Reflections on the first year of our degree apprenticeships

In September 2020, Manchester Metropolitan undergraduate students Ana Thompson and Precious Oladele – who are both are working towards a BSc in Digital User Experience Design – joined Co-op Digital as part of their 4-year degree apprenticeship. The course is designed to give students the opportunity to learn by working in an environment they will likely get their first job in. 

In the past year, Ana and Precious have spent around 80% of their week with Co-op digital product or service team experiencing disciplines including content design, user research, service design and interaction design. The other 20% has been spent studying.  

In this post they reflect on their first year.  


Which teams are you working with at the moment?   

Ana: We’re both working in the Operational Innovation (OI) team at the moment so our focus is on digital products and services used by colleagues in Co-op Food stores – things like Date Code, Age and Safety Perception. Sometimes though, there are projects that are more customer-facing.  

Precious: I’m on the same team but I recently moved from Co-operate, a digital product for amplifying the good things happening in local communities.   

What led up to you applying for the apprenticeship?  

Precious: I started looking for an apprenticeship after college because I prefer hands-on learning. I applied for positions in journalism and digital marketing but none of them worked out. When my mentor sent me this opening, I wasn’t sure if it was for me. But I realised that I care about why people are the way they are, and how that can contribute to creating a product/experience that works for them. The opportunity sounded like a good fit so I applied. 

Ana: I’d always liked customising my MySpace theme (now I feel old) and I definitely wanted to work in the digital design space, with apps and websites. But I had no idea where to get started. I’d thought about going back to uni and was looking into which degree I might like to do when I came across the apprenticeship. To be honest, the idea of starting uni again having worked full-time for 5 years wasn’t appealing, but I did think the apprenticeship sounded like something I would enjoy. And now, here I am.  

How are you finding having to balance university studies with work?

Ana: I’ve not found it too bad so far but I do anticipate that will change as I gain more responsibility over the next 3 years.  

Precious: It’s been going well. Co-op is invested in people’s personal development, apprentice or not, so it makes it easier to dedicate the time to study/learn.   

The apprenticeship gives you exposure to a range of disciplines. Are there benefits of being discipline-agnostic at this stage of your training?

Ana: Yes, at this early stage, it is good not to be boxed into one role. I like that we are encouraged to explore a wide range of disciplines because I think there’s a danger that someone quickly writes a role off as not being for them but perhaps they don’t understand it well enough to make a good decision.  

Precious: It’s all about making an informed decision and moving around gives you the experience you need to do that. If I’d had to choose a discipline in the early months, I’d have probably chosen content design because I enjoy writing. But a year on I’ve learnt that ‘content design’ in UX is different from the content creation I thought it might be – it’s less creative and based on data and user research. Instead of going into it fully, I prefer to learn about it alongside a different discipline. Overall, getting to explore each of them helps to gain an understanding of what it is, what it’s not and how they all feed into each other.  

What have you been most proud of so far? 

Precious: This year, I’ve facilitated user testing sessions and co-presented at the Black Young Professionals summit. However, I’m most proud of co-organising a ‘conversational design workshop’. The aim was to help the team understand how to make sign-up forms for Co-operate more engaging for our users. It was exciting to run it and learn about how we can bring conventions from real life conversations into the digital world to make better onboarding journeys.  

A screen shot from the remote Black Young Professionals summit

Ana: I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone a lot this year and I’m proud of that. I did my first user interview, presented back findings and designs to the team, and I did well in my first uni assignment. However, I think the best thing was the first time something I’d designed went live! It was in the News and Mags app and was something small that told colleagues when they needed to return newspapers to a supplier.  

How does the work culture compare to what you’ve known before  

Ana: I worked in retail for around 7 years and, although I do not miss it, I think it helped me to develop more empathy as well as how I relate to and communicate with others. It’s also helped me to become more resilient. It also taught me what I want and expect from an organisation and its culture. I chose the Co-op in part because its values align closely with my own. So far, it’s been living up to my expectations. I work with people who hold similar values which makes a difference.   

One year down, 3 to go. How well do you think you’ve found your feet?  

Precious: I was excited to work in a professional role, it was overwhelming at first to try to learn so much at once. We had to familiarise ourselves with the product, UX design, balancing the apprenticeship with study. Also, the world was mid-pandemic so we were all working from home. A year on though, I’m more confident. I know how teams and each discipline work together. I’d like to get a better grasp of the apprenticeship structure to help me get better at managing my time. I know now that learning takes time – it’s best to be patient.  

Ana: I was apprehensive before I started. I came in not really knowing anything about UX design, agile ways of working or how a digital product team works together. I was quieter and more reserved when I first started, but over the last couple of months I feel like I’ve got a good understanding of the basics and feel comfortable and confident to contribute to discussions, no matter who is involved. I’m beginning to be able to navigate a wider range of tasks more autonomously. 

What are your hopes for your personal development by the end of the fourth year of the apprenticeship?

Ana: I’d like to have tried out and explored a range of design disciplines. Maybe I’ll find something that I want to really focus on or perhaps I’ll want to be more of a generalist. I hope to feel more confident and comfortable in my presentation and public speaking skills. More generally speaking, I would like to feel like I’m ready to take on the role of designer in a team. Finally, doing well in my degree would round things off nicely!  

Precious: Like Ana, I want to have explored multiple disciplines and grasp a better understanding of what they entail so I can start to have an idea of what I’d like to specialise in. I’d also expect to have a clearer view of what I want my career to look like in this industry.   

What should colleagues you work with in the future know about you?  

Ana: I’m one of those people who is quiet when I start something new but once I feel more comfortable, I can be chatty and more forthcoming with ideas. I am finding it’s taking me a little bit longer to come out of my shell in a remote setting though, so bear with me!  

Precious: I enjoy reading, my favourite author is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also, I’m not a very good talker, I prefer to listen and observe. 

Choose one person who has been super influential since last September and tell us why.  

Ana: There have been a number of people but my number one would be my line manager Elisa Pasceri. She’s been my biggest advocate and cheerleader over this time, giving me the opportunities to push outside of my comfort zone whilst also making sure I don’t feel like I’m drowning either.   

Precious: I’ve had 2 managers at different points this year and they’ve both been positive influences in my work/study life. Catherine helped to build my communication skills and Matt has contributed highly to my personal development. 


BSc in Digital User Experience Design at Manchester Metropolitan University 

Questions and answers from the inclusion and accessibility event

Last month, Accessibility Manchester ran a series of inclusion and accessibility talks. The line-up of speakers mainly came from Co-op Digital and you can read a summary here. We pre-recorded the talks, added captions, then showed them across 3 lunch-time sessions. We collected questions from attendees so we could give written (accessible) answers afterwards.  

