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 

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