Explaining the tech behind the new ‘one Co-op’ site

We talked about our work to bring each Co-op business area under the coop.co.uk url in our post One Co-op, one website. In it we explained why we’re doing this and our progress so far. To recap: in the past, having completely different websites for Co-op Food, Insurance, Funeralcare, Electricals, Ventures and Legal has worked ok for the business. However as the Co-op changes we’re finding this inefficient as well as expensive, and the online experience for customers and members is visually inconsistent.

The thinking behind our work isn’t revolutionary but the cultural shift is.

This post explains the technical reasons why moving to a single url will help save time, energy and money. Plus it describes how we’re doing it.

Slow to build, expensive to run

Before we could start designing the pages people see and the content people read when they visit a Co-op website, we knew we needed to build a sturdy infrastructure.

We looked at what we already had in place and found that our many individual sites were:

1.Slow to build

When building websites, it’s standard practice to create different ‘environments’ for the team to test new content and new features on before making the website available to the public. Most teams will use 4 of them (development, testing, staging and production) and each one of these takes time to build. As it was, we had 5 sites, all with 4 environments. This meant that not only was our infrastructure slow to build, it was also expensive in terms of colleagues’ time.

2.Expensive to run

Aside from the environments, the costs include hosting (where each website lives on the web), and subcontracting third parties to maintain the sites (writing copy, adding it to the site, updating it as well as looking after site security). In most instances, Co-op colleagues didn’t have access or permission to make changes themselves.

We needed to find something more sustainable – something cheaper, quicker and easier to update.

The solution: what we’ve done

When we’ve been explaining what we’ve done to non-technical people at our show and tells, we’ve borrowed an analogy from Docker – industry leaders in this kind of work. I’ll paraphrase.

Let’s think about the most sustainable infrastructure we could build for the content across our businesses to ‘live’ in.

At the moment, many websites from across the Co-op business exist on their own – so let’s say the content on them lives in ‘houses’. Houses are self-contained. They have their own infrastructure, for example, plumbing, heating, electricity and security. A lot of time and cost is involved in building and setting up all of those things.

Apartments, however, are built around shared infrastructure. The plumbing, heating and electricity is shared and there’s a communal door to keep the inhabitants safe and secure. Sharing these things means that building websites is quicker and that running them is cheaper.

We’re trying to bring the content from across the business to the same place – so instead of leaving it and trying to maintain it all in self-contained websites (houses), we’re beginning to house it together in ‘containers’ (flats) under one roof in a ‘cluster’ (an apartment building).

containers-jpeg

You can see the full blog post ‘Containers are not VMs’.

Benefits we’re seeing right now

Moving everything to the single coop.co.uk url is a work in progress. However, we’re already starting to see benefits. Since we started using containers, it’s taken just 50 minutes to create the environments we need to test and deploy to – this used to take up to 4 weeks.

We’re also saving 57% on platform costs a year. As it was, we were paying Amazon to host 5 sites, all with 4 environments. As we move everything across to our own single platform we estimate the saving will reach 70% on what we were paying out.

Benefits we expect to see shortly

There’ll be more benefits to come too. For example:

  • our costs will reduce dramatically when Co-op colleagues can design, write content, publish and maintain our sites ourselves rather than paying third parties to do it for us
  • our costs will decrease when we can host our sites ourselves and look after security internally
  • our engineers will be able to make changes or ‘deploy’ more quickly
  • we’ll be able to build in and manage security and resilience from the start for all new sites
  • we’ll save time when we fix things or add new features because we’ll make one change rather than the same change in 20 different places because our new site will use the same architecture

How we got here

This piece of work is truly transformative in the way that it will, and already is, improving things for any Co-op colleague who has involvement with a Co-op website; the Co-op as a business as well as Co-op customers and members who’ll benefit from a much more joined up online experience.

We’ve come a long way. There’s still a long way to go. We’ll keep you updated on the blog.

Graham Thompson
Principal engineer

Getting the most out of our community of practice meetings

In the early days of Co-op Digital, our Head of delivery at the time, Jamie Arnold, brought digital people doing similar roles together by setting up communities of practice.

The communities still exist today but, 3 years on, Co-op Digital has expanded significantly: our communities are much bigger, we’re working across more projects and we’re facing different challenges. It’s important that our communities of practice change with the organisation so that we, as communities and as individuals, get the support we need in ways that suit us.

