Life coaching is a process in which a life coach helps a person to identify and achieve the most important goals for them personally and professionally.
The idea is to provide the person with tools and show them attitudes that allow them to take control of their decision and make it a reality. Support also exists for groups and coaching directed at companies is currently experiencing its sweetest moment.
Normally this process is led by a professional. But the idea that Dr Laura Aymerich-Franch, a Ramon y Cajal researcher at the UPF Department of Communication had in 2018 was to program a virtual life coach that would help people achieve their goals.
"Using coaching models, we programmed a conversational agent based only on voice, which would guide people to achieve their goals in the same way that a human coach guides you in your session through questions", Aymerich explains. "In this study, we found that using the application we created, the psychological well-being of the participants improved".
Aymerich is referring to a study published online in the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, carried out together with the researcher Iliana Ferrer, now at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB).
The main study involved 30 people who, due to the covid-19 pandemic, had to conduct the sessions in their own homes. Each one had a total of three sessions with NORIKA, the virtual coach, which was installed on an iPhone and was operated using a very simple visual interface.
Guided by the conversational agent, the participants decided the aspect of their life they wanted to work on, found the core values for the specific area, identified a goal based on SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely) criteria, and put it into practice. Visualization techniques were also used, which are very common to support the achievement of goals in coaching, in which participants were asked to imagine a future where their goals were achieved.
For the English version, used in the pilot test, a male and a female voice were used. The final version in Spanish used a female voice.
The results were observed by measuring variables such as personal growth (Personal Growth Initiative Scale -PGI), life satisfaction (Life Satisfaction Scale -SLS), and implementing the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS).
"The results revealed a significant increase in personal growth and life satisfaction, and in turn an also significant decrease in negative emotions"
"The results revealed a significant increase in PGI and SLS values, and in turn, an also significant decrease in negative emotions (PANAS) compared to the status prior to the start of the sessions", explains Dr Aymerich. "This suggests that the coaching program contributed positively to psychological well-being, life satisfaction and personal growth".
Regarding usability, the intention to adopt this technology and general satisfaction with the program, the participants said they felt very satisfied.
Certain types of conversational agents are currently very widespread throughout the world, such as Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri or Google Assistant. According to an estimate by the Pew Research Center in 2017, almost 46 per cent of adults in the United States use these devices. In addition, it is increasingly common to find smartphone applications dedicated to improving mental health, "but these applications are not always supported by empirical evidence that demonstrates their effectiveness", Aymerich points out.
She added, "Everything seems to indicate that they will be increasingly present in the home. Although for the moment the conversational agent cannot offer the same abilities and services as a session with a coach or a therapist, it can serve to help eliminate attitudinal barriers that still exist when seeking therapeutic support to improve psychological well-being", the researcher concludes.