Here they are.  


1. How can teams test with real users if they can’t afford to pay for participant recruitment? 

If you’re tight on budget or have a business challenge on procurement, a good alternative is to find user research participants with access needs through related charities. (We’d still suggest making a contribution to the charity and reward the participants for their time, of course).  

Charities want to raise awareness and improve the lives of those they serve, and we’ve found that teams tend to get more than they expect in return – often not just feedback on their prototype or live site. We started doing usability research with visually impaired people through the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) – they helped us to identify issues on our website whilst also raising awareness of accessibility internally with colleagues. This turned out to be the catalyst for making accessibility a priority at Co-op.   

Related: our blog post What we considered before researching with people who are visually impaired

Paul Braddock, UX designer 

2. And how about affordable testing services for accessibility? 

We recommend manual testing, for example zoom into your web browser to 400% and navigate using your keyboard only. 

For automated testing use these plugins/extensions: 

Chris Gibbons, Lead Front-End engineer 

3. Are there tools that help test whether content design or written communication is accessible?  

Yes, we use the Hemmingway Editor which lets you know if: 

  • your content is difficult to read 
  • you’re using the passive rather than the active voice 
  • there’s a plainer English alternative to a word you’ve used 

There’s also Grammarly which is also free. However, we never rely on these tools. Another content designer or member of your team should always crit the content you create but the best way to test content accessibility is to put your content in front of users – preferably with a range of literacy levels.  

Related: Inclusive, accessible services: the importance of content design – a blog post from Joanne Schofield.   

4. Do you have any tips for managing an accessibility champions community in a large company? 

If you don’t already have a loosely-organised group of experts, get started by bringing together a group of people who are passionate about accessibility – being interested and being aware of the importance of inclusivity is the main thing at the beginning. Start small. 

At Co-op, our core team meet at least once a month. We set objectives that align to our accessibility policy and overarching vision: to make all Co-op products and services accessible for everyone.  

We’ve made some noise to raise awareness – we’ve held events, we’ve written blog posts, we created our accessibility policy – all of this stuff helps colleagues to embed accessibility into the culture of the organisation.  

As time goes on, you’ll notice that the group will naturally evolve and infiltrate the rest of an organisation. We also meet quarterly and often invite external speakers to join us to share their knowledge and experience. 

Paul Braddock, UX designer

5. When it comes to running experiments, how have you been able to balance the accessibility policy needs with creating a prototype to test a hypotheses at speed? 

We test for accessibility at various stages throughout the design process. When we test prototypes at the beginning, we can still test with people with access needs. I tend to test with users who use screen magnification as it is purely reliant on the design and the user interface rather than code. However, even when we have tested with people who use assistive technology such as voice activation, we still learn more about how they navigate as well as specific components they usually have issues with.  

When we conduct usability studies, we ask for 2 in 5 people to have an accessibility need such as learning difficulties or colour blindness. This also helps to ensure we are in line with our accessibility policy (for example, readability), but means we can still work at speed.  

The coding part of accessibility is tested when we have something in production. This allows us to test even further, doing our own automated, manual testing, whilst also using the resources of assisted tech users at Fable.  

Having an accessible design system also helps ensure we are adhering to our accessibility policy; and with Fable having a 2-day turnaround has really helped us work at speed without any delays on the project.  

Hannah Pass, Lead user researcher 

6. How is Co-op championing the accessibility guidelines laid out in the design system so that everyone from colleagues to third parties use them? 

It will take time before they are fully adopted both internally by colleagues and externally with people we work with. That said, we are asking all third parties we work with to follow our accessibility standards. The standards are one part of a set of measures we have created to begin changing the culture. We are also:  

  • running accessibility awareness training  
  • implementing our accessibility policy  
  • making sure all our communities of practice have diversity and inclusion objectives which involve accessibility  
  • creating our ‘Experience Library’ which will have lots of tools and guidance for accessibility 

All of this means shifting the mindset of the organisation to one where accessibility is always part of the conversation. 

7. How are you prioritising which accessibility issue that need fixing? 

We prioritise based on the biggest disruption to a user trying to use a service. We look at quantative and qualitative research to find out if an accessibility issue might stop someone carrying out the task they came to us to complete. Anything that prevented them continuing would be the first priority, and areas that caused confusion would come later – of course, we aim to address them all. 

I use a 3-point scale: 

  1. Prevented the user from continuing. 
  1. Blocked the user, but they found a workaround. 
  1. Caused confusion, but they managed to continue. 

Hannah Pass, Lead user researcher 

8. Amazing work on the web content accessibility guidelines. Have you shared your them and the thinking behind them with the Web Accessibility Initiative? 

We haven’t, no. It’s the first version of these simplified standards that we have done so we’d like to test them to see how they work and improve them. Since the talks last month, we’ve heard from a few people who are also trying to simplify these guidelines so perhaps we will try to approach WAI together. 

9. Can you share the Accessibility Testing framework that was shown during the talks? 

It’s not quite ready to be shared it yet but feel free to get in touch and we’ll be happy to talk more about it. You can also sign up for our design system updates.  

Chris Gibbons, Lead Front-End engineer 

10. Does Google Analytics offer an option to track user data of assistive technologies? If not, is there an appropriate a hack? For example, a large text setting or turning images off. 

GA doesn’t, and – to my knowledge – there’s no tracking software that does this as there could be too many potential issues arise. You could maybe target click events on hidden “skip-to-content” links to give some idea of usage, but sadly this isn’t an exact science. 

Chris Gibbons, Lead Front-End engineer 

11. I would like more UX experience – does Co-op take on interns? 

Keep an eye on our jobs page, follow us on Twitter and we sometimes have more detail on Digital jobs on the blog too. 

Inclusive, accessible services: the importance of content design

We want as many people as possible to be able to use Co-op products and services. Aside from it being good business sense, we know that being inclusive with our design is the right thing to do. 

We’ve posted before that we are committed to further improving inclusivity. However, we haven’t explicitly spoken about the importance of content design in making services accessible. At Co-op, we design content to open up our services so that as many people as possible can: 

  • find them 
  • use them 
  • understand them 
  • trust them 

Often, when we think of accessibility, there’s a tendency to think about colour contrast, screen readers and typefaces. All of them are important, but no more so than clear and well-considered content design. 

Here’s why:

1. We use words people understand

We design content so that as many people as possible can understand what we’re saying. So we write using plain English – everyday, familiar words without unnecessary jargon.

We research words that our users use and reflect these in our products and services – these might not be the words we use at Co-op, or the way we want people to refer to things officially. But doing this makes what we’re saying more understandable, relatable and increases trust between us and our users. 

