We’re opening up data to meet customer and member needs

Opening up some of our data will help us meet our customers’ and members’ needs better and help us play a bigger part in their lives and their communities.

By ‘opening up’, we don’t mean we’re about to start selling our customer or member data, we mean we’re starting to build a platform that makes our data more accurate and makes some of it (not confidential stuff, of course) easier to access. This is really important because teams will be able to build useful things more easily.

We started building our platform by looking at our location data for our food stores and funeral homes. This is the addresses, the coordinates and associated information which includes things like opening hours, facilities and directions.

It’s important that the data for each store or funeral home is both accurate and easy to access. Here’s what we’ve been doing to make sure it is.

Making sure it’s accurate

Firstly we built an improved food store finder around user needs.

image shows the new Co-op store finder. it shows a search box for the user to write a location followed by search results. on the right it shows a map with pins to show the results.

We put a feedback form on the finder so users could tell us if the data was accurate or not.

image of the store finder feedback form. it shows a shop's details and underneath there's a box asking: 'tell us what's wrong with the details above' and a submit button.

We learnt that our latitude and longitude co-ordinates were showing many stores in the wrong place on the map. We also found out through user feedback that many stores had the wrong opening hours and some of the facilities needed updating too. Each one of these things needed to be accurate to meet the main user needs of a store finder.

To make things better, we put some tactical fixes in place to make the data more reliable. It’s actually just a temporary measure while the Food team undertakes the huge challenge of rebuilding how it manages, stores and maintains its data. So, right now the accuracy is better but there is still much more to do.

Earlier this month we released a new version of the funeral home finder. We’re hoping that the feedback form on there will help us quickly uncover any inaccuracies with our data like it did with the store finder. Of course, we might find that users are less compelled to give feedback given the journey they may be on. We’ll wait and see and make changes if we need to.

Making data easier to access with APIs

We built the store finder in such a way that it uses an Application Programme Interface (API). APIs turn webpages from static words and pictures to dynamic, contextual information sources by connecting them with databases. Mulesoft explains APIs well in an online video.

For us, creating APIs is the first step in making our data easy to access and open because it provides a widely understood way for developers to quickly start building things that use our data. We chose to build a .JSON API as it’s a machine readable format that is also quite readable for us humans too.

Now, both internal and external developers can build their own services and interfaces featuring Co-op location data. Co-op Digital teams have used the Location Services’ API to build a product finder, the Membership team have used it to create prototypes to test and of course, we have re-used it for the new Funeral Home Finder.

image show two overlapping screenshots from product finder and a prototype form the membership team. both use the location services API

It’s good for us to work with our internal teams to learn the best ways to build and support APIs.

Not just for Co-op teams

Fair Tax Mark is our first external user who has used the API for its Fair Tax Map. From this, we’re learning how to support and improve the API for third parties.

screen shot of the Fair Tax map

We’ve got plans…

We’ll continue to collect, prioritise and build requests for new features, as well as helping wherever we can to improve how the data is kept up to date within the business. We’re also working with a cross-team bunch of engineers and developers to agree a common set of principles and standards, so that our APIs are consistently easy to access. We’re experimenting with how we can make them easy to find in one place, where non-developers can see what’s available and developers can get quickly get their hands on our data.

We’ve had a play with Swagger, a popular open source framework for presenting APIs.

screen shot of what it looked like when we played with Swagger to make our API accessible

It’s basic but the intention is that we’ll style it up in the Co-op brand and add useful content. So it might look a bit like this.

Image contains same information as one above but styled in a more Co-op way.

It’s also likely that we’ll introduce access keys to help us support users better and ensure that we can manage demand.

These are all good first steps for the Location Services team. If you have thoughts on this stuff, leave a comment below. We’re particularly interested to hear ideas on how you could use Co-op Data.

Ben Rieveley
Product lead

Mike Bracken: 700k new members, helping Food colleagues and an upcoming Funeralcare event


Mike: Hello. Welcome to week 11 update from Co-op Digital. Start off with a big number. Six months ago we launched the new membership scheme for the Co-op. This week we passed 700,000 new members. Great effort from the Membership team and everyone across the Co-op Group to roll out the service. It’s great seeing members come back to the Co-op.

