Helping people to help
Hilfma is a non-profit app for Android and iOS that helps individuals to support people and local businesses.
We created Hilfma, from the idea to release, in just two weeks. Eighteen agile volunteers planned, developed, designed, and advertised the app.
Hilfma has more than 6,600 users and supports over 650 local businesses. It was also on the shortlist for the app of the year 2020 award from Futurezone.
The f***ing pandemic
Sorry for swearing, but we know you all feel that way too. Back then, just before the first of multiple lockdowns in Austria, we didn’t know what would happen, but we did know that our primary sources of income, the education tech solutions timebite and Quinn, would be dry for the foreseeable future. Our users were busy with existential anxiety, and universities struggled to put classes online or downright closed. In contrast, companies put their staff on short-time work and stopped spending on employer branding. So we had no idea if our company would still exist in a couple of months.
General uncertainty about pretty much everything was the order of the day. Remember when parks were closed, but masks were not mandatory? Daily press conferences about infection numbers and associated measures? Yeah. In this environment, we decided that we had to stop being passive observers of the facts we couldn’t change and do something productive against the hardships of the pandemic, especially since it could be the last thing Dotbite ever did. Right then, the first lockdown started.
How to help?
With the lockdown approaching, whatever we wanted to do needed to happen fast. But first, we needed an idea. This is quite a curious order of events, as usually, you start developing an app with the idea, not needing the concept. So how could a software development agency create something that actually helps people during a time like this?
Inspiration wasn’t far off. In a couple of brainstorming sessions, our brightest minds talked about the many altruistic deeds they saw happening all around them. One particular occurrence came up multiple times: people put notices on their door, offering others who are at risk to buy groceries for them. This was our entry point. We could make this digital. The idea of Hilfma was born, funnily enough, in the same kitchen where we got the idea for our first project, timebite.
- No costs for the users; keep the app non-profit
- Easy access and usability especially for the most vulnerable people
- Bringing people together, by keeping them apart
- Enabling people to help others actively
- Build solidarity in local communities
Two Weeks in March
At the beginning of what turned out to be a multi-year global pandemic, we decided to build Hilfma. One Monday in March, we had the idea for the app. Two weeks later, the app was available on the app stores for both iOS and Android. In retrospect, it was a pretty crazy time. This timeline tries to convey it as best as possible, but it was a lot more fluid in reality.
With the idea slowly taking form, we started to outline the project on paper and tried to solve the fundamental question: How could we digitize the note in the hallway? This question includes more finesse than it seems because the simple note offering help isn’t simple. Who is the target group, who offers the support, and who is the recipient? What assistance is provided, when do people help, and in what area do people help each other? Is the target group of the people who want to receive help even able to use a digital solution?
In this phase, we decided on the key features for the release version, and we had to keep a couple of ideas on hold. The app’s premise was simple: Connect the people who want to help with simple tasks like going to the grocery store or the pharmacy with the people in need of assistance in their area. And vice versa. But even this simple process isn’t without complicated questions, especially when it comes to privacy and data protection concerns, but also parameters like the vicinity of the users or if people can request help for others, like family members living in other cities. Around this time, we came up with the name Hilfma.
“You’ve probably already heard of agile project management. At Dotbite, we work with Scrum, an agile development framework, because it worked out quite well for us in the past.
We planned the development of the app in short periods, so-called sprints. As we wanted our product to be in a releasable state quickly, we decided to try for two one-week sprints. In the beginning, we sat down and discussed what we could realistically accomplish in a week, shifted the backlog items, and wrote the user stories. From then on, each team member knew what to focus on and what the outcome should be after each sprint. The entire team worked independently towards a common goal.
Although we have been using this method for years, Covid restrictions have made it challenging to maintain our usual workflow due to working remotely and holding online meetings. The first routine we established was a 15 minutes daily standup at 9 a.m., where each team member reported what they had accomplished the previous day, what they would be doing until tomorrow, and what tasks they needed help with. We learned that it’s vital to have someone on the team who always keeps an eye on the clock by reminding the team of the time limit (“5 minutes to go, guys!”) so that everyone gets to the point quickly and focuses only on the relevant topics. Agile project management is all about communication and enabling ownership within the team.
The entire team has the same definition of "done", works towards the same goal,
and helps each other to achieve the respective sprint goals.”
The next step was to start programming the basic data models for the app and include all the necessary functions. First, we had to create a database system that keeps track of all orders and the order’s location. Since a big focus of the app was helping older people with their groceries, we needed a way for them to add orders too. We already knew how hard it is to create a UX used by younger people, but for technologically inexperienced elderlies, it seemed like an almost impossible task – especially since some may not even own a smartphone. So, we decided to make it possible to give an order based on your current location or create an order based on a foreign location, e.g., if you want to get help for your grandmother. That way, we moved the user from people that might struggle with the app to younger, more tech affine users. During this, we realized that an inbuilt chat function would have been beyond the scope of this app, so we opted to pair the users together through WhatsApp. Once we saw everything worked as we hoped expected, the final development phase started.
At the same time, our good friend and one-person design studio Dominik Rummerstorfer created the design and the visual feeling for Hilfma. We aimed for a very streamlined yet comfortable and trustworthy design. With stylized elements like the shopping bag, which became the logo of Hilfma, or the sketched characters of both helpers and helped, the design of the app itself tells the story of helping others. This allowed us to create a caring environment in our app, where people genuinely look after each other.
