Steve Foreshew-Cain: being more ‘Co-op’ with data, Federation update and Manchester Pride

(Transcript) Steve Foreshew-Cain: Hello, and welcome to this week’s Co-op Digital update. Even though we’re in the middle of everyone’s summer holidays, it’s great to see that there’s still plenty of work going on in Co-op Digital.

You may have read our blog post this week about the discovery work that we’ve just finished on how we handle our data. We’ve been thinking about how we can take a more ‘Co-op’ approach to our data. We pulled together a multidisciplinary team right the way across the organisation to look into this and I was really impressed by the work that Eliot, Jack, Vicky, James, Annette, Rob and Kevin – and many more who contributed and presented at their end of discovery show and tell.

If you want to find out more, have a read of the blog post. It would be great to hear about any thoughts or ideas you may have, you can do that by commenting on the blog post, sending us a tweet or come and chat to the team if you’re a Co-op colleague.

As Dave [Johnson, Director of Digital Engineering] mentioned while I was away on holiday, the event spaces and coffee shop in the lower floors of The Federation are almost ready. We’ll be celebrating the opening of these in the couple of months. Watch this space for more details.

If you’re a Co-op colleague – or anyone else who’s interested to see the the space, we’d love to show you around. If you’d like a tour you can contact Victoria Howlett our Federation Manager to organise that.

Also a big welcome to Northcoders, UsTwo and Liverpool Girl Geeks who have moved into their spaces in the building and joined us as ‘Friends of The Federation‘.

This week we held one of our Digital Masterclasses where we introduce some of our digital ways of working to our colleagues right across our Co-op businesses. Thanks to those who took the time to join us.

And finally we’ll be supporting Manchester Pride along with the rest of Co-op. Thanks to Scott Bennett from the Digital Engagement team along with our colleagues in our Respect network who’ve been helping our colleagues across the country support lots of the regional prides.

That’s it for this week. You’ll find our latest vacancies on our blog. Don’t forget to subscribe for all our updates and follow us on Twitter.

See you next week.

Steve Foreshew-Cain
Digital Chief Operating Officer

UsTwo talk about their new home Federation
Northcoders on why they chose Federation House

We’ve added tables to our design manual

This week, we’ve added a section about designing tables to our design manual. We’ve done this so that our tables are understandable, are used for suitable information and address user needs first.

This is the second update to the design manual since we publicly released in January 2017. We released our design manual so we could start to share design styles, patterns and advice for people building digital services at Co-op.

What we’ve done

We looked at a lot of different tables from around the Co-op to explore what kind of information we need to be able to present, and what a user needs to understand from it. We also looked at best practice in how data should be displayed working closely with the Co-op’s data science team. From this, we created a set of styles that can be used as guidelines for designing tables in our digital services.

Designing tables

In her book Letting Go of the Words, Ginny Reddish writes:

When a site visitor asks a question to which your first answer is “it depends,” that’s a clue that you need a table. What it depends on becomes the left column of the table. The answer to the question for each site visitor’s situation becomes the right column.

Tables are good for answering questions with multiple answers as they are a good way of presenting a lot of information in a way that’s easy to scan.

You can use the design manual to find out when and how to:

  • use a table to display data
  • format data in a table
  • use borders and type within a table
  • create a responsive table
  • code an HTML table correctly

We’ve got more research to do

What happens next is more important than the work we’ve done so far. We’ll be asking the design team (which includes interaction designers, content designers and user researchers) to see if our tables help solve design problems. We’ll continue to research how well they help real users find the answers they’re looking for.

We’ll update the design manual with what we learn.

What else have we done?

Created a simpler prototyping kit for designers

Testing our assumptions with real ‘in browser’ prototypes is an important part of building a new service. However we’d had feedback that the current prototyping kit was a bit difficult for some designers to set up. We’ve responded to that by building a more simple HTML and CSS only ‘copy and paste’ version that we think will help.

Added a section on 404 pages

When a user follows a broken link, they arrive on a 404 page. You can use the design manual to find out how to create a 404 page that:

  • reassures the user
  • helps them get back on track
  • doesn’t make them feel as though they’ve done something wrong

Tell us what you think

Check out our tables and 404 sections and let us know what you think. Your feedback will make the design manual better.

Matt Tyas
On behalf of the Design Manual team

A discovery into data at the Co-op

We’ve been looking at how we handle our data. Over the years we’ve had recommendations from both in-house and consultancy teams about how to do this, but now we want to break the cycle and finish what we started.

Above all we’ve been thinking about how we can take a more ‘Co-op’ approach to our data. We pulled together a multidisciplinary team from across the business to look into this and they’ve become know internally as the ‘data layer’ team (explained in more detail by Rob in his being trusted with data post).