I want to talk about 4 things we’ve done this week.

First is in Funeralcare where in our Edinburgh hub we’ve rolled out the new digital service that’s transforming that business following on from our Bolton work. There’s an event here in Manchester next week, you’re more than welcome to come to that to talk about how we’re digitising the Funeralcare business. [more information below]

Our wills service has been handed back right into that wills business which is now taking more and more of our transactions digitally.

And our coop.co.uk site and our corporate sites have had a refresh from Peter Brumby and the team. They look great.

Final thing is Store Dashboard. We’re starting to get real traction with our Food business and you’ll see on our blog the reception that our store managers give when we give them these great digital tools and services. You’re going to see more of that.

A couple of quick shout outs this week. Rebekah Cooper who’s joined our team is now reverse mentoring Steve Murrells, our CEO. It’s great to see our leadership team welcome digital in and taking the advice from a younger generation.

And also we’re helping Liverpool Geek Girls and sponsoring them as they come through and take part in this community here in Manchester.

And it would be remiss of me not to finish with the usual “were hiring.” We’ve got some great opportunities so do check out our blog and see if you can come and join the team.

Thanks a lot.

Mike Bracken
Chief Digital Officer

Come to a talk about the digital transformation of our Funeralcare business on 28 March. You can get your free ticket at Eventbrite.

How we went from a 3-week discovery to 14 potential alphas

Running a food shop is simple in theory. You need to make sure there’s food on the shelves, there are colleagues available to help customers if they need it, and you’ve got to make sure customers can hand over their money when they want to buy something.

In fact, running a branch of a supermarket is pretty complicated. Even within that first statement, ‘make sure there’s food on shelves’, there’s a whirlwind of complexity. Getting food on the shelves involves logistics like knowing when a delivery is arriving, best before dates and in house baking.

At the beginning of March we completed a 3-week discovery to find out how we could make life simpler for our colleagues in stores. After the success of the Product Range Finder, one of our previous alphas, we wanted to find other opportunities for us to help. Now, we’re at the end of the discovery phase and we’ve proposed 14 alphas that we could work on.

Here’s how we got to this point.

Getting the right team together

We needed the right mix of people working together. It was just as important for us to collaborate with people with first-hand experience of the shop floor as it was for us to work with people with digital skills. The ‘Leading the way’ team from the Food business joined us. The purpose of their group is to help colleagues ‘go back to being shopkeepers’ by taking away some of the administration involved in running a store. Four of them joined the Co-op Digital team for the whole 3 weeks, and importantly, 3 of them had been area managers or shop managers within the last 12 months. Like we did for the first 3 Food alphas, we teamed up with digital product studio ustwo too.

Learning how things work in store

During week 1, we had around 20 colleagues from the Leading the way team come and work in Federation House to map out what happens in a Co-op store, and what goes into running one day to day.

We learnt about everything from walking around the store in the morning, ‘facing up products’ and cashing up, about what happens to unsold magazines when the issue expires, and a whole lot more. The purpose of the workshop was to uncover any assumptions. Doing this meant that anyone who didn’t have first-hand experience in store could get a decent understanding of how things work which in turn meant that our research would be less biased and more thorough.

Using filters to figure out potential

In our first week we also set up some team principles and some filters to evaluate each alpha idea on.

“Yes” ideas were ideas that we thought were good enough to carry forward to the alpha phase. Each one would:

  • have a clear user need
  • have potential for lasting value
  • empower colleagues and decentralise processes
  • keep colleagues on the shop floor

On the other hand, we had some ideas we wanted to ditch. “No” ideas were the ones that:

  • had a poor effort to value ratio
  • would add to colleagues’ workloads
  • didn’t actually need a digital solution

image shows 3 columns of post-it notes. The first column shows criteria for a 'yes' idea, the second for a 'no' idea and the third for ideas that might be good to pursue at a later date.

