How to create a coronavirus help directory

Tips, tools, and templates to help you build a coronavirus help website for your community.

In 2020, I worked on a coronavirus help directory for Brighton & Hove (the city I live in) on behalf of two amazing clients — Community Works and The Trust For Developing Communities. It’s been quite a journey, so I wanted to share some learnings for anyone else working on a similar project. I’m also sharing some of our artefacts which I hope you’ll be able to reuse or build on. You can find the site at covidbrightonhove.org.uk.

A big thank you to NHS Brighton and Hove Clinical Commissioning Group and Sussex Community Foundation for funding the project.

The brief: connect people to support

Coronavirus is making life tough for all of us. But it’s not ‘the great leveller’. For some people — those who need to stay at home to protect themselves, or those living in poverty, for example — the situation is critical.

Local government, charities, and volunteer organisations in Brighton have been fast to react and have come up with amazing solutions to help. For example Together Co, a loneliness charity that quickly mobilised its volunteers to deliver food and essentials to people stuck at home. Or Brighton & Hove Food Partnership which mobilised to help people find free or cheap, healthy food.

The brief was to build a site — fast — that would help the most vulnerable people in the city find all these brilliant sources of support.

Discovery: three key questions to ask

We started off with a quick discovery phase. As tempting as it is to just start building when things feel urgent, it’s essential to do some research first.

The three questions I’d suggest looking at are:

  1. What’s already out there?: Make sure no one else is doing this for your community already. You don’t want to duplicate effort or confuse people by creating multiple sites that fulfil the same purpose. If there’s already something out there, offer to help them instead.
  2. What do people need?: Find out who needs help most and what they need help with. I spoke to the Trust for Developing Communities’ amazing community workers as this was the fastest, most effective way to get a broad view of the situation. I also researched what people were asking for help within local mutual aid groups and looked at demographic data for the city (for example, what languages people speak and which communities are most vulnerable).
  3. What does the network look like?: Map the network of services and organisations offering help. Community Works and Trust for Developing Communities provided me with lots of information and useful connections. This doesn’t need to be comprehensive, but it’s good to start with a grasp of what’s out there.

Key user needs

We found that the key audiences for the site were:

  • people who have to stay at home (also known as shielding or self-isolating) because of their age or an illness
  • people living in poverty
  • people who are socially isolated
  • disabled people

and that the key difficulties they were facing were:

  • struggling with getting food or medicine
  • feeling lonely
  • worrying about their health
  • worrying about money and paying rent and bills.

We also found that:

  • some people might not have access to broadband or a smartphone
  • professionals, volunteers and members of the public might use the site to support someone else.

My guess would be that these learnings will apply in many communities, as these are universal things that reflect our most basic needs. I’d still suggest verifying that they apply in yours though.

There were some insights specific to Brighton that we needed to factor in too. For example:

  • a high rate of homelessness
  • a large LGBTQIA population
  • no major ethnic minority groups, but lots of smaller ones (this is important for understanding translation needs)

It’s worth considering whether there’s any equivalent local knowledge for your area that you need to design for.

Our proposition and principles

The proposition we came up with, based on the discovery, was:

There are a wealth of organisations providing support, but no single place to find out about them. This site will act as a single destination where vulnerable people and their friends, family and carers can go to find help.

Our principles, which will hopefully work for any similar project, are:

  • Signpost, don’t duplicate: if it already exists, don’t recreate it — link to it
  • Collaborate and share: ask for help and guidance from people in-the-know: the Council, charities, and volunteer organisations on the frontline
  • Prioritise, prioritise, prioritise: focus on creating signposts for critical needs and for people finding things hardest
  • Make it accessible, easy to read and easy to use: it’s better for everyone
  • Make it mobile-first and fast: not everyone has a desktop/laptop or a broadband connection
  • Move fast and keep it simple: think of the simplest, fastest solution and do that. Things are changing daily, so don’t over-engineer solutions.

Naming and URLs

One big thing I wish we’d known was not to choose a coronavirus-related name and domain. The team who registered the domain said the process was a pain, and we found that a few antivirus software flagged the site as spam. The developers, Brightminded, got this fixed, but it took a lot of work.

My recommendation would be to go for a different naming approach, making sure whatever you go with is:

  • Differentiated: distinctive and not easy to confuse
  • Brief: four syllables or less
  • Easy: simple to say and spell
  • Satisfying: good to pronounce
  • Memorable: sticks in your mind

Our content model and taxonomy

One area where I hope our work might save you a lot of time is the content model (how we structure the content and the site) and taxonomy (how we group or classify support). Assuming you have a similar proposition and set of user needs, you should be able to reuse our approach.

The basic unit of the content model for our site is the ‘signpost’. A signpost is a listing for a source of support.

A screenshot of a signpost to The Bevy, an organisation that delivers hot meals.

A single organisation can have multiple signposts. For example, for Citizens Advice we have different signposts for information about rent and being furloughed.

The structure for our signposts is:

  • Organisation name
  • Support description
  • Link
  • Phone number
  • Email
  • Opening hours
  • Area of the city

Signposts are create-once-publish-everywhere — we create the entity and then embed it on multiple pages. The benefit of doing it this way is that if the details change, you only need to update one place.

Signposts are also printable. Because many people who need help aren’t online, we wanted to make it easy for friends, family, and carers to print details and post them through the letterbox.

