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Thorne Harbour Health

Building safe digital spaces from the ground up

For gay men living with HIV and same-sex attracted men in heterosexual relationships, anxiety and depression are pervasive.

The HIV Futures 7 survey reported that 48% of respondents had a mental health condition. GAMMA estimates that 70% of its members have experienced anxiety and depression.

Knowing that most men with mental health issues won't seek any form of medical help, we are left with a big question. Where can men go to talk, connect and be heard?

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Balancing anonymity and community

Thorne Harbour Health (previously known as The Victorian AIDS Council - VAC) in collaboration with beyondblue sought to build a pair of online support communities for two target groups: gay and married men and men living with HIV.

The core requirement for the communities was simple: complete privacy. The solution was not so simple. Building an online forum without collecting any personal details whatsoever was an unprecedented challenge for us.

After listing the core requirements (Articles, Discussion Forum and Live Chat) and identifying how these 3 components worked together, we were able to build wireframes and low fidelity prototypes. These prototypes allowed us to visualise how these components would co-exist and cross-pollinate, and user flow testing allowed us to identify potential trouble spots.

The need for privacy and anonymity ruled out all ready-made forums and the community tools needed to be reimagined and built from scratch. The need for privacy shaped the technology and every decision was made with this need in mind.

Pete: men living with HIV who are experiencing anxiety and/or depression. Dale: gay and married men who are experiencing anxiety and/or depression

Two unique personalities

Eventually, Pete & Dale was born. Pete is aimed at men living with HIV who are experiencing anxiety and/or depression. Meanwhile, Dale is tailored toward same-sex attracted men living in a heterosexual relationship or lifestyle (commonly known as ‘gay and married men’) who are experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

Pete & Dale are not your average online communities. They are technically unique, designed within exceptionally tight restrictions, and built from the ground up.

The pair of online communities consist of Articles (including personal stories and self-help) Forums, and Live Chat. The Forums and Live Chat encourage like-minded men to come together in support of one another, to share knowledge and stories, and create a safe space free of stigma.

When it came to the branding the sites, we aimed for the sweet spot between open and clandestine. We wanted to be as friendly and welcoming as possible to potential members, but also uphold the privacy of those members. By giving the respective sites men’s names, we were able to imbue them with personality and a sense of humanity, while at the same time obscuring the themes and content.

Discreet notification system

“Discreet notification” probably sounds like an oxymoron, but hear us out! Members have the option to sign up for notifications which alert them to relevant content via SMS, email or twitter direct message.

But in true Pete & Dale style, the notifications use a special coded language, designed to be understood by the recipient and no-one else.


With seamless livechat, multilevel users, engaging avatar widgets and discreet notifications, Pete & Dale give new meaning to the words “user friendly”.

Scheduled live chat sessions give users the opportunity to share their experiences in a supportive environment and notifications ensure that they won't miss a session. Even better, the mobile platform negates the need for users to download an app which may compromise their privacy.

As we've demonstrated, the safety and wellbeing of the community is paramount. Pete & Dale moderators can send private messages to users in need of some one-on-one chats and they can quickly remove objectionable content and disruptive users.

Custom Avatars

The user avatars were an opportunity for a touch of levity that we simply couldn't pass up. Simple, friendly and sweet, the avatars allow members to mix and match features and colours to represent their own personality.

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Balancing moderators’ power was another crucial element. They needed the power to actively control the forum but without allowing them to access users’ personal details. Looking back on our experiences building Dokio (and its different user levels) helped us conceptualise possible solutions.

Pete and Dale are an incredible opportunity to investigate the potential of digital interventions to improve mental health. Through these two online communities, we are taking longstanding models of outreach, peer education, and support to the digital environment. This may very well change how we engage communities to look after their mental health and wellbeing in the future.

Caleb — Thorne Harbour Health

Despite being built in parallel, Pete & Dale have unique personalities. They are safe spaces built solely for the communities they serve.

We’re proud of the cohesive, integrated nature of the sites. Take a look and you’ll notice the way the three parts of the website cross-pollinate, giving the user tips on where to go next to read similar content. We’re also proud of the power we’ve placed in the hands of the user. They alone control their experience and how and where they receive notifications (if at all).

Key learnings from the Pete & Dale Preliminary Report also point to the need for control and to the limitations of off-the-shelf technologies. They demonstrate, unequivocally, that communities cannot be built around technology. Technology must always serve the users' needs first and foremost. Only then can a community be born.

We can’t wait to use what we’ve learned to build another unique platform. Got something in mind? Get in touch!







Branding: Shane Loorham

Design: Angus Tait

Web Development: Jonathan Bellew, Olivia Keegan, Vivian Genato, Michelle Chan

Illustration: Natasha Legi

Account Management: Caitriona Morgan, Jim Yencken

We live and work on the lands of the Wurundjeri people.
We acknowledge their ownership of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.