If we use unfamiliar or complex terms, it can:

  • cause confusion
  • be misleading
  • add additional mental effort
  • leave room for doubt  
  • mean the difference between people using our services and not   

We use objective and neutral language that does not make assumptions about our audience, their circumstances or what they might be going through. We design so that no one is alienated, and in doing so, open up our services so they can be used by more people.

2. We do not use words if something else works better  

Content design means giving information to people in a way that’s most effective. This may not always be words. Some things can be more meaningful and quicker for people to understand in a different format –  for example, a video illustrating how to change a till roll, or a calculator to give tailored financial information.

We do research to understand users’ mental models – how the user believes or understands things to work. This helps us work out the easiest way for them to consume information. We hide complexity where we can to make content and interactions relevant to our users. 

By being deliberate about the format of our content we:

  • make things quicker for people to use
  • increase understanding
  • remove ambiguity and doubt

3. We remove things that are unnecessary  

People often come to services to find information, buy something, or report something. They want to do the thing and then leave quickly. If there’s information on a page that’s not relevant to them it can become overwhelming and confusing. So we edit ruthlessly. We give only the essential information people need to achieve their goal.

Although we write in a familiar and friendly way, we are not overfamiliar. As well as replacing any jargon with plain English (or at least plain English definitions), we remove any figures of speech that could be confusing, misinterpreted or meaningless to people. 

We do not use metaphors like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, or similes like ‘clear as mud’ – they can be confusing if you’ve not heard them before. As Helen Lawson pointed out poignantly in her recent blog post, ‘The principles that guide our content design and communications in Funeralcare’, some misunderstandings can also be distressing.

We use playful content, in the appropriate context, but not at the expense of usability. If something could be misinterpreted, misunderstood or incomprehensible to people, we get rid of it.

4. We structure content to reflect how people read  

We know that lots of unformatted content can be hard to follow and understand. So we:

  • use short sentences
  • make only one point per sentence
  • use descriptive sub-headings to break up walls of text
  • front-load sentences and bullet points (put the most useful words near the start) 
  • put the most important content at the start, for example, what we’re talking about, who it’s for, how it can benefit them

We structure content to reflect how we know people read online – they scan, looking for words, phrases or links that will help them decide if they’re in the right place to achieve what they came to do. By focusing relentlessly on what the user needs to know, and structuring content in a more manageable way, we reduce the amount of shortcuts users take, and help them get to where they need to be, quickly. People often compare tasks across multiple websites, using minimum effort on each (from NN Group). By reducing the effort needed to navigate our site and services, we make it more likely they’ll choose – and stay with – us.

5. We research when to communicate, and through which channel

We research the full end-to-end service with users to understand where they are when they need to understand information. We then choose the most appropriate time and channel to give that information – this could be a poster in store, a message on Co-op packaging, or a text message reminder for an appointment. 

By surfacing content at the relevant time and place, we create services that reduce friction and effort for people.

Making services accessible makes them easier for everyone

Designing accessible services means:

  • focusing persistently on the experience of our users
  • meeting their needs
  • reducing effort
  • removing barriers

This is content design. 

Everything we do as content designers is to increase understanding, usability and reduce the effort required of the user. By being respectful and thoughtful of our users’ circumstances, we create services that are easier to use for all. We remove barriers and open up Co-op services to more people. 

Joanne Schofield
Lead content designer


Co-op has recently been rated as the number 1 supermarket website for accessibility. There’s still more to do. If you have feedback or suggestions on ways we can be more accessible, please leave a comment.

What happened at our inclusion and accessibility talks

We ran a series of inclusion and accessibility talks this week. They took place over 3 lunch breaks and they fell nicely into these themes:

  1. Being inclusive at Co-op  
  1. Enabling accessibility in teams  
  1. Getting accessibility ‘done‘ 

This post summarises what the speakers covered. We pre-recorded the talks and added captions afterwards which meant that we didn’t give live answers to the questions that were asked after each talk. We didn’t anticipate getting so many so we’ll save them for a separate post to give us a little more time to answer them thoroughly. 

Follow Accessibility Manchester on Twitter for future events. 



Being inclusive at Co-op

Neurodiversity 

Paul Munday, software engineer 

I tell a story about my everyday experience as a neurodivergent software engineer. I talk about an unexpected difficulty I met and how a seemingly small thing caused me big problems. I want to show some of my lived experience as a disabled person, and how my impairments, the history of that lived experience, and its psychological consequences can interact in complex ways. I’m hoping that talking about what went wrong might create better understanding so people making decision on product and service teams can avoid unintended consequences that might make life worse for people like me. 

Watch my talk ‘Neurodiversity’ on YouTube 


In-store innovation and format 

Steve Gell, Format development equipment manager 

Before we develop or buy new equipment, we always consider customer and colleague needs. However, we know there’s always room for improvement. In my talk I talk about how an isolated incident involving one of our Food store colleagues who uses a wheelchair has led to a more inclusive way of working for our team. I also talk about our plans to work with the Represent team to help make sure all store solutions are as open and as accessible as possible for all customers and colleagues. 

Watch our talk ‘In store innovation and format’ on YouTube  


Putting inclusion at the heart of what we do 

Rachael Bickerstaff 

Watch our talk ‘Putting inclusion at the heart of what we do’ on YouTube 


Represent 

Carly Tait 

Watch my talk ‘Represent’ on YouTube 



Enabling accessibility in teams

The power of policy 

Dave Cunningham, DesignOps and accessibility lead 

I have tried and failed to implement accessibility at scale before. I have run training sessions. Done audits. It’s tough, and when you leave an organisation, the desire of the team often does too.  

In my talk I shout about our accessibility policy which makes accessibility standards more tangible and sustainable because colleagues can see what their responsibilities include. 
 
To deliver the things set out in a policy, we must remove barriers for our teams. We also need to fit in to the way they work and enable people at scale. 
 
To help, we brought in Fable to ensure our designers could regularly crit their work with native users of assistive tech such as screen readers, magnification, dragon naturally speaking. Thus, saving valuable time whilst building an army of designers with working knowledge of the diverse ways people use computers. 
 

Watch my talk ‘The power of policy’ on YouTube 


Accessibility panel 

Vicki Riley, Lead user researcher 

There are lots of product teams working on colleague-facing services at Co-op, across Food stores, Funeral homes and the support centre. 

We’ve been testing different ways to identify and recruit colleagues who have a disability into our research. 

Sign up to the Co-op colleague accessibility research panel here – Microsoft Forms 

Take a look at the ways of working website.  

Watch my talk ‘Accessibility panel’ on YouTube 


Design system 

Chris Gibbons, Lead front end engineer 

I’m on the design system team – the team responsible for the foundations of Co-op products and service. We believe accessibility needs to be baked into the products we build, from the beginning, that includes the design system.  that’s why we take accessibility seriously, and want to ensure that our colleagues have the utmost trust in the tools that we provide them. 

