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How can we harness the power of AI for personal development, but keep that all-important human connection?

This has been a burning question for Irish start-up Zelfio, which has worked with Learnovate to create a digital coaching and personal development app.  The key, explains founder and CEO Stephen Griffiths, has been to draw on evidence and human know-how to provide personalised, daily coaching that integrates with the user’s life.   But rather than giving AI the steering wheel for the user’s journey, Zelfio pushes AI into the background, using the power of the technology to make helpful connections. Then the app provides the user with more human-driven interactions to steer them as they work on their personal and professional development.

“The market is full of personal development apps, and AI seems like an obvious route to automate people’s journeys through them, but I see the human insights as a more user-centred and suitable way forward,” says Griffiths.

“AI can only learn from what people have done before, which may not be the best route for a particular user, and there is the potential for leading people down the wrong path.”

Learning from humans

The idea for Zelfio has its origins in Griffiths’ own experience of personal development, and of doing the work to connect with his values.

As a young entrepreneur, he was drawn towards the technology sector, where he founded start-ups in his early 20s and excelled at selling products and services.

“I really saw IT as a way to make a profit and I was good at selling it,” he says. “It was demanding work, but I persevered. That’s what I thought I had to do.”

Having played sports at an international level in his teens, Griffiths carried over his competitive mindset into his professional life during his twenties.

“I was consistently pushing my boundaries and striving for excellence, and I kept ignoring all the stress, the anxiety that I was feeling,” he says. “I would feel physically ill before giving presentations, and I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what the cost was going to be.”

By his mid-20s, Griffiths was burning out fast, and it came to a head one evening after a particularly intense business meeting. “I wasn’t feeling well, a bit cold, and I said to my wife that I was going to take a bath,” he recalls.

Within minutes, he felt as though he was having a heart attack, his joints were locking up and he was whisked to hospital in an ambulance.

“I thought this is it,” he says. “We were expecting our first baby and I thought I had blown it, that I would be leaving behind my wife to raise our child on her own.”

Griffiths survived what was not a heart attack, but was his body reacting to unrelenting stress. Looking back, he now sees how that darkest hour shone a light towards his future, setting him on a path into learning about personal development and coaching.

“I started on my own journey through various genres of self-development and personal insight, really taking myself apart and figuring out how I was wired,” he says. “I did that for a number of years and it turned my entire life around. I realised that my approach to work had been about selling bigger and faster tech to people, and I felt no sense of purpose behind that.”

Life with a purpose

Griffiths stayed in the tech industry, but he also developed a sideline as a personal-development speaker. “I would go and give talks in schools and corporates, and I could see that this side of things was my work with a purpose,” he says.

He angled his professional life towards technology that uses learning and development approaches to assess wellbeing and develop skills.

“There were plenty of corporates using these digital technologies to promote personal development among employees and I could see there was a gap in the market. The retention rates were really low, people just weren’t engaging,” he says. “There was also room beyond the corporates, for people who needed to work on their self-development but might not have access to that kind of digital technology easily.”

Self-development made easier

Fast-forward to 2020, and Griffiths founded Irish start-up Zelfio, an accessible digital platform that seeks to empower people through self-driven coaching.

At its core, the app is based on an insight that Griffiths had thanks to years of researching and studying concepts such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Natural Language Processing and applying them to his own life.

“I learned that knowing about change is only one component of personal development,” he explains. “Over the years I came to see that the foundation of real personal growth is the art of internal reflection and the ability to explore and understand your unique self.”

This kind of deep reflection goes far beyond any quick fixes like reading the latest self-help book, notes Griffiths, and Zelfio guides users to take the time to think and relate.

“What we want to provide through Zelfio is an environment that supports continuous reflection on your existing strengths and enhancing your positives while also helping you develop new skills and capabilities,” explains Griffiths. “And it is made all the stronger through daily observation and tasks that are personalised to that individual user and their needs.”

It can be hard for people to even know where to start on such a journey, and Zelfio is about making it all easier, he explains.

“The value of what we do is that we simplify the complexity of personal development. Many people have no idea where to start, let alone make progress and change, so through Zelfio we help the user demystify the whole personal development and growth journey.”

Griffiths is seeing a shift in the corporate environment towards a workforce who want their employers to help them achieve their own goals.

“Zelfio is a tool that enables a company to provide each employee with a tailored personal development experience that not only accounts for their professional development but also supports them in every other aspect of their life, whether personal or wellbeing,” he says. “We see Zelfio bridging the gap between developing certain skill sets with the organisation, but also extending help and support into other areas of their employee’s life to help them meet their goals, all of which is self-driven by the employee.”

Reflect and do

So how does it work?

“When people sign up to the app first, we ask them a series of questions designed to tell us about their existing strengths, weaknesses, values and beliefs about themselves,” he explains.

Based on their profile, the user is then assigned a series of daily small tasks to encourage them to reflect, to become aware of their values, strengths and weaknesses, to accept how these affect their personal and professional lives and ultimately to take action.

“To help the user, we zone in on that area of their life, simplifying it and providing them with easy tasks each day that relate to their everyday life and that they can achieve. These tasks, such as the user reflecting on values that drive particular behaviours, are designed to accumulate into real change.”