So, where to start?

We want to be trusted with data, and use data to inform what we do. The purpose of the discovery was to explore how we should go about creating the right conditions, both online and offline, to support this; and where to start.

We wanted to understand:

  1. How we deal with data now.
  2. The options for doing things differently.
  3. What we should test, explore and do with the data we have.
  4. What we can, and should, do with data in the longer term.

The purpose of this discovery was to stay at a high level when thinking about data rather than focusing on any one area in particular. We knew that would come later so didn’t want to get into specifics at this stage.

What we did

photograph of 4 members of the team gathered around post-its on the team wall going through the things we've learnt from user research

We needed to understand the problems and opportunities we faced: not just in the Co-op, but in the wider world too. This meant referring to a mix of research, from reading previous data reports to holding interviews and workshops.

The data science team

We started by speaking to the data science team here at the Co-op to get an idea of the challenges the business faces when it comes to data. They identified 47 points that needed to be addressed. We discussed each one and prioritised them in terms of urgency.

Inside the Co-op

We also spoke to different Co-op groups and the Executive team. We wanted to understand how people around the business approach data, how they’re working with it and how we can meet our Co-op ambition of being more trusted with data.

People outside the Co-op

To get a better external perspective we met 4 private companies that work closely with data. We found examples of how easily accessible data can improve the way a business runs, and creates an environment for identifying new product and service opportunities.

The public

Speaking to the public gave the team a different view of data and consent. We like to speak to our members regularly about data in order to be better informed. Understandably people feel strongly about how their personal information is used, and approaches change depending on how this usage is explained and how customers feel about the business in question.

Where we ended up

photograph of walls in the data layer team area showing what the team had found by the end of the discovery

Three main themes came out of our research:

1. We have multiple versions of the truth

Teams work from different databases that don’t necessarily stay in sync, or use consistent definitions. This makes it hard for users (colleagues) to find the best source for information, and be sure they are interpreting data correctly.

2. We under-leverage our data for analysis and insight purposes

Individual teams own lots of data and use it only within their team. We could be much better at sharing data and insights across the Group so it could be helpful for everyone. The problem is partly down to technical constraints, and partly a reflection of our how widespread we are and how differently we work: even within the Digital Group itself.

3. Consent and preferences aren’t understood holistically

Customers opt in to marketing for individual parts of the business, but we don’t have a clear central understanding of the consent an individual has granted across the group. This means that we may not be giving the best customer service that we could.

None of these themes came as a surprise – but the value in the work came from prioritising how we should move forward.

What’s next?

We identified 4 alphas which will be the first step in our vision for a Co-op that is built on, and led by, relevant, transparent and trusted data.

First we need stronger data governance across the whole of the Co-op group, so that our data can become more consistent, more joined up, and easier to find and understand.

Secondly, we should have a single view of each individual so that  all of our information on members and colleagues matches up. We’ll look at membership to help with this.  

Thirdly we want to look at what we mean by ‘consent’ when we ask members to trust us with their data, and we want to be sure this meaning is exactly the same across all Co-op businesses: from Food to Funeralcare.

Finally, we should develop a data science lab so that our data scientists and analysts have the right environment, tools and processes to develop and improve the work they are doing. This will also help us to attract more of the kind of people that will make the Co-op a centre of excellence.

These 4 alphas will start from September, and we will share our progress as we go. It’d be great to hear your thoughts.

Jack Fletcher
Interaction / service designer

Rob McKendrick
Head of Data Engineering

Simon Stead: life as a software engineer at Co-op Digital

(Transcript) Simon Stead: My name is Simon. I’m a software engineer and I work on the Digital team that works with Food in Co-op.

So I already knew a few people who worked at the Co-op from my last job and they told me how fantastic it was to work here, how nice everyone was so I thought I’d apply and then I managed to get in.

We’re working on a multidisciplinary team so there’s me, some other software engineers, but it’s lots of user researchers, interaction designers, content designers, delivery managers, everyone is just pooling all of their resources and sharing all of the work and just getting your hands dirty at the same time.

So we’ll all be sat on the same table and I don’t often feel like a software developer because we’re all just trying to solve a common problem together. If that’s data, if that’s design, if that’s dev, if that’s user research we all pitch in and do a lot of the same stuff together.

I think the best thing I like about working at Co-op is that I can just try new things all the time, I get so many new opportunities and I get to engage with so many different people, be that people in Co-op Digital in the Food business, different stakeholders, area managers, store managers, whoever they may be.

I’m autistic, I’ve got Asperger’s syndrome and so one of the really nice things about working at Co-op and Digital is that I know I’ve got a wealth of support behind me so if there’s any problems I’m having I know I can talk to whoever I need to to solve that. If I need flexible working hours or anything like that it’s just all available here.

