger goal. From here the team is exploring ways in which the service can be tailored to effectively meet the needs of different users in a range of scenarios. The consideration now is not whether they will create social impact, but how much impact they can make. The evidence suggests they are creating some waves already.

If there’s a key takeaway from Ask Izzy’s journey to here, it’s that innovation is not necessarily about technology. It’s about building something that hasn’t existed before, that creates social value for its users. And the best way to do this is to invest not in technology but in a team: one consistent group of committed colleagues, with diverse backgrounds and different skillsets but all galvanised by the same goal. Teamwork is truly making this dream work.