User first

Due to the sheer volume of information generated by the app, AI was always going to be part of the equation, notes Griffiths, but Zelfio is consciously designed to keep a lid on it.

“People think that AI solves everything, that you just press a button and it does all the work, and they expect it to be in there, especially now that people are getting more used to the conversational interfaces of generative AI,” he says. “But AI is so powerful, it would be easy to let it take over. And that’s not what we wanted for Zelfio.”

Every individual’s path in personal development is their own – what works for one person may not work for another – and AI lacks the expert human insights needed to guide that path, according to Griffiths.

“AI lacks the ability to truly understand human emotions, motivations and unique personal experiences,” he says. “Personal development often requires addressing issues within the context of a person’s life circumstances, which may not be fully comprehended by AI.”

Working with Learnovate, the Zelfio team designed a user interface with a human-centred approach in mind. They focused on aspects such as keeping users engaged as they answer questions to build their profile, and keeping them motivated as they continue their self-development journey.

“The people at Learnovate were great, very easy to work with. And for us as a start-up, credibility is really important, so to be able to partner with the phenomenal team there was a big thing for us,” says Griffiths. “They have the know-how and evidence about user experience, learning design and human behaviour, and they really understood how we wanted to put the user first in our app.”

Human effort for human development

To provide the app with content, the team of coaches at Zelfio built a giant database of responses themselves, using their expertise in coaching and personal development.

“Our team are qualified coaches, we have many years of experience in professional development and we have worked hard to build the database of questions and responses. Then AI can sit in the back seat, joining the dots but not driving,” says Griffiths. “I believe this approach is safer and more engaging, and with Learnovate we have made a platform that builds our users’ awareness and reflection.”

The Zelfio coaches took the leading self-development know-how, methodologies and principles from the last two decades and condensed this knowledge into easily accessible and personalised insights that would resonate with individual users, explains Griffiths.

“The app focuses on building a coaching relationship with the user, and in order to create those pathways, the Zelfio team wrote hundreds of thousands of responses themselves, based on evidence about personal development,” says Griffiths. “We had to create every possible interaction that someone would have, and it was labour intensive.”

That labour meant scouring books and papers, and synthesising them into cogent responses and questions for users. The pathways through the app needed to resonate with users and proceed at a pace that suits the individual, helping them to learn more about themselves through reflections and actions.

“It might be that another personal development app tells you to go read a book, say Atomic Habits by James Clear, and you have to go off and do that,” says Griffiths.

“But then you forget what is in the book, because maybe it didn’t resonate with you at the time, there was no ‘aha’ moment. Or you didn’t reflect on it, or put it into practice. Through Zelfio, rather than just telling you to go read it, our coaches bring the user more value by building the learnings from that book into their path through the app, they personalise it for you the individual, based on your evolving profile.”

The Zelfio team could have outsourced such work to AI, but Griffiths stresses that they consciously didn’t go that way.

“Of course AI would have been the shortest route, but AI can only work off a previous dataset, and it won’t evolve the user experience into something new,” he says. “For Zelfio we really wanted the original human insights here, because this is the interface with the user. And we know because the human coaches made it, there’s no running off track and bringing people down the wrong path.”

AI joins the dots

So where does AI come into Zelfio? It’s tucked away doing heavy lifting in the background, explains Griffiths, who describes how the digital platform uses AI to figure out what topics are relevant for users based on their profiles and answers so far.

“Of course AI is still incredibly beneficial for us,” he says. “We have a massive amount of beneficial data in the back end of the app that can benefit the user, so the AI filters through the topics and finds a good match based on the personal profile. It’s a bit like watching programmes on a streaming platform such as Netflix, and as the algorithm gets to know you, it offers you programmes that will probably suit you.”

Zelfio worked with Google to build the AI for the platform, and the team has learned much from the developers based in Uruguay. “AI is an important part of the jigsaw, no question,” says Griffiths. “But we keep it away from people.”

Authenticity matters

The combination of AI in the background and human in foreground bears fruit in the form of user engagement, according to Griffiths.

“One of the biggest trends in recent times is the growth of short-form personal development material on large, social media platforms,” he says. “You look at response rates to this kind of material and it is maybe 20-25%, whereas our response rate on Zelfio is over 50%.”

He believes the deeper engagement is partly because the company has taken a more measured approach to developing the platform rather than rushing in with the latest AI tools.

“Sometimes a technology comes in with the quick fix, but then the core of why you are doing things is forgotten in the rush,” he says.

“We looked at AI, figured it wasn’t going to serve our core mission of serving the user and we designed the user experience accordingly. Authenticity matters here. You want people to share, to reflect honestly, and for that you need content that resonates and that has had recent human contact.”

However, Griffiths is quick to point out that the Zelfio app is not a replacement for coaches.

“We see this as a way for people to start to engage with coaching, and we want them to get value from it, to use Zelfio as a springboard to learn more about personal development,” he says. “Then they can seek other forms of coaching, and start out with a better knowledge of themselves.”

And what’s next for the app that puts humans in the front and AI in the back?

“We have been doing a lot with corporates and now we are keen to get the Zelfio app into the hands of consumers more generally,” says Griffiths. “We want to bring the human-ness of it to more humans who might not otherwise have access to this kind of personal development coaching.”

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