Around 6 months ago, the delivery managers shook up the way we ran our weekly community of practice meetings.

What works for us

The delivery community of practice meets weekly in a meeting room in Federation House. An hour each week feels right for us. We’ve built it into our weekly schedules and we’ve found that this is short enough for us to stay focussed (it doesn’t feel like a team social), and it’s regular enough so that problems don’t build to the stage where the whole session needs to be used to solve them.

Here are some of the things the delivery team has been doing recently in our community of practice meetings.

Setting an objective

In July 2017 we agreed on what the delivery managers’ objective should be. We decided our aim was:

Find better ways for Digital teams to work with their stakeholders, so we gain a common understanding of how we’re working and what we’re planning to deliver.

Having a clear objective that we’d reached together meant that each delivery manager was more invested in our vision than they would be if the objective had been dictated, top down, by one person.

Collaborating to get buy in isn’t a new idea, we know that.

But this is a great example of how it’s worked well: the attendance at our meetups has been consistently high, people have been enthusiastic and have wanted to be a part of a community.

Choosing inclusive topics

We don’t always have an agenda for our meetups but when we do, we make sure we choose topics that don’t exclude anyone. Nobody feels like they can’t or shouldn’t contribute.

Like with all communities in Co-op Digital, stakeholders are something every delivery manager has in common so we’ve often made them the focus of our meetings. We’ve interviewed some of them and used our time together to feed back what they’ve said. We’ve then talked about what we can do from a delivery point of view to meet stakeholder needs better, for example, how best to share what we’re working on regularly with them so they can be as involved as they need to be. We found that what works for one team and its stakeholders often doesn’t work for another.

Sharing techniques

A huge part of our roles as delivery managers is to facilitate sessions. This could be agile ceremonies such as sprint planning, retros, and show and tells but it also includes one-off workshops intended to help the team with setting direction or clarifying longer-term priorities. Because all teams and individuals are different, a technique that works superbly in one scenario may work less well in another so sharing and comparing ways to get to the same point has been really beneficial for our community.

Keeping up with current wider delivery discussions

As with all disciplines, it’s important to look outside our immediate community. It keeps us relevant and engaged. Sometimes, we talk about things we’ve read, tweets we’ve seen, arguments we’ve heard from the delivery community outside of Co-op. We’ve recently discussed Sebastian Deterding’s video on Hacking Shyness: Designing Social Interaction and Why Commitment Culture Wins by Damian Hughes.

Holding ‘open’ sessions

Every 4 to 6 weeks we hold a meet-up where there’s no agenda. Instead, everyone is given a post it note and writes either a problem, a triumph, a question or a comment on it. We dot vote on what we’d like to discuss and we talk through each topic for 5 minutes starting with whichever got the highest vote.

The benefits of belonging

For us, being part of a community of practice is more than attending a weekly hour-long meetup. It’s about having a support network of people who are best-placed to listen, understand and advise when we need it. Each delivery manager is also part of a group of 3 people who face similar challenges, for example, they’re working with more then 1 team. On a day-to-day basis, that smaller group is the first point of contact.   

Superb for personal development  

Since we’ve been running these meetups, I’ve been saving links, quotes, tweets, tips, guidelines and notes I’ve taken in our meetings – anything I think I’ll revisit. It’s my toolbox: it’s full of the knowledge and practical advice that’s been shared with me and I feel better-equipped to deliver products and services with it.

How to start a community of practice

You don’t have to work in a digital team to get value from a community of practice. As social learning consultants,  Etienne Wenger-Trayer and Beverly Wenger-Trayer said:

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. 

If you’d like to learn more or if you’d like help setting up a community, email me victoria.mitchell@coopdigital.co.uk

Victoria Mitchell
Digital skills principal

We are not our users: we should not tell them how to feel

When we create new products and services it’s easy to become emotionally invested in them. We’re understandably proud of what we’re creating and often attach adjectives like ‘simple’, ‘quick’ or ‘exciting’ to our descriptions of them. But the way we talk about our work in a team is not always how we should talk about it to others. To create respectful and inclusive services we must put our feelings aside, be humble and focus persistently on the experience of our users.

