Automation in Training? Elementary!

Once upon a time (stick with me), we had our Crisis Counselors-in-training pair up in real time to practice their skills. We don’t want their first time talking to a real person in crisis to be their first experience of a full conversation. (Even video games let you practice your moves before you start, and our work is far more serious.)

This live practice raised many issues. Our volunteers have busy lives — making it to a real-time session isn’t easy. In-the-moment feedback was impossible, since several dozen people would do their roleplays at the same time. Feedback wouldn’t come until a trainer reviewed it, which might be a day or two later. And you had one shot at it; you couldn’t come back the next night to flex your Crisis Counselor muscles again.

Sound awful? It kind of was. To anyone in those early training cohorts (I was in Cohort 2!), we love you for sticking with us as we learned a better way. It took us a few attempts, but we finally landed on a solution: “Sherlock.”

Sherlock simulates a conversation, gives immediate feedback, and is available 24/7. Why “Sherlock?” Because it uses coded logic to decide what to do next. (Also because I have a slight obsession with Benedict Cumberbatch.)

But back to the tech! Let’s dig into the perks of Sherlock.

Sherlock responds to you

Our volunteers don’t just want to practice; they want their roleplays to feel real. Squeezing responses in between a static texter-side script feels clunky and fake. We know; we tried that method, too. So we needed a simulator that responded smartly to any message a trainee sends.

Here’s a Sherlock-simulated message and a trainee’s response:

Texter: You know, I’m not sure why I even reached out. I’m a lost cause.

Crisis Counselor: You’re not a lost cause. It took strength to reach out today.

After they hit enter, the trainee sees this message from the same simulated texter:

Texter: How do you know I’m not a lost cause? You don’t even know me.

Let’s see what happens if they go back and send something else:

Texter: You know, I’m not sure why I even reached out. I’m a lost cause.

Crisis Counselor: It’s not easy to reach out. I can see how strong you are.

Texter: Yeah. But it’s exhausting. I’m so tired of this.

Sherlock reads a message and responds to that message. This dynamic script makes it feel real and makes the time spent practicing worthwhile.

So how does it work?

We set it up using logic jumps based on keywords and phrases. In the first example above it recognized that the Counselor said, “not a lost cause,” so the coded logic tells the roleplay to reply, “How do you know I’m not a lost cause?” In the second example, it picked on the strength identification (“I can see how strong you are”) and responded with “Yeah. But…” The flow of the conversation is based entirely on these logic jumps.

Sherlock gives feedback

Sherlock pauses and gives “pro tips” during the roleplays — you’re still learning, so we have some “teaching moments” built in. These are based on those same logic jumps. A great example is a “Why” question. In text, questions starting with “Why” can read as judgmental, so we avoid them. When a trainee does a roleplay, and asks such a question, Sherlock will pause and explain that it’s not a best practice.

For one assignment so far, Sherlock reads, evaluates, and gives substantial feedback (positive and constructive) after a volunteer finishes it. This all runs on sentiment analysis. We fed Sherlock about 5,000 different examples of good and not-so-good messages. Based on that data, it can now read new messages and decide whether they’re good or need improvement. Once it’s reviewed each message, it decides which pieces of feedback are most relevant and sends it to the Counselor-in-training. This means our trainees get valuable feedback immediately. This nifty feature will be expanded to all roleplays over the next few months.

Sherlock is always there

Remember how our volunteers have lives? They have school, work, kids, pets, and an odd desire to sleep in between all of life’s responsibilities. When we required live attendance, trainees made it work because that’s the kind of people they are. But they often felt rushed or tired or distracted. Sherlock is available in our course 24/7, so it’s ready when they are. Such a simple thing but with a huge impact.

What’s next?

Continued roleplays after training! Our training is extensive; our volunteers learn a lot. But they are always eager to learn more. Crisis isn’t just suicide or depression: our texters struggle with a wide range of issues, and our Crisis Counselors want to be the best support for each of them. So we’ll be taking Sherlock beyond training when we launch a Continuing Education program for our active volunteers.

We’re excited to expand Sherlock for our volunteers and share what we’ve learned with all of you.

Before I go, here’s another unnecessary Sherlock .gif for you:

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