Emily Gilles
User Experience Design
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Understanding the cancer journey

Cancer Lifeline

Interaction design, UI design, prototyping, user interviews

3-person group capstone project for SVC’s UX certificate program

10 weeks in spring 2019


Cancer Lifeline provides emotional support to people affected by cancer. The nonprofit came to us because their new online chat service had only 46 users in the first five months. Cancer Lifeline wanted to gain more chat users to broaden their reach.

How might we reach more people affected by cancer?

My approach


Make it actionable

My goal for this capstone project was to pitch a design solution that the client would be able to actually implement. After several years in the nonprofit space, I’ve learned the importance of being pragmatic when working with clients who are short on time, resources, and staff. So—with a balance of creativity and resourcefulness—I worked with my team to propose an actionable solution that is cost effective and easy to implement.

“Our goal of actually making something useful is clearly in reach.”
— Beth, Cancer Lifeline's development director

Find the real problem

My project team and I had concerns that the project brief didn’t encompass the root problem. Cancer Lifeline wanted to expand their reach by convincing more people to use their chat service—but was online chat the best way to expand their reach?

So we kept open minds when we went to Cancer Lifeline to interview seven of their constituents. I had an emotional hour-long conversation with a young adult who had cancer and her partner. In this conversation, I learned a couple key findings that mirrored what my team members learned as well.


Key findings


Me vs. We

I learned that one-on-one support—like from a therapist or online chat—is useful when dealing with immediate crisis moments like the shock of a diagnosis. However, needs and pain points change as people with cancer move through their journeys. To get through treatment and beyond, people affected by cancer also need a community of peers.

“Chats and hotlines are for a crisis. Cancer’s not a crisis, but a long emergency.”
— Cancer Lifeline user
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Young adults aren’t getting the help they need

I also learned about the particular challenges of being a young adult with cancer. Since rates of cancer increase greatly after age 55, services like cancer support groups are mostly designed for retired folks. Additionally, my team found that half of Cancer Lifeline’s website users are under age 55. Contrary to Cancer Lifeline’s belief, many of their users are young adults.

“I was trying to find a support group, but it would be all grandparents. They’re just in a different stage in life.”
— Cancer Lifeline user



Reframing the challenge

Based on these key findings, we proposed that Cancer Lifeline not only improves their one-on-one chat experience, but also helps underserved users like young adults join communities of peers. By meeting the needs of their users throughout the entire cancer journey—not just small parts of it—Cancer Lifeline could truly broaden their reach.

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Improve one-on-one chat

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Help users find community


Improve one-on-one chat

The current one-on-one chat experience requires users to:

  • remember a group password,

  • leave the Cancer Lifeline website,

  • create an account, and

  • learn a new user interface.

This process is so complicated because Cancer Lifeline uses 7 Cups, an online therapy service, to deliver their one-on-one chat support. With such a confusing and lengthy onboarding process, Cancer Lifeline runs the risk of losing users—especially those who are dealing with “chemo brain” or who are in crisis mode from receiving a diagnosis.

“I have a medication calendar because my brain won’t work.”
— Cancer Lifeline user


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How we improved it

So users don’t have to create accounts in order to chat, we proposed that Cancer Lifeline ditches 7 Cups (the existing chat service) and instead manages chats in-house using a product like LiveChat. 

We proposed that Cancer Lifeline uses LiveChat instead of their existing chat service, 7 Cups

We proposed that Cancer Lifeline uses LiveChat instead of their existing chat service, 7 Cups


How it can work

Cancer Lifeline already has the volunteer structure in place to manage these chats in-house because the organization has a volunteer-run phone hotline. When the volunteers are offline, users can leave a message and receive a reply later.

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Why it’s better

Not only is one-on-one chat easier to access, users receive better support. In the new experience, users chat with Cancer Lifeline volunteers—rather than people who aren’t affiliated. Now, users get both emotional support and referrals to financial aid, community-based events, and other supportive services.


Help users find community

Cancer Lifeline’s existing community-based services are only offered through in-person support groups and classes. With rates of in-person groups lower than desired, we proposed that Cancer Lifeline:

  • expands by offering moderated online support groups, and

  • makes in-person support groups easier to find on their website.


Community of peers anywhere, anytime

We proposed that Cancer Lifeline offers online community (not just in-person) because this new service will:

  • provide 24/7 access to peer-based support

  • broaden reach to people who don’t live near a meeting space or are too sick to attend a meeting

  • lower the commitment level for people who aren’t sure if they’re ready for an in-person support group

  • offer customized support for people in underserved groups, like young adults and men

“I don’t remember the first [in-person] support group. I was probably asleep. Things were going downhill”
— Cancer Lifeline user

How it works

In the prototype that I designed, I used Slack as the proposed platform for the online community. Users can sign up for a Slack group on the Cancer Lifeline website, and this group will act as a digital version of the associated in-person support group. The group’s moderator will prompt users with discussion topics and make sure that users are respectful.



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Find your crew

Aside from adding a new online community feature, we proposed that Cancer Lifeline also cleans up their in-person support group pages so users can “find their crews.” This is important because community is essential to people affected by cancer.

“We get motivation from community, they help us keep going.”
— Cancer Lifeline user


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Why it’s better

By standardizing information like time, location, and schedule, users can filter and scan to find a support group that fits their needs—rather than having to click each link to learn more.



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Why it’s better

Users can join an online community associated with the in-person support group straight from the product page. Additionally, visual hierarchy helps users get important information like date, time, and location at a glance.




My team pitched these proposals to Cancer Lifeline during our capstone presentation at the School of Visual Concepts (SVC). The client appreciated that our solution was actionable and easy to implement.

We’re in conversations with the client about implementing these improvements. While we expect these edits to expand the number of people Cancer Lifeline serves, we didn’t get a chance to test our new chat and community options with more than just a few people. So, we suggested that Cancer Lifeline does more testing with real customers and volunteers before fully implementing a solution.

“The effort, the thoughtfulness, the details, the understanding of Cancer Lifeline as a community — all of these things resulted in something so much more than just a website redesign.”
— Beth, Development Director at Cancer Lifeline