We also want our colleagues to know that anyone can contribute into the design system, into their design system. 

Watch my talk ‘Design system’ on YouTube 


Simplifying standards 

Alex Hall, content designer 

There’s a lot of useful information on accessibility out there, but often this information is not very accessible itself. Take something like the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. A fantastic resource, but it’s full of complex guidance and specialist language. They, like a lot of accessibility information, can be difficult to understand and use. My talk is about this and how we kept this in mind when we created our digital accessibility standards

We wanted them to be clear, concise and actionable. We have also tried to make them into simple rules that are easy to remember and share. These standards are one of many things we are doing to try and create an accessibility culture at Co-op.  

We know nothing is ever perfect and any feedback on the standards is very welcome, just email accessibility@coop.co.uk 

Watch my talk ‘Simplifying standards’ on YouTube


Fable community 

Samuel Proulx

Watch my talk ‘Fable community’ on YouTube 

 



Getting accessibility done

Accessibility on Co-operate 

The Co-operate team 

We work on Co-operate, which lists things to do and groups that make good things happen in communities around the UK. It’s kind of like an online community centre.   

Just like the diverse communities we all live in, it’s so important Co-operate reflects that diversity, and is inclusive and accessible to everyone. 

We talk about how we’re doing this through: 

  • research 
  • content 
  • design 
  • front end build 

Watch our talk ‘How we work’ on YouTube 


Can a banner be accessible? 

Alexandra Borowska, junior designer 

In many cases, website banners are often inaccessible and ineffective. There are often issues such as small text and poor colour contrast but once they are spotted, they’re easy to fix. I think what’s interesting is the question around whether we need really a banner at all? In my talk I explain how I discovered pain points and opportunities with several banners and how I found that in many scenarios we can give users the information in a different but more accessible, effective way.  

Watch my talk ‘Can a banner be accessible?’ on YouTube 


Getting people to care 

Phoebe Quayle, agile delivery manager

Getting people to prioritise accessibility changes is hard. It’s a behavior change that requires empathy for the users but also support and education for your team to learn how to approach, understand the impacts and learn how to apply design and engineering techniques that will make a huge difference. 
 
In my talk I explain how I’ve got this wrong. I lacked understanding of other teams’ motivation and decision process, and I lacked empathy and understanding for my colleagues and what support and reassurances they needed. 

Then I talk about what I did to make things better. Briefly: the best way to learn, build understanding and alignment as a group is to put the work you care about in front of users. 
 
Watch my talk ‘Getting people to care’ on YouTube 


Researching with Fable 

Hannah Pass, Lead user researcher 

When it comes to accessibility, a lot of people automatically think of screen readers. My talk is about the importance of testing with other types of assistive technology as well as my experience of using Fable, web accessibility testing software that lets us do audits and moderated sessions with people who use assistive technology easily and quickly. 

I talk about how we used Fable to test our careers website with a range of assistive technology, for example, screen magnification, voice activation as well as a screen reader. Each one uncovered different issues showing that relying on screen reader testing alone isn’t good or thorough enough.  

Fable has helped us feel confident about running our own tests within the team and we’re in a better, more accessible place for it. 

Watch my talk ‘Researching with Fable’ on YouTube 


Golden rules of forms  

Paul Braddock, UX designer 

We have a lot of forms at Co-op – in fact, every meaningful interaction involves at least one. Good user experience encourages users to return. We know that 83% of people with access needs limit their shopping to websites they know are barrier-free. Forms can attract a lot of usability and accessibility issues.  

My talk explains why and how I follow these rules when designing a form: 

  1. Give the user context. 
  1. Allow users to change their answer. 
  1. Give examples to make it clearer what a user is expected to do. 
  1. Tell users why we may need certain information. 
  1. Use plain English; be clear, concise, specific, consistent, and human. 

Watch my talk ‘Golden rules of forms’ on YouTube 

 

Using a brand sprint to kick start the reinvention of Co-op’s design system

The One web team exists to create a platform of tools and resources that all Co-op teams can build efficient, coherent websites on. In September, we reorganised the One web team to help us achieve our vision:

Enable Co-op teams to deliver cost-efficient and coherent user experiences

And, as part of the reorganisation, we finally formed a dedicated team to own our design system (we’d been working on it in the background for 7 years before then).

Starting with research

Part of our work was to look harder at the design system itself. What and who is it really for? How well are we doing right now?

Interviews and a survey told us:

  • there’s lots missing from the documentation
  • designers struggle to know how and when to change something
  • it’s not clear how to design ‘on top’ of the design system to create the right experience for the variety of products we have at Co-op

We’d already begun to address some of these problems by starting to create the documentation for production and process, and by adding new content to a prototype that we planned to iterate internally.

However, the other insights were more difficult to tackle, and linked to feedback we’ve had in the past describing the design system as ‘boring’. But in many ways being ‘boring’ is a good thing for a design system because “The job is not to invent, but to curate.”

We agree with this. Our One web vision is to enable product teams not design what we think is right for them – they know their users far better than we do.

That said, it still felt like:

  • the design system did not inspire enough
  • we were not articulating its purpose very well
  • it did not reflect the values we hold as a design and product community

Exploring the problem with a brand sprint

The customer experience team recently presented a brand sprint they’d run that had begun to define the proposition and design direction for one of our businesses. It inspired me – it felt like a process that could help us solve some of the problems we’d identified.

The Google Ventures article on brand sprints says:

After doing the exercises, the team gets a common language to describe what their company is about — and all subsequent squishy decisions about visuals, voice, and identity become way easier.

The techniques in a brand sprint could help us define a common language we could use to help explain why and how:

  • the design system is good for Co-op and its customers
  • how we ‘do design’ – the values that are embedded in all of our work
  • it is a base for innovation
  • it is for everyone at Co-op – not just designers or engineers
  • it is a community

Doing the brand sprint

We formed a team comprising of the core design system team (design, content, product and front-end), James Rice (who developed the process for us and helped keep us on track) and designers from outside the team to act as fresh eyes and bring specialist skills in visual design and illustration.

The process at a high level was:

  • a 3-hour brand sprint kick off consisting of a custom set of the exercises in the Google Ventures article and using the findings of a survey we conducted upfront to get insight into the values we hold as a community of designers at Co-op
  • a 2-week ‘divergence’ – where we split into 2 teams creating many different concept designs and content directions
  • a series of critiques to identify what we felt was working and what was not
  • a 2-week ‘convergence’ – where we made decisions and worked up final examples of webpages, posters and banners to give a sense of the final direction

Highlights from the 3-hour brand sprint kick off

Personality sliders exercise

The personality sliders exercise showed an apparent lack of consensus on the personality of the design system. What we discovered after group discussion was that we all wanted the design system to speak to people in a different tone depending on what they were trying to do.