Week 2 and crossing the half-way point

In the second week of the discovery we spent around 30 hours in store doing ‘Lend a hand’ which is exactly how it sounds: we lent a hand to colleagues. We interviewed them and their store managers in different parts of the country. We also interviewed customers, to find out what they like about Co-op, and what they think could be improved.

After each store visit and interview, we shared what we’d learnt with the rest of the team, and we started to see themes emerge from the things we were seeing and hearing from colleagues.

image shows 3 colleagues sharing their feedback and arranging post-its on a wall.

We used those themes to create some prompting questions which we then asked over 60 Food colleagues at ‘sketching sessions’. For example, one of the themes that came out of the feedback was that it’s not always clear to colleagues how they can progress their career at the Co-op, so we asked colleagues at the sketching sessions “how can we help staff to progress?” They’d then draw something in response.

Here’s an example sketch in response to the question, “how can we sign up customers for membership at the store?” 

Sketch from colleague Phil Hesketh shows a machine that you can put your temporary card into, a screen where you choose the cause you'd like to support, and a real card will popping out of the bottom of the machine.

By the end of the sessions, colleagues had produced a whopping 562 sketches.

Getting our priorities straight

We put them all through the filter and managed to whittle the ideas for solutions down to 41. Then we fleshed them out, before prioritising them by asking:

  1. How risky is the idea?
  2. How much evidence for the opportunity do we have?

We figured the sweet spot was where we had both evidence and low risk. After looking at the 41 ideas through that lens, we got to 14 – a more manageable number!

Where we’re at now

Last week we presented back our ideas to the wider team.

group of colleagues from across the Co-op and ustwo gathered around whiteboards to hear the feedback on the 14 potential alphas.

Now it’s up to the Leading the way team to figure out which they want to go forward with, because we won’t be doing 14 alphas all at once. Just like last year’s discovery, we found a lot of opportunities, but we know we’ll solve a problem best if we can solve them one at a time.

Anna Goss
Product lead

Helping Food colleagues get out of the office and onto the shop floor

At Co-op Digital we’re building products and services that’ll improve efficiency in the wider Co-op Group. Part of this is figuring out how we can give more time back to our Food colleagues in stores so they can spend time helping customers instead of shuffling handfuls of paperwork in their office. Basically, we want to make things things more predictable ie, knowing when a delivery will arrive so that colleagues can plan and use their time better.

Teaming up with ustwo

We brought in ustwo, a digital product studio, to help. At that point we needed more people power and ustwo have excellent experience in putting user needs at the forefront of everything they do. Their ethical values also made them a brilliant match for us.

Researching and learning during discovery

Our goal for discovery was to produce a set of alphas that would potentially benefit the food business. We spent time with and interviewed customers as well as our Food colleagues including store managers, colleague team members and depot managers.

We learnt about the Food business at incredible speed through qualitative and quantitative research and design techniques such as sketching. Our interviews were sometimes focused and at other times wide ranging; sometimes they were in depth and at others they were vox pops. Spending time listening to colleagues on the phones in our call centres and seeing what happens on our internal help desk helped us learn a lot too.

We took what we’d learnt from our research and proposed alphas that might help with common problems we’d encountered throughout the discovery. In the end we worked on 3 alphas with ustwo. Last year, we blogged about the product range finder which was one of them.

Now we’re talking about another one: the delivery alerts alpha.

Initial scope of delivery alerts

We posed these questions:

Can we speed up delivery turnaround times?
Can we reduce queuing during busy times?

Starting simply and cheaply

We wondered if notifying a store of the arrival time of a truck would help make stores more efficient. So we set up a simple trial by asking a driver to use one of our cheap mobile phones to send a text message when he was approaching. Straight away we found that this was useful to stores so we felt confident that if we pursued this idea to the next stage, it’d be useful. So we built a more robust prototype that would test our theory further.

At this point we realised we were crossing paths with another team in Co-op working on putting black boxes into our delivery trucks that could provide us with the data we needed.  So whilst that work was coming together with the third party supplying the black box, we pivoted slightly to focus more on this question:

Can we make important shop bulletins available to everyone, quickly?

