How contextual research helped us redesign the replenishing process in our Food stores

Every day, in every Co-op Food store, a colleague does a ‘gap scan’. They walk around the store, they spot gaps on the shelves, and they scan the shelf label with a hand-held terminal. This generates a ‘gap report’ which tells the colleague which products need replenishing. It also flags other tasks, such as which items need taking off the shelves because they should no longer be sold.

This is an essential stock management process in our stores. It ensures:

  • stock we’re low on is ordered automatically
  • customers can get the products they need
  • our stock data is accurate

However, the process is complicated. There’s an 18-page user manual explaining how to do it and on average, gap reports are 25 pages long. 

Making the essential less arduous

In the Operational Innovation Store team, we aim to simplify laborious processes in stores. Product owner and former store manager Ross Milner began thinking about how we might tackle ‘gap’, as store colleagues call it. 

He started by asking some questions:

  • How might we design a process so intuitive our store colleagues don’t need a manual? 
  • How might we help colleagues complete all the priority actions from the report immediately? 
  • How might we save 25 pieces of paper per store, per day – in other words, 22 million sheets per year? 

Learning from users

I’m a user researcher and this is the point where I joined the project. My first research objective was to discover how store colleagues go about the process at the moment, and what they find good and bad about it. To do this, I visited 5 stores. I interviewed the managers about their process – as it’s a task which usually falls to them due to its current complexity – but most importantly, I observed how they use the gap reports.

Adapting what they had to meet their needs

Being there in person in the back offices in stores gave me a far deeper insight than I would have got had I done phone interviews, or even just spoken to colleagues on the shop floor. 

Being there gave me access to reams of old gap reports stashed in the back office. It was invaluable to see how colleagues had adapted them to better meet their needs. Some of the things I saw included:

  • dividing the stack of pages into easily-managed sections
  • highlighting the information that requires action
  • ignoring all the non-actionable information on the report – some users didn’t even know what the information meant
  • changing printer settings to save paper
  • ticking off products as they complete the actions against them 

Photograph of one page of a gap report. Several numbers are highlighted. Not particularly easy to understand.

Seeing the physical artefact in its context revealed a lot of needs we might have otherwise missed, because colleagues are doing these things subconsciously and most likely wouldn’t have thought to mention them to us.

Learning from prototypes

Our contextual research has helped us identify several unmet needs. Delivery manager Lee Connolly built a basic prototype in Sketch and we mocked up a digitised gap reporting process. The design clearly separated and prioritised anything that needed store colleagues to take action. We arranged those tasks in a list so they could be ‘ticked off’ in the moment, on the shop floor.

Screenshot of an early prototype used for scanning labels on shelves

This was intended as a talking point in user interviews and the feedback was positive. The store managers were fascinated, asking when they’d be able to use it, and – unprompted – listing all the benefits we were hoping to achieve, and more.

Developing ‘Replen’: an alpha

We’d validated some assumptions and with increased confidence in the idea, we expanded our team to include a designer and developer so we could build an alpha version of the app. We call this app ‘Replen’ because its aim is to help colleagues replenish products when needed.

Interaction designer Charles Burdett began rapid prototyping and usability testing to fail fast, learn quickly and improve confidence in the interface. It was important to do this in the store alongside colleagues, on the devices they normally use. We wanted to make it feel as realistic as possible so users could imagine how it would work as a whole process and we could elicit a natural response from them. 

photograph of possible interface on a phone in front of co-op food store shelves

Profiling stores so we know where we’re starting from

Before we could give them the app, we needed to understand each trial store’s current situation, so that we’ll be able to understand how much of a difference Replen has made. We visited all the stores we’re including in our trial. Again, being physically there, in context, was vital. 

The following things have an effect on the current gap process and may also affect how useful Replen is for colleagues. We noted:

  • the store layout and the size of their warehouse
  • whether the store tends to print double-sided
  • where managers had created their own posters and guides to help colleagues follow the gap process
  • any workarounds the stores are doing to save time and effort

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 16.25.04

What’s next for Replen?

We’ve just launched the Replen alpha in our 12 trial stores.

The aim of an alpha is to learn. We’re excited to see whether it meets user needs, and validate some of the benefits we’ve been talking about. We’re also keen to see whether stores continue using any workarounds, and whether cognitive load is reduced.

We will, of course, be learning this by visiting the stores in person, observing our product being used in real life, and speaking to our users face to face. When redesigning a process, user research in context is everything. 

Rachel Hand
User researcher

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