So we work over here at Federation and we also work over in Angel Square but Federation, the open space, the air, the light, the colour, the beanbags, everything just makes it such a nice open place to work and I feel like that really gets reflected in the digital products and services that we build.

Working at Co-op, I always thought I’d be the kind of person who would just like hop from job to job and never really stick to one place but I honestly can’t see any reason that I’ll be leaving anytime soon.

Simon Stead
Software engineer

We’re hiring software engineers. Find out more and apply.

Switching energy company. For good

The Digital Product Research team at Co-op Digital spent a year exploring new products and services. We researched and tested ideas that we may or may not build. Our latest experiment was around people’s understanding of the energy market and what it would take to get them to switch to a renewable energy provider.

For the last few months the Digital Product Research team has been exploring how we might speed up Britain’s transition to sustainable energy controlled by its communities. By this we mean reducing our use of energy from fossil fuels bought from large multinational companies and moving to using renewable energy from a range of UK-based sources. Our most recent experiment in this area is a prototype for collective green switching.

Collective green switching happens when a group of people all move to a renewable energy supplier. It’s a really easy first step to reducing your carbon footprint. And when a group of people switch at the same time, it’s an effective way to fundraise, as energy companies make a thank-you payment for every new customer. A group of 40 people switching at the same time could raise £1000.

Our mission was to get people who have never switched, to move to a 100% renewable energy company. But we knew that might be tricky.

Why don’t people switch?

We are often told that switching energy provider will save us money. But only around 15% of us are receptive to this message and change energy company every year [PDF]. 

Photograph in Sheffield of a billboard that says: 7/10 brits overpaying for energy. Switch today and save up to £618

Yet over half of us never switch energy company – despite ads like this and nagging from evangelical switchers. Some of us are sticky, and that’s just the way we are.

It’s not about money

A big early influence on our thinking was a paper on attitudes to switching [PDF]. Xiaoping He and David Reiner are researchers at Cambridge University. They found that most of the non-switchers in their study stayed with the same company even though they knew they were paying too much. Any potential savings don’t seem to be worth the trouble of switching.

It’s the fear of hassle

We found this in our own research too. We held one-hour interviews with 5 parents of school-age children who had not switched energy provider at all or in the last 8 years. They all knew they would save money. But their perception of the process – that it would be a hassle, that it would go wrong, that it would be time consuming – put them off. One parent said, “It just gives me shudders. I just think it would be a nightmare.” Even thinking about the process was stressful. Another parent said, “A lot of mums when I speak to people, they don’t have the headspace to take on stuff.”

Renewable energy companies aren’t well known

We also found that awareness of alternatives to the ‘big 6’ energy companies was low. The people we spoke to had not heard of companies that only sell renewable energy, such as Ecotricity.

When we showed our non-switchers renewable energy companies, they liked them. One said, “I like that. It feels like buying local produce.” And others echoed this sentiment. Clean energy from renewable sources, produced by UK companies was appealing to them. Although buying energy from this type of company was a new idea for them, it went down well.

Would people switch for good?

During our interviews with parents, we showed them our prototype website where they could switch to a green energy provider. With the feedback from the interviews in mind we updated the content on our website. We removed all references to saving money. Instead we focused on how switching could help others. The message on our landing page was: Let Co-op change your energy provider for you and raise money for Hanover Primary School.

The image below shows the our old homepage next to the new one.

Homepage before when the focus was on saving money and after, when the focus is on raising money for a school

We don’t know…yet

We’re pausing work on our collective green switching service for now. We contacted a lot of schools and parent teacher associations and didn’t hear back from any of them. Schools and families aren’t at their most receptive in July.

This means, we can’t prove that people would switch for charitable reasons (to help a school raise money) even if they wouldn’t switch for personal gain. But we think it looks promising, and certainly an effective way to help schools. We’re still excited by collective switching for good, and hope to continue exploring this area soon.

Over to you

Our goal for this work was to speed up Britain’s transition to sustainable energy controlled by its communities. This is everyone’s responsibility, not just ours. And collective green switching is a great way for any type of organisation to raise small amounts (£1-2K at a time).

We hope to return to this work in the future, but we’re also keen that others carry on from where we’ve left off. Which is why we’ve worked openly. We’ve blogged about our findings and our software is available for anyone to view and download.

We’ll be very happy if anyone uses these resources for a project of their own. If you do, please let us know.

Sophy Colbert
Content designer

Dave Johnson: introducing ‘Fed Talks’ and more on our mobile app

(Transcript) Dave Johnson: Hello, and welcome to this week’s Co-op Digital update.

You may have read our blog post last week about the mobile app that we’re building to allow our members to scan their phones at the till and view their balances and transactions.