Building a digital dashboard

With the ease of a good agile team, the delivery alerts alpha became the store dashboard alpha because delivery alerts could be a part of something bigger. We built and trialled a store dashboard, a website running on an iPad.

image shows store dashboard including tasks (for example 'return match attax champions league products'), delivery times and news.

It shows our Food colleagues:

  • urgent or general tasks to be done
  • news or information from the Support Centre that colleagues should read

By now, we had around 15 stores in Manchester and London to use the digital dashboard as an information source. We chose a mixture of big and small, city and rural.

Image shows team leader Dan and store manager Craig from the Didsbury Road store looking at the store dashboard with Kim Morley out delivery manager. They're in the store.

Helping colleagues plan better

Once we had access to the data from the black boxes in the trucks, we built our delivery alerts module that sat in the bigger, more comprehensive dashboard. Then we broadened our trial to show colleagues when deliveries were going to arrive. With the dashboard they can see if their delivery truck was stuck in traffic. This meant they could plan ahead and use their time efficiently.

We got enough insight from the delivery alerts module and our tasks and news modules to calculate that it could give store managers up to 10% more time to spend on the shop floor.

Big thumbs up from colleagues

Naz at Faircross Parade Co-op said that knowing when deliveries will arrive is the main thing that would make the system helpful to him, because he could co-ordinate his team and the floor schedule. Co-ordinating better means that Naz can free up colleague time for other activity, like reducing queues at the tills.

Gemma from Taylor Road Co-op said that she could turn her deliveries around 10 minutes quicker using our dashboard. But it means so much more than that to her, knowing when her deliveries arrive means she can allocate tasks before and after the delivery to make her store run more efficiently.

If we take this idea forward, we’ll blog about our progress. In the meantime, you can sign up to the Co-op Digital blog.

Kim Morley
Delivery manager

Making better, joined-up decisions with the engineering community

This month, it’s 3 months since we set up our engineering community for software engineers, platform engineers, service managers and quality analysts at the Co-op. It’s early days but it’s already helping move Co-op engineering in the right direction.

Getting together with people who do similar jobs helps us all be more joined up which is really important, especially in a place as big as the Co-op. Without a community, we’d be working in isolation because our day jobs are within Co-op Digital, Co-op Legal Services or Funeralcare.

When we began meeting regularly, we identified the areas we need to work together to develop, including how we support training and development and coming up with development standards.

Picture of our Engineering community of practice

We’ve created infrastructure standards

I was really pleased to see that practices such as Continuous Delivery and Infrastructure as Code were already well established when I joined Co-op Digital 6 months ago. However teams were working in isolation at that point. Lots of them had similar problems and were tackling them in different ways. This meant that getting some of the services we were launching to a point where they were secure, reliable and supported was trickier than it needed to be because there was quite a bit of rework involved.

To make things simpler, we spent time during our community of practice meet-ups to create shared standards for our platform infrastructure. There’s still plenty to do and these things are never really finished of course, but we’re now in a much better shape and future projects will follow a much easier path. Most importantly, teams are more empowered to get on with stuff and do their job.

We’re also working on standards for how we’ll support cloud infrastructure across several teams. This work will sit with our Digital Operations team which is forming steadily.

Making better technology decisions

Out of that also came a clear need to provide better support around making technology decisions. We want teams to be empowered, but at the same time there’s always going to be a limit on how many different technologies we can support and maintain. Our approach has been to try and provide really great guidance so teams can make decisions in context rather than needing meetings to make decisions. It’s all still quite early days so again we’ll hopefully come back again soon and update on how it’s getting on.

We’ve been hiring

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We’ve worked with some great external companies while we’ve been adding gradually to our in-house expertise but we’re at a stage now where we’re looking to bring in a significant number of software and platform engineers. The Co-op Digital team and the wider engineering community of practice is looking forward to new talent joining us. From there, the culture of the team will grow and strengthen.

If you’re interested, take a look at our Work with us page for the roles we currently have open. We’ll be recruiting for engineers for the Funeralcare team shortly.