The application of design and community content should be innovative and playful, but our documentation should be authoritative, clear, and in some ways conventional.

Defining audiences and sequence of targeting

Our attempt to map and prioritise our different audience groups

We decided initially we would try to create design and content for 2 groups: 

  1. our core users of designers and digital product teams 
  2. senior leadership at Co-op

We want to create something that:

  • designers, know how to use, helps them understand the values of the team and are motivated to contribute
  • helps senior leadership quickly understand the value of having a design system

A culture survey to inform how we talk about culture

We want the design system to reflect our culture, so we sent out a survey to our Digital community to discover what people thought and felt about working on digital products at Co-op. Paraphrasing the results – people said things like:

  • we have a strong culture of collaboration
  • we aspire to be a renowned design team and it’s a conscious goal
  • the design team is here to use design to make things better for Co-op
  • working here is an opportunity to share skills and learn

Anna Pickard sums up what we were trying to achieve brilliantly in her talk: How to make brands sound human

The culture turned inward creates the product. The culture turned outward creates the brand.

Setting a brief for the team

I summarised the outputs into a brief for the next stage, giving closer direction on the audiences we wanted our design to speak to and the kind of outputs we should create. We would create design and content on:

  • the principles of ‘how we design at Co-op’ – for example, how to customise a base design system component
  • community ‘calls to action’ to contribute
  • high-level benefits of why the design system is valuable to Co-op and its customers

Going wide with our design thinking

After the brief was set, we split into 2 teams and spent 2 weeks researching and experimenting with ideas. Here are some of the concepts we came up with, including crit notes from the wider design team.

Converging on a design direction

Finally we took the elements from the diverge stage we felt were working and decided on a set of artifacts that represented how we might apply design and content to different areas of the design system. We created a landing and documentation page, poster, and call-to-action banner.

Below are some snapshots of the work that will set the direction for the design system brand. It’s important to say that this is a direction – we still have work to do to refine exactly how we’ll apply this kind of design and content.

We’ve also been brainstorming names during the process. We feel the name ‘design system’ could alienate some people we could work with in the future at Co-op who don’t consider themselves to be designers. That name also doesn’t reflect the breadth of what will be included. Nothing is set yet, but on these examples you’ll see we’ve been using the name ‘Experience Library’ in its place.

A section on the website that could promote meet-ups

With photography, we’re keen to reflect how we communicate right now while we’re all working from home, and we’ll also be diverse. We design with colleagues from all around Co-op with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. Our Experience library and the photography we use within it should reflect that.

A poster aimed at helping a wider audience understand what the Experience Library is for
A mock-up of what the homepage could look like

What’s next?

We have a pretty well-formed roadmap for the next few months focusing on creating all the missing documentation and the processes that will support this in the future. During this time we will develop the visual language and also create a content strategy focussed on what we want to achieve and how we’ll achieve it, workflow and governance, our personality and tone, and how we’ll measure success.

We’ll be working this design direction back into the prototype and releasing it iteratively internally to our teams alongside the new documentation. Then we’ll be going back to speak to more of our users and getting even more feedback.

Was the brand sprint useful?

The brand sprint process was intense, and it derailed our work on content for a while. But not only has it helped us develop the design language of the experience library and focus even more intently on our users, it’s also given the team a greater understanding of the vision and goals we’re working toward.

We’re creating a place where Co-op colleagues can go to get help creating better, more inclusive customer experiences.​

It’s not just for designers. It’s for anyone working on products, services and communications.

Matt Tyas

Principal (design foundations)

Sign-up to our updates to keep up to date with our progress.

coop.co.uk/designsystem/sign-up

The principles that guide our content design and communications in Funeralcare

Becoming a funeral director at Co-op Funeralcare is not something people go into half-heartedly. Our colleagues in this front-line role meet recently-bereaved people daily and it demands a level of care and empathy from them (especially during the pandemic). They also need to be able to communicate clearly and calmly with people who could be in an emotionally heightened state.

The Digital part of the Co-op Funeralcare team supports colleagues in funeral homes in many ways but in this post we’re looking specifically at the language we use when we engage with clients online. It must reflect the clarity, kindness and reassurance a client would get from speaking to one of our colleagues.  

In short, coop.co.uk/funeralcare is the online voice of our funeral directors.  

We created 4 principles to guide our content design and communications decisions.  

When we write for Co-op Funeralcare, we are:  

1. Down to earth  

‘Good’ content design opens up what we’re communicating so that it’s accessible to, and understood by, as many of our (potential) clients as possible.  

This means we work hard to remove barriers in several ways. 

  • We reduce the chances of misinterpretation by being very deliberate with the language we choose. For example, we say “he died” not “he passed away” because euphemisms can be misunderstood – especially when English is not someone’s first language. Defined by Collins Dictionary as “a polite expression used to refer to things which people may find upsetting to talk about”, euphemisms about death do not soften the blow but they can lead to confusion. A bereavement counsellor explained the terror of a child when they were told their sister had “passed out”. Months before, their mother had died and her death had been referred to as her “passing away”. The child had assumed the same had happened to their sister. The language we use is informed by years of working alongside funeral directors and research. 
  • We lower the cognitive load by explaining terms specific to funeralcare at the point the customer needs to understand them – words like ‘embalming’ and ‘disbursements’. Providing definitions within the content means we save them the unnecessary frustration of looking them up, and – from a business point of view – giving them everything they need means they’re less likely to leave our site.     

We say: If someone has died and you need our help, you can call us 24 hours a day. We’ll bring the person into our care at a time that suits you, then guide you through everything that needs to be done. 

We don’t say: We’re sorry your loved one passed away. Please accept our condolences. 

Example of our down to earth tone from our website

2. Empathetic 

Most clients who make contact with us shortly after someone has died, are grieving. However, we have to be careful with our tone because they’re not coming to us for an outpouring of sympathy, they come to us because – as experienced funeralcare providers – we understand what they’re likely going through and we are here to provide a service. Being empathetic through our language online means giving customers what they need to know clearly, quickly and sensitively.   

We say: The first thing we do is listen to you, then advise, guide, and inspire you to create the perfect funeral arrangement.  

We don’t say: We’ve been arranging funerals for more than 100 years. 

3. Reassuring  

Dealing with the death of someone is often a distressing time and we cannot heal anyone’s grief. We’ve found the best reassurance we can give is through clear, concise guidance to make the task of organising a funeral as painless as possible. Just as a dentist wouldn’t lean over you with a drill and say “this is going to hurt”, (of course it is) we focus on conveying that we’re knowledgeable and experienced, trustworthy and kind to try and remove any anxieties a customer might have around leaving such an important service in our hands.  