Why organisations use subjective language

Organisations often proclaim that a service is ‘good’ or ‘convenient’, that a task is ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ to do, that an update to a service is ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’. This might be to:

  • get people to feel the same way about the service as the organisation does
  • encourage more people to use the service
  • create perceptions about an organisation, brand or service

The use of these terms reminds me of a quote by author Laura Amy Schlitz:

‘Good’ is an approximate term. A second-grader once asked me for ‘a really, really good book’ and I asked him what he considered a good book. He eyed me with thinly veiled impatience and replied, ‘Medium-long with poisonous snakes’.

Just as the definition of good may differ depending on who you ask, so too will people’s experience of a Co-op service or process.

Circumstance dictates experience

When we created the Co-op Wills digital service, we did what we could to make a traditionally complex process, less complex. Through regular research we made the service as easy as we could for people to use – clean and clear design with plain English explanations of legal terminology. But users did not always find it easy.

Some people needed to talk to their partners before completing the form, others were reminded of frustrating events in their past, others found it distressing. Different parts of the process had different emotional triggers for people and each user’s experience was unique to their circumstance. It would not have been appropriate for us to talk about our ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ service because, although we’d removed what complexity we could, the process was not always an easy thing for people to get through.

This is true of all services, not just those services that deal with sensitive subject matters. Personal circumstances will dictate how people feel about them. People may not experience them as we intend if they:

  • have a poor internet connection
  • are in a busy environment
  • are stressed
  • have a disability or condition
  • have English as a second language
  • are recently bereaved
  • are in crisis

What’s easy for some may be hard for others. The service we’re offering, or the changes we’ve made to a service, may unintentionally make things harder, more complicated or slower for some people. So, conveying the organisation’s internal excitement, pride or thoughts, can not only be inappropriate it can be also be arrogant, disrespectful and offensive.  

We are not our users

Our perception of terms like ‘simple’ or ‘exciting’ are inherently biased. Our job as designers is to create things that we believe to be simple to use, easy to understand, and that people enjoy (or at the very least, don’t dread) using. To do this we build a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the service we’re working on. We can end up being so knowledgeable about the service that we’re unable to fully appreciate the difficulties our users may experience. When talking about mental models, research-based user experience group Neilson Norman say:

Users’ mental models of the UI (user interface) are likely to be somewhat more deficient [than designer’s mental models], making it more likely for users to make mistakes and find the design much more difficult to use.

Being so absorbed in the work can make it hard for us to stay objective. The level of knowledge we gain, and our emotional attachment to a service, becomes disproportionate to that of our users.

To maintain perspective we must keep the user in mind, always.

What we can do instead

The internet has raised expectations. People expect online services to be easy and straightforward. Having to declare that that’s what they are can raise suspicion and cause mistrust. As customer experience speaker Gerry McGovern says in his post If Google wanted to get found in Google:

If you ever have to say you’re simple, you’re not. Because if you were truly simple you wouldn’t have to waste time telling people you are. You’d just be simple…

The most effective way to give services the impression of ease, speed or convenience is to make them so. We cannot do this without considering the concerns of our users, and being sensitive to their emotional, physical and cognitive states.

The most effective content appreciates that people may be coming to it with their own apprehensions, insecurities and struggles. It makes no assumptions. It’s objective and neutral.

To create services that people want to use, we must make a deliberate effort to remove our emotional attachment to the things we’re creating and let our users decide how to experience them. By appreciating that we are not our users, and being considerate of their circumstances, we create services that are tactful, inclusive and respectful.

Joanne Schofield
Content designer

One Co-op, one website

The Co-op is an organisation made up of several business areas. There’s Food, Insurance, Funeralcare, Electricals, Ventures and Legal and at the moment each one has its own website that sits separately to the rest of the organisation. Historically, this has worked because each site serves a very different purpose, but as the Co-op changes we’re finding this inefficient as well as expensive.

One site will mean more familiarity

At the moment, our sites are maintained and hosted by various external companies. Moving them onto one platform that we manage ourselves makes sense financially and it also gives us more autonomy to maintain and update content which will be better for our customers and members.

Bringing the businesses together on to one, internally-maintained platform will mean there are more visual similarities too. Each business area will use our Co-op design system which will reinforce the Co-op feel – something that’s difficult to do when each site is looked after by external companies.  