In the meantime, sign up to the blog and follow Co-op Digital on Twitter.

Rob Bowley
Head of Engineering

Small is beautiful. User research and sample sizes

At the Co-op, we use both qualitative and quantitative approaches to make decisions about products. This post is about doing qualitative research with a small-ish numbers of users – and why that’s useful.

As a rule of thumb, qualitative and quantitative approaches are useful for different things:

  • If you want to understand the scale of something (such as how many users do X or Y, or how much of something is being used), use quantitative methods, like surveys.
  • If you want to understand why people do something and how they do it, qualitative methods such as interviews or seeing how users behave with a given task (user tests) are better.  

User research isn’t a one off event. It’s a process. By researching with a handful of users at a time, iteratively, and supported by data on user behaviour, we build better digital products and services.

How many users are enough?

We don’t need to observe many users doing something to identify why they’re behaving a certain way. Jakob Neilsen, a usability expert, found through research with Tom Landauer that 5 users is sufficient. More than 5 and your learning diminishes rapidly and “after the fifth user, you are wasting your time by observing the same findings repeatedly but not learning much new”. Here’s Neilsen’s graph of these diminishing returns:

Graph shows percentage of usability problems found on the y axis and number of test users on the x axis. the graph sows that we find 100% of usability problems with a relatively small number of test users.

Source: Jakob Neilsen

Analysing user data and user research findings are complementary in developing digital products and services. Data can help identify issues to then test with users, but it can also run the other way. In user research at the Co-op, we’ll often see things while doing user research which we’ll then investigate with data. It works both ways.

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.26.18

There’s cumulative value in cycles of research

The cycle of user research shown in the diagram is how product teams work at the Co-op. We typically iterate in weekly or fortnightly cycles.

For example, the Membership team has a rhythm of fortnightly cycles. These are often focused on discrete aspects of Membership. These research cycles accumulate learning over time. They create an understanding of Membership and of users needs. Cumulatively, this gives clarity to the whole user journey.

During the last 10 months, the Membership team have surveyed 674 users and interviewed 218. The value of this research accrues over time. The team has learnt as they’ve developed the service and iterated on the findings, getting to know far more than if they’d done the research in one block of work.

That’s why observing relatively few users doing a task, or speaking to a handful of users explaining something they’ve done, is enough to provide confidence in iterating a product and to continue to the next test. This is especially true when user research is used together with data on user behaviour and even more so when it’s done regularly to iterate the product.

Error-prone humans are there in quantitative research too

It’s not uncommon for people to give more weight to quantitative data when they’re making decisions. Data is seen as being more factual and objective than qualitative research: “you only spoke to 10 people, but we have data on thousands…!”

Data hides the error-prone human because humans are invisible in a spreadsheet or database. But even though they’re hidden, the humans are there: from the collection of the data itself and the design of that collection, to the assumptions brought to the interpretation of the data and the analysis of it.

All data is not the same

Survey data, based on responses from users, is distinct from data collected on behaviour through Google Analytics or MixPanel. Poor survey design produces misleading insights.

Getting useful behavioural data from a user journey is dependent on setting up the right flows and knowing what to track using analytics software.  Understanding what constitutes ‘good’ data and how to apply it is something we’re working on as a community of user researchers at the Co-op.

Research is a process, not a one-off

Digital product teams usually have a user researcher embedded. They can also draw on the skills and experience of the conversion and optimisation team and their quantitative and statistical skills and tools. The user researcher gets the whole product team involved in user research. By doing this, they gain greater empathy for and understanding of their users (and potential users).

This diagram shows some of the methods we use to help us make good product decisions and build the right thing to support users:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 11.36.18

As user researchers our craft is working out how and when to deploy these different methods.

Part of the craft is choosing the right tool

Let’s take an example from a recent project I was involved in, Co-op wills, where we used both quantitative and qualitative research.

We had customer data from the online part of the service and analysed this using a tool called MixPanel. Here’s part of the journey, with each page view given a bar with corresponding number of visitors:

Screen Shot 2017-03-09 at 15.38.11

From this, we could determine how many users were getting to a certain page view of the wills service, and where they were dropping out.