We say: Our team will support you from the moment you get in touch with us. We’ll help you through the funeral arrangements, on the day and even after the funeral. 

We don’t say: We know how difficult and disorientating it can be when someone you love dies. 

A reassuring tone avoids adding to the overwhelm

  4. Inspiring  

Research shows that in recent years, attitudes towards funerals in the UK have begun to change and personal touches that reflect the person’s personality or interests are more popular. Our tone and language around the extra touches we can offer should be inspiring – it should focus on possibilities and what can be done.  

For example, the hearse doesn’t need to be a traditional hearse. It could be a tractor, a motorcycle hearse or a converted VW camper van. We even have a poppy covered hearse and one with a rainbow flag. Families can choose one that best reflects who the person was. Or they can keep it traditional. When clients tell us what they want, we do our best to make it happen, and it’s important this message comes through on our site. 

We say: When we arrange a tailored funeral with you, the first thing we do is listen. Then we’ll advise, guide, and inspire you to create a tailored funeral arrangement. Tell us what you want, and we’ll do our best to make it happen. 

We don’t say: There are three different funeral types to choose from. 

Content intended to inspire from coop.co.uk/funeralcare

A caveat: the spoken word is different to the written word  

The 4 principles above guide how we write for Co-op Funeralcare’s online platforms. Although in the most part they reflect how our front-line colleagues in our funeral homes speak to a customer, there’s a difference between the spoken and written word and it feels important to say that this post is not an attempt to influence the language or tone of our brilliant colleagues.  

When we communicate through spoken words, we have body language (or at least intonation) that contributes to how we convey and understand a message. So for example, mirroring someone else’s language is empathetic and if a customer says “passed away”, a colleague is likely to say that too (often subconsciously). But with the written word we rely solely on the clarity of words on a page which makes it important that we understand our users and design content for people coming to terms with loss.

We’ll continue to develop these principles over time. 

Helen Lawson

Lead content designer

Reflecting on one year of remote working at Co-op Digital

The Co-op Digital team started working from home (WFH) a year ago today. Full lockdown hadn’t been announced at this point but looking back through our Slack archives, we were preparing for it. 

From 17 March – our first day of enforced WFH – our #general Slack channel lit up with small gestures of support. Becky Arrowsmith asked which non-work/ interest-led channels we have. Nate Langley shared a Zoom link “if anyone fancies a chat” (first of many). Mike Ingham suggested donating what we might have spent on lunch at the office to The Trussell Trust, and there are several mental health support sites shared. We also came together to make a list of acceptable behaviour and ways of working to keep in mind ‘over the coming weeks’. 

As we’ve adapted, there have been fewer, less-frequent messages offering support, but the level of kindness has been constant.  

We’ve been reflecting on one whole year of remote working.
Here’s what we’ve learnt. 

Co-op Digital team ❤️


In the past year we’ve learnt the importance of… 

Balance and wellbeing 

All the wellbeing initiatives in the world mean nothing unless they’re accompanied by an adjustment in expectations of what people can actually be expected to do and deliver. It’s important that we all cut each other some slack. 
– Hannah Horton 

Even after a year of not really going anywhere there’s still a perception we have to travel to properly unwind. But I’ve learnt that just taking time off to do the things I like to do – away from screens – is an amazing investment in my own wellbeing and an energy boost. – Rachael Shah  

3 of Rachael’s photos showing her time off. Left: long shadows in nature. Middle: lunch outside. Right: birdwatching

If you’re kind to yourself and others, you can handle more than you thought possible. This year has been hellish but in surviving it, I feel more resilient than ever. – Molly Whitehead-Jones 

A walk in the woods in the sunshine is the best thing I’ve found to boost my mood. – Helen Murray  

Helen walking her dog in the woods

The priorities I had pre-pandemic are no longer a high priority in my life. I think that we have all had to re-evaluate what is most important to us and realise that the most important things in life are family, health and happiness which you cannot put a price on. – Georgie Jacobs  

I’ve learnt to prioritise my own wellbeing. I can’t help and support other people when I’m not in a good place myself.  – Stewart Livingstone 

Acknowledging the situation 

I joined Co-op 5 days before the office closed. I’d been in a remote-only role for the 3 years leading up to this point. I’ve learnt that remote working during a pandemic is not the same as remote working. Like many, I’ve found the added constraints and demands taxing. Remote working after the pandemic will be easier. I’m looking forward to a 2 or 3 day remote/ office mix. – Craig Reay  

I’ve learnt how important it is to keep connected with each other and to talk about how we’re actually feeling. It’s easy to forget that everyone’s in the same boat. – Sundeep Singh 

Speak out when you’re struggling because others are probably feeling the same pain. I brought up video call fatigue with the team and it started the conversation that helped us change how we approach mobbing and helped us reduce the length of meetings. – Joe Fenton  

It’s OK to say this is not OK. Humans, communities and society were never designed to live like this. As a working parent, I’ve found it a comfort to say “this is not OK” (often while simultaneously trying to shush a small child, remove a cat from a houseplant, teach multiplication, manage a constant flow of meals and snacks, and present some semblance of a coherent argument in the middle of a meeting). It doesn’t make it go away, but acknowledging the rubbishness is better than pretending things are fine. – Hannah Horton 

You’re taking video calls in your home so it’s not going to resemble an office environment. There’ll always be someone loading the dishwasher or putting the kettle on. Or, if you’re really lucky, the cat will stick its backside in your face when you’re on camera. It’s nice to get a glimpse into life beyond work. – Victoria Mitchell  

Human connection 

It’s easy on video calls to just get straight down to business, but while we’re not in an office we miss those informal, How are you? The kids? The pets? The house? Those are the things that help us build relationships with one another – the things that help us feel not alone. Set aside time in the agenda for a catch up. We’re not robots. – Gail Lyon  

I’ve learnt I *do* need to be around other people after all. – Graham Thompson  

It’s sad when people leave and you don’t get the chance to give them a hug and buy them a drink. – Helen Murray 

The perception of software development can be that it’s done by typing code furiously alone, so in theory, that would translate fine to remote working. But that’s not the case. We’ve missed talking to each other and to non-engineers, drawing pictures on paper, our serendipitous chats over coffee, and sharing a keyboard. These things don’t translate so easily to remote working, but here’s how we’ve been trying. – Caroline Hatwell  

Seeing some different faces – even on video calls – gives you a boost. Running sessions with different teams and joining catch-ups with people I don’t usually see has been one way of getting out of a lull. – Robyn Golding 

Think back to who you used to chat to in the office and check your direct message history. When was the last time you spoke to them? – Rachael Shah   