We’ve spoken to our store colleagues and customers and our members who’ve highlighted that a digital membership card could provide value to our members. We’re building the first part of this new functionality to act as a platform to grow in the future and we’re going to test it with our colleagues first in the support centre here at Angel Square.

We have show and tells every other Thursday, so come and join us. They’re in the auditorium on the 6th floor at Federation House. The first one’s on the 10th August at 2pm.

We also held a ‘Fed talks’ session in Federation House this week. The theme was food and agriculture. Thanks to Lawrence Kitson for organising and for Shirley Sarker and Abby Rose from Wool for spending their time talking with our colleagues. Thank you.

The lower floors of Federation House are also coming along with the coffee shop, events spaces and meeting rooms – they’re all almost ready. If anyone would like a tour you can contact Victoria Howlett who will happily show both Co-op colleagues and anyone else who is interested the space at Federation.

In the last few weeks we’ve welcomed a few new faces to the Digital team. Paul D’Ambra has joined us as a software engineer and Hannah Horton joins us as a content designer.

Finally, congratulations to Karen Lindop who is now our Digital Head of Operations and also to Gail Lyon who has been acting in the role for sometime but is now our Head of Digital Engagement. Well done.

That’s it for this week, don’t forget to subscribe to our blog and follow us on Twitter. Thank you.

Dave Johnson
Director of Digital Engineering

What we’ve learnt in Digital Product Research: adapting research techniques

The Digital Product Research team at Co-op Digital has been exploring what the future might look like for the wider Co-op. We’re about to move onto a new phase of work, so this is a good time to write up some of the things we’ve learnt.

Our team of 6 has been learning by doing. We’ve looked at things like Life after work, Everything is connected, Financial freedom through early planning. Our most recent work was about energy and co-operation: Collective switching for good. You can read about more of our experiments at

This is the first in a series of posts covering design principles and ways of working that have emerged in the last 12 months or so.

Getting out there matters

Our research started out much as you might expect: we spoke to Group colleagues, Co-op members and spent time with people in research labs. But we quickly became aware we were spending too much time in artificial settings. Research is best done in the context of the problem you’re trying to understand, so we made sure we got out of the office.

This took us to lots of different places — sometimes with a discussion guide that outlined areas of interest, sometimes with a digital prototype people could interact with.

Photograph show the back of Sophy's head as she rings the door bell hoping to speak to someone to do user research.

Hoping to understand how people use energy in their home, we took a trip to Lichfield and knocked on doors. We’ve looked for jobs at the Uber offices in a bid to understand a bit about what it’s like to be a driver. We also wandered down a high street to talk to shop owners about their relationship with other traders and with their customers. Doing all these things gave us greater confidence in the direction we’d take the projects.

Reflecting and adapting

We hit prototype testing fatigue after following GV’s Sprint method for a few weeks. We started to reflect on what the GV Sprint method offered us. We found it wasn’t providing enough insight into people’s problems, motivations and feelings. One of our experiments, Protecting your stuff, really highlighted that failing. The prototype was good, in lots of ways, and so was the idea of insurance based on trust within your community. But it didn’t explore people’s behaviour as a part of a real community in the context of our proposition.

We weren’t getting under the skin of the problem.

This sort of misstep led us to rethink how we thought about researching with prototypes. How might we prototype communities? How might we understand the mechanics of group behaviour to enable co-operation on a Job To Be Done?

Photograph of a group of people standing in a farm kitchen where the team thought about prototyping communities.

Our farm visit is an example of where we’ve given this approach a try. Read more on that experiment here: Cheaper, greener energy through smart behaviour.

Research is a team sport

We’ve each had ideas on how we might get closer to the user. Reading research papers helped our understanding of switching energy providers. And we used targeted Google Ads to get people to a website and used an Intercom chat widget where we could speak to them, in real time, at their point of need.

All of this was a collective effort.

Rather than have a dedicated user researcher, every member of the team has been involved in the research which is great. (Looking back, if we’d had a researcher, they might have helped make sure the time we spent with people clearly pointed back to the assumption we were trying to prove or disprove).

We’ve found that when every member of the team gets involved in the research process, they can understand people more and design our proposition better. As user researcher Simon Hurst says, getting each team member involved “ensures they design with the user, and not themselves in mind”.

We’ve poked and prodded along without a user researcher on the team and I wonder whether this has forced us to think differently. Learning from others — like GV’s Sprint method, or best practice led by an embedded researcher — is a good place to start, but there’s a lot to say for taking that baseline and adapting it to the specific problem at hand.

We’re also lucky to have a community of user researchers to guide us when needed. Research is integral to what we do and the onus is on us to question how we use it. We’ll keep doing that, as we move on to our next project.

James Rice
Interaction designer