The taxonomy is based on user needs, characteristics, and locations. The idea behind this approach was to make it easy to create highly relevant collections of signposts for different user needs or types of users. The taxonomy for areas of the city is based on a combination of electoral wards and local ‘folksonomy’.

See the taxonomy here: Covid Brighton & Hove taxonomy

Navigation and information architecture

The site has four categories of support, which form the navigation and information architecture. They are:

1. The help directory. This is the main directory of support. We based the structure on what research showed were the biggest areas of need and the communities finding things hardest. The sub-pages are:

  • Food and shopping
  • Health and mental health
  • Rent and housing
  • Work, money and benefits
  • Domestic and sexual violence
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Support for disabled people
  • Support for older people
  • Support for young people
  • Support for LGBTQIA people
  • Support for ethnic minority people and refugees
  • Support for sex workers

2. How can we help? This category links to very specific, urgent needs. We created this based on an important insight that some users don’t feel comfortable with navigating websites. We wanted to make sure we could directly link to pages that would meet those people’s needs on the homepage. The sub-pages in this section are:

  • I need someone to do my food shopping
  • I need free food or a food bank
  • I need someone to get my medicine
  • I need someone to talk to
  • I can’t pay my rent
  • I need help with technology

3. Find local community groups. This category links to support at a hyper-local level. It includes community groups that have existed for years, mutual aid groups created since the crisis, and services (like meal delivery) that only run in specific areas of the city.

4. Translations. Translated content in the languages most commonly spoken across the city. User research showed that people who speak other languages might struggle to find help, as so much of the first wave of advice was only available in English. The translated pages only signpost services where people will be able to speak to a translator. I got the translations through a combination of copying information from elsewhere and asking for favours from native speakers. The pages also include translated fact sheets and videos from GOV.UK and the Red Cross with general health advice. (See the links section at the end of the article.)

Content creation

I collect the signposts in a spreadsheet and use data validation based on the taxonomy above to assign each signpost a support category, support sub-category, and a specific audience group, and area of the city (if applicable).

This makes it easier to create collections of signposts for different needs which form the pages of the site.

A screenshot of this page https://covidbrightonhove.org.uk/help-directory/food-and-shopping/

Here’s a template that you can use to do this yourself: Signpost taxonomy template

Technology

I can’t speak much to the technical side of the project, as full credit for that goes to Brightminded. What I can tell you is:

  • we built the site in WordPress
  • we used the Generate Press theme, because it’s lightweight, responsive and accessible
  • we used the Elementor plugin as a page builder

Design

Tom Prior did an amazing job with the design for the site. What I can tell you about this is:

  • the fonts are Quicksand and Open Sans, which are both highly legible. The British Dyslexia Association also recommends Open Sans
  • Tom was careful about making sure that we have good type contrast throughout the site
  • the icons are from Flaticon

Writing and style points

Some writing and style points we adopted that you might like to use, are:

  • Write to the reader directly — ‘you can do this’, ‘you can call them’ etc.
  • Make sure to include a reference to using the site on behalf of other people wherever possible. Many users are likely to be doing so for a neighbour, family, friend, client and they need to know this is for them too.
  • Try not to say things like ‘self-isolating’ or ‘shielding’, explain what it actually means. For example, ‘if you have been told you need to stay at home’.
  • Try not to say ‘social distancing’, explain what it means. For example, ‘Stay six feet or two meters away from other people’.
  • Make link text specific and descriptive — never ‘Click here’ or ‘Find out more’.
  • All signpost links (links to other websites) must open in a new tab.
  • Refer to the Readability Guidelines (see link section).
  • Refer to the Coronavirus and COVID-19 clear language list (see link section).

Spread the word

‘Build it and they’ll come’ never works, and this is no exception. To spread the word, we asked the organisations signposted on the site and local community groups and workers to link to and share the site. Local community Facebook groups have been a big source of traffic.

We sent out a press release and we’re working on getting more local coverage. And, of course, we’re optimising for organic search too.

Spreading the word is an ongoing piece of work. We’re still adding new content and features, which gives us fresh things to talk about.

Stay open and be ready to pivot

The situation is changing and will continue to do so. People’s needs are likely to develop as time goes on, especially if/when lockdown restrictions ease. We’re trying to look ahead and anticipate those needs. For example, in the early weeks, food was by far the biggest area of difficulty, but as time goes on, money and work issues have become more of a priority.

We’ve put a form on the site to make it easy for people to get in touch and tell us about what they’re looking for, or let us know about services we’re missing. I used Typeform for this, and requests come straight through to our Trello board for prioritisation.

We’ve been staying in close contact with the Council, the NHS, local charities and beyond to keep up with new developments too. These relationships are critical — I’d definitely recommend putting time into making these contacts, or getting on the relevant mailing lists.

I’m also hoping to do some remote user testing to identify needs we’re not meeting, and any usability issues with the site.

Finally, Google Analytics is a great source of insight into what people need too. We used tag manager and event tracking so we can see which signpost links and phone numbers people are using most.

If you’ve got questions, ask away in the comments. If you use any of these tools, I’d love to hear how you get on. Equally, if you’re already working on something similar, I’d be really interested to hear about your experience.

Useful links

Like this? Get more, straight to your inbox.

Sign up and get new blog posts emailed to you. Plus, get the 10 Things newsletter: articles, opinions, tools and more curated to spark ideas and make connections for anyone who’s interested in content with purpose. No more than four emails a month. Unsubscribe whenever you like.

Get toolkit updates and discounts