Building and protecting boundaries 

“No” is a difficult word to say but it’s also very difficult (often impossible) to do everything people ask of you. I’ve learnt how to say “no, not right now” or “no, I can’t do that at all” and generally, people don’t get offended. They just accept it. – Becca Stocker  

A meeting invite is an invitation for your time. You don’t have to accept it and you’re free to suggest alternative ways of doing meetings. Having a-sync meetings has reduced my need to attend lots of meetings and gives me more flexibility to get things done. – Stewart Livingstone 

While working at home is a godsend in many practical ways, it also lures you into always being in work mode – checking Slack way into the night and putting pressure on yourself to do more. – Rachel Machin  

Celebrating the small stuff 

That sometimes the best way to get through difficult times is one day – even one hour – at a time. – Molly Whitehead-Jones

I’ve got a new appreciation for dry shampoo, elastication, and how small asks of kindness and thoughtfulness can mean so much. – Joanne Schofield  

I realised why I’d avoided following in my parents’ footsteps to become a teacher. But having my 2 boys at home with me has also been an unexpected joy. The amount of ham and cheese toasties and pickled onion Monster Munch we’ve got through is obscene. – Rachel Machin  

One of many ham and cheese toasties and a packet of Monster Munch for Rachel’s son

In the past year of remote working I’ve learnt that: 

  • making pasta is easier than it looks and is really very rewarding.  
  • I can have bongos delivered the next day (without remembering ordering them).  
  • SAD lights do work.  
  • I can still spend all my wages without shops or restaurants being open. 
    Also, that I could not have been more wrong a year ago when I thought this would never affect us. – Helen Lawson  

Showing gratitude helps keep spirits up. I started a ‘Thursday appreciation’ thread where we thank each other and acknowledge even the smallest gestures of help and support. 😊  – Rachael Shah   

A screen shot of a
‘Thursday appreciation thread’ from April 2020

Working as best we can 

Before lockdown, we were all so fixated on having walls and a team space, but we can make it work online. Miro has been brilliant for that. I still feel like a beginner with some of its features, but pondering if we will permanently replace our walls with a living Miro board even when we are back in the office. – Kim Morley  

I now know what it feels like to be peed on whilst delivering a training session. – DaveCunningham 

I miss post-its on walls. Miro boards are OK for remote collaboration but you don’t get those really useful spontaneous conversations around the wall. – Helen Murray  

While everyone is remote, the playing field is level – it’s easier in many ways to collaborate and ensure everyone gets the opportunity to contribute. – Victoria Mitchell  

Working remotely might have made me more confident. Professionally, I’ve had one of my best years ever – I’ve spoken at conferences, recorded talks and led content conferences from my living room. I’ve pushed myself in my work but I’m wondering if that’s because I’ve felt braver being at home. – Helen Lawson  

Borrowing ways of working from the Digital team

I’m a Lead People Partner on the Food People team and I am responsible for Food stores in the north of England. Around 3 years ago, in my last role, I started looking into how we might improve Co-op colleagues’ experiences of our performance process – this led to conversations with the Digital team about how user research can help understand what colleagues really need. It also sparked my curiosity about how Digital teams work.    

Since then I’ve: 

  • spent a week working on Performance for Stores with Digital colleagues James BoardwellHannah Horton and Fiona Linton-Forrest. As a result, the process is now simpler and we removed performance ratings for over 30,000 colleagues.   
  • brought delivery manager Stewart Livingstone in to help us bring different ways of working to parts of the People team.  
  • reconsidered how we communicate with colleagues thanks to regular catch-ups with Hannah Horton.  

Each of these people deliver digital products and services through agile ways of working and this really interested me. It felt like a way to be more inclusive, more democratic and in many ways more efficient. I wondered if the approach could work for some of the teams I am part of.  

Photograph from the week I spent with some of the Digital team. James Boardwell left, Fiona Linton-Forrest on the right

For the last year the Food People team has borrowed and experimented with some of the ways of working we’ve seen in the Digital team. Here are some of the things we’ve tried and the differences we’ve noticed. 

Lean coffees encourage a flatter structure and a more democratic culture  

Lean coffees’ are gatherings that have crowd-sourced agendas. Participants meet and nominate a topic – work-related or otherwise – that they’d like to talk about for a predetermined amount of time. Everyone then votes on what they’d like to hear about next and the facilitator starts the timer. We introduced lean coffee sessions into our team around a year ago and they’ve been a regular hour-long slot ever since. We’ve enjoyed them because they’ve helped us: 

  • improve morale because they give everyone a voice. We’ve heard about concerns and achievements from across the team that we might not have in a more traditional ‘top-down’ meeting  
  • become more concise when communicating – the timer pushes us to say the most important points first and stay on track with our point 
  • create a safe environment which is the first step to better transparency 
  • build and maintain relationships with colleagues (learning about teammate’s lockdown whippet brought much joy) 

We’ve chosen to have the sessions on Fridays because the positivity and the connection with colleagues that we get from them is a nice way to finish the week.  

It’s ok to be uncertain (but it does take a while to feel ok about it) 

During my time with James, Hannah and Annette I learnt about the importance of how we ask someone about something. In short, asking open questions leads us to a more accurate, less biased truth.  

When I started my current role I wanted to find out how me and my team could best support the Operational team. Before I’d spent time with James, I might have made assumptions about the challenges Operations faced, and I might have asked leading questions to elicit responses that would prove that my assumptions were correct. Perhaps that was down to some unspoken expectation of finding a definite answer immediately.   

 But an immediate answer isn’t always accurate so it’s better to sit with your uncertainty. This takes a lot of getting used to if –  like for us –  it’s not your usual way of working.  

Instead, I made sure my questions were open and worded in a way that would give honest, accurate insights. Then, rather than coming up with a plan and a to-do list, I created problem statements. For example:  

  1. How do the Operational team get access to the right people support first time? 
  1. How are we directing our energies on the areas we can impact the most?   

We’re still working on these but they have provided a real anchor for our work. We’ll continue to think about how we ask questions in the future. 
 

Ceremonies are great for visibility 

We’ve also experimented with agile ‘ceremonies’ that the Digital product and services teams  use. They’ve helped keep our teams in the loop – even those who don’t usually work together.  

Some teams have stand-ups 3 times a week which are great for visibility of what we’re all working on as well as being very inclusive. 

We hold regular ‘all hands’ sessions for the wider team too. 

Stewart introduced us to ‘retrospectives’ – dedicated time to reflect, air grievances and talk about how to improve next time. He guided us through various ways to frame the discussions (for example, things we loved, lacked and lost over a certain period of time or piece of work). 
 

