Digital technology is advancing in many ways we could never have imagined just a few years ago. However, many minority groups are still lacking basic services. For the LGBTQ+ community, it’s no secret that many apps and websites aren’t created with their needs or experience in mind.
Take something as simple as completing an online form. A micro campaign was launched in 2020 called ‘Include Mx‘, with a main goal to push for more inclusive forms – something cis-gendered individuals often take for granted. Whether it’s signing up for a newsletter or trying to get your food shop delivered, gendered titles such as Mrs and Mr make it impossible for non-binary people not to be mis-gendered.
When the experience of LGBTQ+ individuals is not considered for something as basic and universal as a sign-up form, it shows that when it comes to the queer digital experience, we need to go back to basics.
For Jaron Soh (He/Him), a similar lack of support for LGBTQ+ people within the mental health space lead to him founding Voda.co, a mental wellness app that helps LGBTQ+ individuals find accessible and affordable therapy. We were fortunate enough to chat to him about his experiences, Voda’s journey so far, and how we can try to build more inclusive platforms and products.
Where did the idea for Voda come from?
I struggled a lot with being gay in my younger years. At times I felt very alone, and didn’t understand why I felt the way I felt.
I also didn’t understand how my emotional history was holding me back. There was a lot of shame I internalised about my sexuality from being bullied as a kid, which I didn’t realise was hindering me from connecting with people, and showing up as my authentic self.
Even after coming out later in life, these issues were still affecting my relationships, both professional and personal.
What had worked for me was therapy. Therapy helped me gain self-awareness of how my past affected my present. I saw the lack of love I had for myself, and how that then impacted my relationships with others. CBT in particular helped me build self-awareness, and re-frame some of my unhelpful thought patterns.
I’m building Voda to provide an accessible, affordable and intersectional alternative to conventional therapy for queer people.
Incredible! So, how do you suddenly create an app?
My background has been in tech, and I’ve found myself in both product and growth roles.
I started my first company back in university. It’s an e-commerce marketplace that works with artisans across the Majority World. It was then I started designing jewellery with these makers, from Kabul to Kathmandu, and developed my design eye. It’s now a small social business that runs independently.
Following that, I got into tech formally, and started a venture-backed startup. I honed my skills in product design and management, building with Webflow, Figma, Sketch and Bubble. Most recently I built Voda via the no-code app builder Bravo Studio, which allowed me to turn my Figma designs into an actual app that works across iOS and Android.
I’m very hands-on, and so while I don’t code, I’ve been able to build websites, web apps and mobile apps. No-code technology has really empowered product folks like myself who might not have the technical expertise to code an app from scratch.
"No-code technology has really empowered product folks like myself who might not have the technical expertise to code an app from scratch."
Jaron Soh, Voda
Why is Voda so important for the LGBTQ+ community?
Voda exists to democratise access to mental health for LGBTQ+ folks.
LGBTQ+ folks are twice as likely as our straight, cis counterparts to develop a mental health condition. And according to Stonewall, 52% of LGBTQ+ folks experienced depression in the past year. For anxiety, this figure rises to 61%.
Therapy exists, and therapy works. But therapy is far too expensive for most people, and public services are overwhelmed and often don’t cater for the LGBTQ+ lived experience.
This is where apps like Calm and Headspace come in. Many of them are wonderful, really – mindfulness itself has demonstrated and evidence-backed benefits for mental health.
However, these apps are heteronormative and don’t cater for the lived experience of queer folks.
This is where Voda fills the gap. We have a dual approach that combines the evidence-backed techniques of mindfulness and cognitive behavioural therapy with leading LGBTQ+ affirming expertise from our LGBTQIA+ psychotherapists to design our self-help programs.
What is the difference between queer therapists and non-queer therapists?
It’s really important for your therapist to understand your lived experience, and it is more likely that a queer therapist will intrinsically understand your lived experience.
And there are so many layers to this, too. We’re all made up of multiple identities, and these identities intersect, and also affect our day-to-day lives and how we experience trauma. These identities can be our gender and sexuality, but also our ethnicity, our age, our income, our schooling backgrounds, and more. All these different aspects of our identity can affect how others perceive us and treat us.
I’d like to note that therapy for LGBTQ+ individuals with non-queer therapists is completely fine. I’m not saying a queer therapist will definitely be better than a non-queer therapist. As long as you have a strong rapport with your therapist who understands where you’re coming from, and if they are LGBTQ+ affirming, that’s good enough.
It’s just more likely that a therapist who has lived experience will be able to understand our perspective better.
Inclusive design is so vital to ensure all users are represented. How do you consider inclusivity in your app design?
We want to make sure that we’re building an app for all queer folks. We’re doing this through representation, and setting the right intention from the get-go.
Representation: We now have eight LGBTQIA+ psychotherapists working with us, who identify across the spectrum of sexuality, gender and ethnicity. We run our programs through them independently. Nobody knows whose programs they’re reviewing, so as to make it a more objective process. This informal peer-review process helps us ‘catch’ blind spots in our programmes.
Setting the right intention: What I mean by setting the right intention is to admit that, despite our best intentions, we will at some point get some things wrong. We’re not infallible. But what we commit to is ‘do good’, rather than ‘look good’. When we make a mistake, we learn from it, we discuss it openly, and we take action to remedy it. We don’t cover it up or try to sweep it under the rug.
One thing that happened with our private beta is that we realised we actually have more programmes from a gay perspective. We didn’t really represent sapphic, trans, or other perspectives within the beta.
This prioritised gay folks over other identities. We’ve now fixed that and are writing new programmes for a range of perspectives, which will be made available in our app store launch in June 2022.
"Despite our best intentions, we will at some point get some things wrong. We’re not infallible. But what we commit to is 'do good', rather than 'look good'. When we make a mistake, we learn from it, we discuss it openly, and we take action to remedy it. We don’t cover it up or try to sweep it under the rug."
Jaron Soh, Voda
In your opinion, how can developers ensure LGBTQ+ members aren’t being left behind?
It’s difficult. It depends on how much autonomy developers have, and how much say they have in the direction of the company. Can developers actively campaign for LGBTQ+ members without backlash, in a psychologically safe work environment?
There’s also the big issue of ‘queer-baiting’ in our industry, which is when an app markets itself as queer-friendly or queer-led, but really it’s owned by non-queer folks. And when that’s the case, you can bet that it’s more likely to prioritise profit over mission.
So even if there are well-meaning developers, be it queer or non-queer, if your management team or shareholders don’t really care too much about the company’s mission, the interests of LGBTQ+ members will simply not be prioritised.
Privacy is one such consequence. For example, Grindr is about to go IPO in a $2.1 billion deal, but has previously been fined for selling user data to advertisers, and has even shared users’ HIV status with external companies.
So, one way developers can ensure LGBTQ+ members are not left behind is to work in truly queer-owned or queer-supporting companies – companies which are not ‘pink-washing’, or looking good, but are actually doing good.