Better for customers, better for business

Co-op Digital’s role has always been to make things simpler, faster, more efficient for our users (that’s our customers, members and our colleagues too). We spoke to users to find out if we can improve their online experience with us and find out what their expectations might be. Expectations and needs can, of course, be very different.

The research told us that members expect to see all their interactions with the Co-op in one place. For example, if they’d visited our Membership site to find out about their rewards, there’s no easy way to move from there to another Co-op service. At the moment, users tend to leave whichever one of our sites they came to, to go search again for another one of our sites. Users felt that having everything in one place would improve their online experience with us.

It also makes sense from a business point of view. Unsurprisingly, analytics tells us we only see 1% of traffic from our Food site go through to our Electrical business, however, having everything together gives us more of a presence and helps remind customers we do more than just the thing they came to the site for.

We’re starting small

This is a big job and it’ll take a significant amount of time to bring everything together. We’ll be checking in with our users along the way and testing what we’ve built with them to make sure the information architecture works for them.

As always, we’ve started small. Coop.co.uk is the homepage for the Co-op and today we’ve put Co-op recipes live under the coop.co.uk/recipes url. The recipes used to live on dinner4tonight.com – but taking ownership of the content under a url that’s more obviously related to us is important.

Working closely with our business area experts

Co-op Digital has been working alongside subject matter experts from different business areas. Without their knowledge and expertise, it’d be impossible to design and build the right things for our customers.

As the team’s got bigger, we’ve split into 4 streams to focus our work. They are:

  • strategy – based on research, decide on and build new things with business units
  • iterate – improve the designs by testing with users and looking at metrics
  • content – creating and managing content and working with the wider organisation to align it
  • ‘engine’ – the technical team that develops and maintains the platform that hosts the site as well as builds reusable back-end components to make it easier to create and scale sites quickly

Gradual and iterative improvement

We’re now working on adding wines and Christmas products to the site in a similar way we did recipes. They’re just a small part of what the Co-op offers but we need to bring everything together gradually while we test our work with users to check we’re making customer-centred decisions.

Over the next year, we hope to bring more of the Co-op businesses under the same same coop.co.uk/ url.

Nate Langley
Lead product designer

What we mean when we talk about service design at the Co-op

I wanted to write this post to explain what service design is at the Co-op. Service design helps build more inclusive teams as well as products and services that meet user and business needs.

What we mean when we say ‘services’

To understand what service design is, we need to understand what a service is. A ‘service’ is something that helps someone complete a task, like finding information or getting something done.

At the Co-op we help our customers do lots of things, for example, we help them:

We also help our colleagues. For example, we help:

  • Food colleagues find out how to do something in stores through the How do I? website   
  • Funeralcare colleagues spend more time face-to-face time with bereaved families and less on admin through Co-op Guardian
  • Food colleagues check information about when they’re due to work with the Shifts website

These are just some of the services within the Co-op. Some of them are customer-facing, some are colleague-facing, some include elements of both. Some tasks can only be completed online, some can be done entirely offline, but most will include a mix of both.

Service design at the Co-op

And that’s what service design is at the Co-op: it’s designing the sequence of interactions a user has with us. It’s a holistic approach which considers the end-to-end experience, online and offline.

A Co-op service begins the first time a potential customer interacts with us (whether that be online or coming into one of our stores), or at the point a colleague is asked to sign up to one of our online services. The service goes right through to them achieving what they set out to do.  

Digital teams can’t design services alone

In Co-op Digital we refer to service design constantly, but we don’t own it.

Service design includes colleagues from all around the organisation – those from legal teams, marketing teams, colleagues in customer-facing roles, as well as those who speak with customers from our call centre. And everyone in between too.

We cannot design good services that meet the need of our users without the expertise from around the organisation.

Mapping out the service to see the big picture

When we design or iterate a service, we map out each interaction, by each type of user, chronologically. This is service mapping.

We try to understand a customer’s mindset when they come to use a service. What task do they want to complete? For us to design an experience that meets their needs we need to know where they’ve come from, why they’re here, and what they’re here to do.

Service maps:

  • show the whole user experience, visually
  • join up multiple user interactions and channels, beyond digital
  • show the end-to-end experience from awareness through to completing a task

An inclusive way of working

We have walls dedicated to service mapping which we update to reflect anything that has an impact on the service, like if we’ve learnt something new in user research or if the business strategy changes. We map services openly like this so that everyone can see what’s been worked on.

