Using AI to reach teens and close the sex education gap
For over 100 years, Planned Parenthood has been the top resource for at-risk communities seeking health care and advice. A heated political environment threatened its core mission of "Care no matter what." Work & Co approached the nonprofit to determine how technology could help extend their reach and impact.
After conducting months of research with teens—and testing a range of concepts—we ultimately designed and built a first for Planned Parenthood: a gender-neutral, AI powered chatbot named “Roo.”
It gives teenagers everywhere access to private, accurate sexual health information. Within one year of launching, Roo tripled its original goal of 1 million conversations and Time Magazine named it one of the 100 best inventions of 2019.
“Brands and nonprofits have only scratched the surface of what AI can do. Helping teens access trusted information—especially when so many aren't getting the sexual health education they really need—makes this a rare sort of digital product,” says Work & Co Founding Partner Gene Liebel.
What We Did
- Research and product strategy
- Character design, naming, branding
- Conversational user interface design and development
- AI chat engine design and engineering
- Back-end system integration
- Launch support and PR
“Extending the organization’s reach by providing information to young people who don’t have access to sex education.”
“The ideal form to provide personalized, destigmatized answers....It's the latest in Planned Parenthood’s efforts to bring its expertise in reproductive health to more people through digital products.” Read more
“Roo isn’t a regular chatbot. It’s a cool chatbot — designed to answer young people’s sexual health questions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.” Read more
“The artificial intelligence-powered bot gives fast answers in a judgment-free, anonymous setting that’s comfortable for the audience instead of kids going to unchecked online sources.” Read more
“Teens like using Roo because it protects their anonymity. And the fact that it comes in the form of a cute little avatar doesn’t hurt.” Read more
“The driving force behind Roo was the lack of state-mandated, medically-accurate sex education throughout the country.” Read more
“The agency worked with teenagers in MESA (Math Engineering, and Science Academy) High School — a Brooklyn charter school — to gather data and design a chatbot that people of this age group would want to interact with.” Read more
"Planned Parenthood is aiming to close the sex education gap in America with a new chatbot designed to answer teens’ questions 24/7.” Read more
“The bot's brand identity is friendly and warm, outfitted with its own emotional iconography.” Read more
3 Big Takeaways
End users can help shape products early
Partnering with High School Students
Fewer than half of US states mandate sex education; as a result, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 43% of teenage girls and 57% of teenage boys don’t have information about birth control before their first time having sex.
We wanted to create a tool to address this education gap, while meeting teenagers where they spend their time—their mobile phones. To get a better understanding of their digital behavior, we partnered with MESA, a Brooklyn high school.
Real teenager input guided our decisions. Teenagers didn’t want to download more apps, so we made Roo a mobile website. They had questions about sexual health, so we used those questions to inform our content. They wanted to ask questions privately, so we made Roo 100% anonymous.
On their mobile devices, teenagers can choose from a list of popular questions and topics, including birth control, masturbation, sexual orientation, and gender.
While AI to date has commonly been tapped to create customer service tools, we saw a chance for Roo to leverage technology in a novel way. The AI chatbot serves as a bridge to the informed advice offered by medical professionals in Planned Parenthood centers — distributed for free 24/7, and through machine learning, scaling into an ever-expanding resource library.
Carve out time for testing
Many organizations underestimate the level of effort required to properly build a chatbot. To be effective, a chatbot needs to be seeded with a rich set of data and then trained continuously. Group Technology Director Chris Alden and Design Director Lauren Shapiro explain our process.
Web App Architecture
Every product needs the right name and personality
Just Enough Friendliness
We wanted our chatbot to be more like an older sibling than a school sex-ed teacher. So we gave our chatbot a friendly, approachable name: Roo. We tested the name with high school students from MESA, making sure they would feel comfortable asking it questions and confident they were getting accurate information.
We continued working with the students to fine-tune Roo’s look and feel, including color, typography, motion, and tone of voice.
When a teen asks a question, within seconds, Roo responds with animated GIFs and encouraging slogans that bring color to conversations. The animations keep Roo playful without feeling too immature or silly.
No Judgments and No Gender
We also wanted to mirror the experience inside Planned Parenthood health centers. That meant building Roo to be completely private and anonymous.
We decided to keep Roo genderless to make sure everybody would feel comfortable asking questions, regardless of gender or orientation. Teenagers felt more comfortable asking questions to a bot than a human.
Our writing team worked with Planned Parenthood to define full content guidelines and create a unique tone of voice that resonates with teenagers. Roo is always medically accurate, but it speaks informally. Interactions feel genuine, not patronizing or overwhelming.
Get In Touch
Interested in learning more about our approach to AI and new platforms? Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.