How to design a digital health chatbot with a human touch

Holly Health is a digital coach helping people make lasting changes to their health, relieving stress and restoring balance by bringing together emotional, physical and mental aspects of our wellbeing. Their habits approach helps people achieve and maintain healthy ways for their nutrition, relationship with food, sleep, mental health, and exercise.

On the latest episode of 15 Minutes With The Doctor, Grace Gimson from Holly Health joins Vinay on the show. The unsolved problems surrounding the health industry attracted her to build Holly Health, a coaching app to support health and wellbeing. In this special article they discuss how to bring in empathy and the human element in a digital interaction, and reveal some tips for creating a chatbot interface focused on physical, mental and nutritional health.


One of the taglines on your website says, “Combining science, kindness, and compassion,” which I really like. Do you think there’s a risk that we lose some of that compassion and empathy through some of the digital interventions that we use and create?


Yeah, I definitely think that. It’s quite a problem in several fully digital tools, apps and things. I experienced personally, through things like the Apple Watch, or some of the tools you have installed as standard on your smartphone, that they can be quite geared towards metrics, numbers, and your digital results. So, for example, have you hit your target for the day?…It can feel very dehumanised. And the challenge with that is that we pull away from what our body feels like, what we need, what we don’t need, and are we hungry? Are we not hungry? Do we need to sleep more?

The more we look for external numbers and points of reference alone, the less in touch we are with actually what we need. So what we’re trying to do is still use a fully digital approach but making it as human and relatable as possible. If anything, it’s actually more about pointing back towards yourself and what’s going on with your intrinsic motivations, what’s going on with your brain, and how you feel generally. That’s what we need to get in touch with before we even start making changes and know what to change.



And that’s why I really liked that kindness and compassion bit brought into your work. At the heart of health, that’s the essential part of what we are doing. That’s what makes a big difference to many patients, before we start intervening and looking at the metrics or investigating.

What are the design considerations for a medical chatbot?


From what you’ve learned so far, can you share any key design considerations for chatbots in health?


Firstly, keep it as simple as feasibly possible. Some chatbots use an advanced kind of NLP, natural language processing technology. This leaves lots of options for free text input and the need to translate that. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done in that area to be helpful, and also, when you’re texting and typing into your phone, that’s quite a lot of effort. So we’ve found the best approach is to narrow down the potential answers into the things that come up most commonly and use button inputs rather than free text inputs most of the time. There are times when it’s good to have free text, but that’s one thing; just keeping it as simple as possible from a user experience perspective.

I think the tone of voice is super important too. It’s a bot, and it could sound really boring, or it could sound really unrelatable which is unhelpful. We’ve all probably had an experience with an online retail bot that just can’t provide the type of answer that we’re looking for and doesn’t feel very helpful. So yeah, it’s crucial to make it feel a little bit more human. We do a lot of work to try and put our own collated voices through the Holly bird. We actually raise that a lot. For example, our emails where we say, “Look, the Holly bird is obviously not human, but here are the people behind it and here’s a little bit about us.” So when you hear the Holly bird, you’re actually kind of hearing us.


That’s cool. Definitely agree about tone. In a face-to-face consultation or even just in real-life when people are chatting, we use so many non-verbal communication skills, whether we are aware of naturally using them or not. Aspects such as silence, body posture and tone, for example. So your take on how you try to bring that in is interesting.

“I think it’s just a lot about creating something that feels like the conversation one of us would like to have. Getting lots of feedback as a team and then bringing in external clinicians, whether it’s a mental health professional, general practitioner, or personal trainer, and getting lots of different views on it. We’ve tweaked things a lot to get to this. — Grace Gimson”

Link: 15 Minutes With The Doctor: Episode 44: How to create a health & wellbeing chatbot with Grace Gimson from Holly Health




Doctor | Founder at Once Daily | Host of 15 Minutes With The Doctor Podcast

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Dr Vinay Shankar

Dr Vinay Shankar

Doctor | Founder at Once Daily | Host of 15 Minutes With The Doctor Podcast

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