The data let us see the issue and the scale of what’s happening, but it doesn’t give us a sense of how to resolve it.

What we didn’t know is why people were dropping out at different parts of the journey. Was it because they couldn’t use the service, or didn’t understand it, or because they needed information to get before they could complete?

To help us understand why people were dropping out, we used user data to create hypotheses. One of our hypotheses was that “users will be more likely to complete the journey if we start capturing their intent before their name and email address” ie, show them the service before asking them to commit.

Through user research with small numbers of users we found a series of different reasons why people were behaving in ways Mixpanel had showed us, from confusion over mirror wills to uncertainty about what the service involved, to requiring more information.

We only got this insight through speaking to, and observing users, and getting this insight allowed us to design ways to fix it.

It’s not an exact science – and that’s OK

Research is not an exact science. Combined with user data, user research is a process of understanding the world through the eyes, hands and ears of your users. That’s why it’s central to the way we’re building things at the Co-op.

James Boardwell
User researcher

International Women’s Day: we need more diversity in tech

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), a day to celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It’s also a day to discuss equality and sadly, more often than not, lack of equality between men and women, boys and girls in many areas of life.

The importance of being seen

I’m an architect which means I plan and design systems both technical and human for Co-op Digital. Throughout my career I’ve often been the only woman in the room. That won’t be a huge surprise because it’s hardly new news that the world of tech, digital and design has always been male-dominated.

And that’s a problem for the next generation of women because as the saying goes: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. In other words, girls aren’t likely to aspire to take on roles and be part of a community that they’re under-represented in.

yellow background and black text. text says: 'If you can't see it, you can't be it.' Followed by #beboldforchange

Time for change

At Co-op Digital we’re committed to trying to break out of the catch 22 situation and reduce the imbalance of men to women in tech. We actively support Ladies of Code, She Says Mcr, Manchester Geek Girls and Ladies that UX. We also made a pledge to support gender diversity at conferences so that no one from Co-op Digital will speak at events or be part of panel discussions of 2 or more people unless there’s at least one woman speaking or part of the panel (not including the chair).  

Celebrating with a screening

To celebrate IWD me and my colleague Gemma, a principal engineer, arranged a screening of Hidden Figures in Manchester for families with children aged 6 and above. Our aim was to inspire young people, particularly girls, to consider a STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) career.

image is from Sunday screening and shows Gemma speaking at the front of a cinema packed with families.

The film’s about 3 female, African-American mathematicians who had a massive impact within NASA in the early days of the space program. They succeeded in engineering, mathematics and software development despite facing gender and racial bias. The film’s based on a true story so it seemed like an appropriate and important thing to show to mark IWD.

image shows the leaflet we gave away at the screening. The text on the front says: 'International Women's Day private screening Hidden Figures. Sponsored by Co-op, Autotrader, Tech North'

Thanks to sponsors from Co-op Digital, TechNorth, Autotrader whose support made it possible to make it a free event.

We’ve made a good start…

The screening was fully booked and we also inspired and supported 3 sister events screening Hidden Figures or Codegirl in Sheffield, Nottingham and Liverpool. As the crowds left the cinema, I overheard 2 brilliantly positive things from young, female attendees. “Can I go to Madlab, Mum? I want to make something!” asked an 8 year old, and a slightly older girl asked, “Nana, do you think I could be an astronaut?”

…but there’s still a long way to go

Sure, over recent years women and minorities are marginally better represented in this sector and that’s in part due to the committed people at organisations like Manchester Digital who created a ‘diversity toolkit’ to address issues around equality last year.

But women are still grossly outnumbered. 

If you’re a parent, consider taking your children to one of the many free creative and code clubs in the north west. Or if you’re are curious about a career in the sector yourself, come along to one of the meet-up groups in our thriving northern tech community.

We need to continue to be bold for change and fight the good fight every day, not just today.

Danielle Haugedal-Wilson
Digital Business Architect
Co-op Digital champions diversity full stop. We mention gender diversity specifically in this post because it’s International Women’s Day.