Planned Parenthood’s Roo isn’t a regular chatbot, its a cool chatbot — designed to answer young people’s sexual health questions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The nonprofit organization teamed up with experts at the digital product agency Work & Co to develop the chatbot, and worked with high school students in Brooklyn to gain feedback and learn what young people want to know when it comes to sexual health, according to a press release.
Roo is a smiling purple face who speaks casually but provides informed advice. On their mobile devices, users can choose from a list of popular questions and topics, such as birth control, masturbation, or sexual orientation, and gender. Within seconds, Roo responds with personalized information and colorful, animated messages of encouragement, like “You do you” and “It’s all good.”
Planned Parenthood wants Roo to help people feel comfortable asking those personal sex-ed questions, says Ambreen Molitor, the senior director of digital products lab at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
“This is independent of the fact of whether you have sex-ed at your high school, whether you have a friendly relationship with your parents and family members or not,” says Molitor. “[Roo] just allows you to have a safe space and an outlet for you to ask all of the questions and get accurate information to those questions, as well.”
To that end, the chatbot is modern and approachable. Ask how to tell someone you like them, and Roo will assure you that although it can feel awkward and scary, the best thing to do is to be direct, ask your crush how they feel, and either way, to “be open, honest, and treat the other person with respect.” Request more info and Roo will direct you to articles from Planned Parenthood that discuss crushes, breakups, healthy relationships, and consent.
Roo is inclusive of different gender identities, as well. At the start of the experience, users are prompted to select female, male, trans man, trans woman, non-binary, or name your own.
The bot also analyzes the words and questions and sometimes prompts users to talk to an expert or someone more experienced, says Molitor.
Although sharing personal information with technology may raise concerns, Planned Parenthood assures users that Roo is completely anonymous and that their data will never be shared or sold.
When developing Roo, Planned Parenthood studied data that came from their own site and social platforms to understand the natural way in which young people communicate and explore. Planned Parenthood’s findings showed that over 80 percent of the people that the organization talks to are using mobile devices. Teens specifically make up a majority of that 80 percent.
Planned Parenthood also learned that when teens are using mobile devices, they’re either on the internet or using a text messaging platform that allows for one-to-one conversations. Accordingly, Roo is a blend of both.
During their research, Planned Parenthood also noticed that teens tended to ask questions in a humorous way. That’s why even though the questions listed in the program may be personal and sensitive, they are framed in a lighthearted tone so as not to create any discomfort. (See: How big in my penis supposed to be?).
“We wanted to bring that tone to life, as well. So the way that Roo speaks to the user is to allow that comfort zone to continue to happen,” says Molitor.