Service maps help teams work better because they:

  • align product teams around a shared understanding of their users’ journeys
  • communicate the user journey to stakeholders
  • help everybody see problems at a glance
  • help the team empathise with the journey their users are on
  • allow anyone to contribute their knowledge of how a service works, or ideas to help improve it with a post it
  • put research and data into the context of the wider service

Photograph of the pharmacy service map and the team and stakeholders crowding round

This photo shows our pharmacy ‘blueprint’ (a type of service map) created by Louise Nicholas and Derek Harvie. It maps the stages of the service, and customer interactions and operational touch points.

photograph of illustration by Jack Fletcher of a Membership storyboard illustrates customer interactions throughout the service, online and offline.

This is Jack Fletcher’s Membership storyboard which illustrates customer interactions throughout the service, online and offline.

A way to make better decisions

User research helps us identify problems. Highlighting them on a service map within the context of a user journey gives us a visual prompt about where we should focus our efforts. Being able to see problems, clearly, helps us prioritise what we need to improve.

Service design also helps us see where operational inefficiencies are and therefore where we can prioritise commercial gain – business goals are as important as user needs.

We use service maps to make better decisions because they help us:

  • highlight pain points and problems
  • spot gaps in our knowledge and the service itself
  • find opportunities to improve the experience
  • raise business inefficiencies
  • prioritise what we should try and fix first
  • pivot as a business to focus on the right things for our customers, members and business

photograph of Store Hub service map designed by Kathryn Grace

Here’s the Food business’s ‘Store Hub’ service map designed by Kathryn Grace. It shows the reality of how colleagues in stores use systems and processes.

We need everyone’s knowledge and expertise

For it to be effective, the whole team should participate in service design. At least initially, a designer will lead the work, but the whole team needs to contribute for it to work. In a discovery, service design will shape how your service needs to work. In later phases, it should inform iterations and strategic direction.

For anyone working at Co-op, the research, content and design teams will be hosting a showcase of our ways of working on Monday 10 December. Come along if you’re interested in finding out more about service design, all welcome. Location to be announced.

Katherine Wastell

Head of Design

We’ve added user research guides to the design system

We recently added 4 user research guides to our Co-op design system. The guides cover:

  • how to plan and prepare for research as a team
  • how to choose the most appropriate research method, and how to use it
  • how to analyse your findings, turn them into something actionable and how to share with the rest of the team
  • a list of useful research tools

We’re committed to user-centred design. We start small, we test for user value and we work iteratively – research and reacting to feedback is vitally important to us.

But it’s not easy to do good research and by ‘good’ we mean using the appropriate method and ensuring the way we do it is planned, thorough and unbiased.

You need skilled researchers.

Helping teams help themselves

We have a superb small team of researchers at Co-op Digital. We have varying background, skills and strengths which means asking for advice on how to tackle something is always interesting and useful. But we can’t cover all our projects, at all product phases, all the time. There aren’t enough of us.

So in a few cases, we set the direction and encourage teams to do their own research, with us there as support.

Sharing the knowledge

The idea came while I was writing a research strategy for a team working on a particular scope of work. I realised the strategy could be adapted into more of a ‘how to do research at the Co-op’ guide. For years, in an unofficial, internal-channels-only type way, several researchers had been writing guides on things like ‘how to recruit users / gather informed consent / write a survey’. It made sense to pull this useful work together and make it open and available in our design system.

Presenting guidance in this way means that instead of individual researchers writing a strategy for a team now and then, we can give more general advice.We want to make sure people are doing good, useful research in the right way and we can now add value to any digital team by giving them a ‘best practice’ resource.

We’re working on it

As always, the plan is to iterate and add more guidance as we go. We’ve been looking towards the GDS service manual as an excellent, detailed resource for planning research.

As we come across a method that we don’t have a guide for, we’ll write one up. For example, the next time one of our researchers needs to conduct a diary study they’ll write that up.

We know we need to improve how we help people choose the appropriate method so that people don’t just fall back on conducting usability testing in a lab or face-to-face interviews. As Vicki Riley says in her post, matching our research approach to the project is really important.

We’d like your feedback on it too so if you have any, leave a comment.

Simon Hurst
Lead user researcher