The user experience had to be as accessible as possible since the people who needed help the most might not have a lot of experience using apps or smartphones. We reduced the necessary steps for both requests and proposals to the absolute minimum and kept texts and structure concise and straightforward. Big headlines with exact wordings, short and accurate descriptions, and no distractions at all in an effortless yet friendly design led to low-threshold usability. The cooperation with Dominik and our knowledge in building interfaces that everybody understands should prove very valuable in the future.
“We always push our team to take on ownership and give each individual the opportunity to be entrepreneurial in our company. This was even more important amid Covid-19. Now more than ever before, we had to trust and rely on each other to achieve our set goals quickly, but also with the high-quality standard, we expect our products to hold. It was an exhilarating and fun experience to see everyone in the team give more than ever while doing things they never did before just to reach our goals together.”
After finishing the basic data models and the user interface, we coded the whole application day and night. It took us a lot of coffee and a few night shifts - especially getting the notifications to work correctly, but we finished the final programming after just about four days.
Then we had to wait five days for the app to be released in the stores...
A released app isn’t worth a lot when nobody knows about it. Once Hilfma was online, we have pulled all the stops to make the app known to a broader public because Hilfma could only work if enough people who needed help and people who wanted to help learned about it. From the very beginning, we had tremendous success spreading the word about HILFMA among the many neighborhood support groups on social media. The people in these groups actively looked for a way to help and quickly became multiplicators for our app. For example, to make Hilfma known in all municipalities in Austria, we contacted all (!) mayors in Austria, which is about 2,100 calls and emails.
Friends in other cities and volunteers who could identify with this cause helped where they could. They distributed flyers in almost all cities in Austria, translated the app into six languages, and made all kinds of waves on social media. Thank you!
It wasn’t long until Hilfma got some media coverage in pretty cool places, like Der Standard or FM4. We were in the news! Quite some people found our app this way, and it continued to grow faster than we imagined. Looking back, these were exciting times because we were on everyone’s lips, and we had all the momentum in the world.
And, of course, we did “real life” help ourselves. We used Hilfma a lot, and being able to help people, seeing how they appreciated it and how they were genuinely happy in a hard time like this, was incredibly satisfying. We did this with an app.
You have a great idea. We have the means to make it real. Let’s talk about it: no pitch, no nonsense, no strings attached.
Support your locals
Once the app got some traction and media coverage, we started to develop another feature because we realized a need during the first weeks of the pandemic: local service providers, small shops, and businesses had to stay closed. Hilfma was already all about helping the people near you, so the step to helping local businesses by giving them a platform wasn’t a big one. We aimed to let people connect with places to do their eco-friendly groceries or just enjoy a warm coffee (to go). Places they might not know were right in front of them in their neighborhood.
Thus we had to develop a way for local businesses to create and maintain a profile in our app. Since we had a lot of experience with company profiles from our web app timebite, we already had a plan to get going. At first, we created a straightforward way for the companies to create and edit their descriptions, upload, render pictures, and give their profiles a name. Then, to match the company’s location with the user location, we needed a service that receives the location’s name and returns the latitude and longitude. In the beginning, we opted for OpenStreetMaps, since it was free and open source. However, after many businesses could not find their address (because sometimes they were in the middle of nowhere), we switched to Google Places. Lastly, we created a flow for us to approve changes in a company profile. Whenever a change occurred, we made a call to the Trello API to create a new card in our Hilfma board. As soon as we saw the card, we had an admin profile where we could view the change and approve it, which made it show up in the app, or disapprove it, which sent an email to the owner with a description of why it was not approved. This way, we also helped companies to have a visually appealing profile. We got the inspiration for this cycle from the apple store, even though it was annoying for us in the beginning stages of the app.
With Hilfma getting a lot of attention and many active users, the local shop feature was received very well. Two weeks after releasing it, we had over 500 shops presented in the app.
Connecting the dots
If Hilfma was the last thing we did as a company, we could have been proud. It wasn’t, but we’re proud nonetheless. In less than two weeks, we’ve built an app for iOS and Android, which is entirely free and has genuinely helped thousands of people in one of the most trying times in our lifetime. We’ve kept Hilfma simple, as everybody should be able to use the app. For people who still struggle with using applications on phones, we added the possibility to ask for help for others. This way, people can ask for support for family members who don’t live anywhere near them.
Hilfma works on almost all phones (Android 4.4 October 2014 & iOS 8.0 September 2014).
We created a very easy-to-use UI. The app also enables asking for help for other people who don’t have access to a smartphone or the technical capabilities to use one.
Hilfma allows people to help others and ask for assistance. Local businesses can advertise themselves for free.
Hilfma is a non-profit app and free of charge both for users and businesses.
Clicks on businesses
“The combination of values and innovation, in this case, willingness to help and the possibilities of the digital world - that's what HILFMA stands for, and that's what we want to support! It's a wonderful thought that help for grandparents living a hundred kilometers away is just a click away.”
Florian Graßmück - UNIQA
App of the year nomination
Help! I need somebody
Eighteen volunteers helped build Hilfma, and they didn’t do it for money but a vision. The energy created by people who just wanted to help was a fantastic experience.
Passion is contagious
Once Hilfma got going, it really got going. So many people volunteered to help us with things like translations or marketing, and without them, we couldn’t have achieved what we did.
Do good, and good will come to you
Although Hilfma was and is a non-profit initiative, the app indirectly led to one of our major projects. Through contacts established in this project, we ended up working on LEAD Horizon.
You have a great idea. We have the means to make it real. Let’s talk about it: no pitch, no nonsense, no strings attached.