Culture isn’t built overnight 

We don’t pretend to have all the answers (and we’re comfortable admitting that now) but by taking what we’ve observed from the Digital team we’ve been moving towards a more inclusive and flexible culture.  

Here we are on a Zoom call. Spot the honorary member of the team…

We’d love to hear about new ways of working you’ve adopted – what’s worked and what has flopped? 

Clare Fogden, Lead People Partner 

Co-op resources we find useful 

Ways of working  

A glossary of terms

How we improved engagement at our community of practice meet-ups

In May last year, the delivery managers (DM) decided to make some changes to our community of practice meet-ups. We think the changes have been really positive for morale and engagement.   

Our community of practice (COP) was created in 2016, back in the early days of Co-op Digital. The community included delivery managers working across the portfolio and we would meet once a week to support each other with challenges, to learn, and to share ideas and ways of working.  

Fundamentally, this hasn’t changed but we’ve recognised that it is hard to keep up momentum and – as you’d expect – engagement has fluctuated over the years. In May we acknowledged the importance of belonging to a community – especially when remote working can be isolating. We wanted to create a more consistent level of enthusiasm for our meet-ups.   

Here we are at our Christmas murder mystery party on Teams

This post is about the changes we’ve made that have worked for us. We’re sharing them in the hope it helps others in a similar position.   

Sharing the responsibility 

Honest communication within our community helped us figure out what we needed to change. As a result of our quick research, we realised we needed to share the responsibility of choosing topics, planning, preparing and running our community of practice meet-ups. Until recently, principals DMs or the Head of Delivery Cara B did all this.  

We split into groups of 3 or 4 people and we committed to organising 4 sessions per group.  

Since we started self-organising like this, we’ve had meet-ups that focus on topics like wellbeing, failure as well as empathy and inclusivity and engagement has been really good. Here’s why we think that is. 

  1. Adrenaline not pressure for organisers   

Each group shares the tasks of planning and organising the sessions and are invested in their subjects, so it doesn’t feel like a chore. Together they get to choose topics and present it in a way they feel is relevant. And the facilitation is shared too meaning no one feels the pressure of running the whole thing. There’s a determination to do a good job and engage everyone (to the point of people getting a bit competitive, which is nice). Plus, DMs that don’t normally work together get a chance to get to know each other too. 

2. High quality over high quantity of sessions 

With more people sharing the responsibility, the quality of the sessions is higher because no single person is feeling fatigued with the pressure of filling an hour-long slot. Our sessions are more diverse in topic now too – more organisers means more points of view, a wider range of interests and also a bigger range of concerns. This can never not be a good thing.  

3. Interest not indifference for attendees 

Our research said that sometimes the meet-ups felt like a chore – pretty brutal. But since we started to self-organise, that hasn’t felt like the case. We’re a big community too (there are 20 of us) so sessions give us a chance to introduce ourselves over an hour, in a way that feels more natural. Each Monday afternoon, there’s always a feeling of turning up to support our friends too. 

All 3 of these subheads feed into each other: interesting, relevant content means enthusiastic attendees who are inspired to make their sessions interesting and relevant when it’s their turn to organise. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle and we don’t want it to stop. 

Strengthening ideas of ‘community’ 

Our community of practice feels stronger since we started to share responsibility for meet-ups. This of course is a very co-operative way of running things – we all own a piece of it. 

Kim Morley, Sol Byambadorj and Rachael Shah

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Our accessibility awareness training is open to all colleagues

We’ve been running inhouse training with small groups to help place accessibility at the centre of all Co-op products and services. We believe that this is everyone’s responsibility and the more Co-op colleagues who are aware of the barriers that some people face daily, the better.

Our training is practical and interactive

We don’t believe people choose to ignore accessibility issues but there may be instances when a team lacks awareness of the subject. That’s the crux of our challenge: improving awareness of:

  • what the term ‘accessibility’ encompasses
  • the situations where accessibility problems crop up frequently and can be avoided 

We designed the training with those things in mind.

The task

We mocked up 4 webpages and set participants the fictional task of figuring out how to return a leaky bag of flour (topical – mid-lockdown everyone seemed to be baking).

Here’s what the ‘return a leaky bag of flour’ task looks like. It’s Co-op branded but includes a banner stating ‘This is not a real Co-op website’!

We give everyone 3 minutes to look through the 4 pages and make notes on anything they think may be challenging or confusing for someone with a disability. We then discuss each observation and discuss why each thing may not be accessible. 

The set-up

We believe that showing rather than just telling helps deepen understanding, so we ask participants to complete the task with their:

  • screens zoomed in to 400% because visual impairments among users are very common so many people often pinch zoom to enlarge a photo or increase text size
  • keyboard only (no mouse or touchpad) because this is the default way of interacting with an online service for people with Parkinsons, motor control issues or severe arthritis. Those users (plus people with visual impairments) often struggle to use a mouse. 

The training takes less than an hour. 

Safeguarding inclusive services 

Around 70 colleagues have now taken part in a session and the hope is that they’ll be better equipped to spot things that could be problematic in their area of work and raise it with their team who can work together to fix it. 

The training has highlighted the importance of talking about accessibility as a whole team. We found that content designers picked up on jargon and engineers picked up on missing form labels as we would expect, but having a better awareness of common issues that crop up in other disciplines is another way to safeguard inclusive services. 

So far, so good

Participants have thought it’s been an hour well-spent. Here’s a screenshot of some of the feedback we’ve had. 

The feedback from participants on a Miro board.

Comments include: 

“I can confirm, the session is one of the best training courses of been on at the co-op”

“I liked that there were people from different disciplines. Tons of items called out from the design members of the group that i wouldn’t have spotted and they articulated them really well.”

“Motivating – made me want to test a bunch of other sites.”

How we got here

The idea for how to create useful training came from Ultralearning by Scott H Young, a book which features contestant Roger Craig’s approach to ‘learning everything’ on general knowledge game show Jeopardy. I talk more about this in my post ‘Jeopardy to accessibility’ but essentially, Craig grouped previous questions and swotted up on gaps in his knowledge. And, like the possible questions Craig might have come up against, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are very broad and can seem daunting. So we grouped them, figured out the most common problems in Co-op products and services and identified which guidelines we’re failing on most.

Then we took inspiration from Beverley Newing and James Buller’s superb work at the Ministry of Justice which you can read about in Bev’s post Training people to do accessibility reviews. Co-op Digital’s Ciaran Green and Matt Tyas designed and built the training pages, and Rachel Machin and Joanne Schofield wrote the content. 

Take part in the training

If you’d like to sign up for a training session, email me at dave.cunningham@coop.co.uk 

No technical knowledge required, you just need to care about building inclusive products and services. 

Dave Cunningham

Design Ops Manager