Environment is everything: why we research in-person in our food stores

Our Colleague Products team designs technology that transforms how our food stores operate. We’ve always designed closely with our store colleagues, doing in-person research in the store environment to learn about their needs and to test future designs. 

During the pandemic we adapted our methods of remote research to maximise what we could learn, but as soon as it was possible, we went back into stores. Research in-person and on-site is not always the most easy, convenient or cheap option – so why did we return to it? 

In this blog post, our Colleague Products researchers share innovative methods for researching in the environment you are designing for – which is also known as contextual research. Our examples show the benefits of this kind of research and the results for our stores. 

Understanding what stores need 

What works in one kind of store, may be a disaster in another. It can be the difference between an instore innovation saving time, money or energy demand, and making things worse for our colleagues who are working so hard to get things right.  

Stores can be large or small, have low or high sales, and include different checkout formations. We also need to consider that our colleagues interact with shelves, trolleys, products, and move around the store.

Colleagues face obstacles including: 

  • needing to print from an office upstairs which is a big pain point and takes up valuable time 
  • different kinds of goods lifts which can completely change how a store handles a delivery 
  • the layout of the checkout area can make it difficult to see when a customer needs help 
Co-op store environment showing competing visual things likes signs and products
Drawing showing how Co-op colleagues can't see the queue because it's hidden behind the shelves
Diagram of store layout showing that it’s hard to see customers queuing behind shelves.

We’ve developed the design principle that we should always ‘design for distraction’ due to our research in stores. When we did research for SmartGap and News and Mags, we observed how colleagues had to stop the task to help customers or colleagues. We now know it’s vital colleagues can pick up where they left off. Designing so that we reduce cognitive load (how much our colleagues need to think about at once), also helps when they are juggling tasks. 

Meeting a wider range of colleagues on their terms 

Remote research allows us to speak to people we cannot visit because of location, but we’ve learned that being instore means we speak to a wider variety of users. Some colleagues cannot always respond to a remote call or survey. They may be new, work part-time, or not have time to read all the communications. Some colleagues are also less confident with technology, and it’s these colleagues we really need to learn from. 

Visiting colleagues instore can help them feel at ease too. Being in an environment where colleagues are comfortable when we’re asking questions and observing actions can help them feel more in control. 

Observing what people do, not what they say they do

The main benefit of visiting stores is that we get more value from these research sessions.  

We can ask colleagues what they would do in an interview, but when we can see them in action, we can see what they really do. This includes things like: 

  • micro pain points that take extra time 
  • things that they may not think are important when we ask them 
  • shortcuts that they develop over time and are second nature 

These coping mechanisms are valuable for us to know about. In one case, a manager had made a ‘cheat sheet’ explaining how to read a report, which is proof it needed simplifying. 

Making our research as realistic as possible 

Before taking a Date Code design prototype into stores for testing, we created fake products by printing out product photos and sticking them to cardboard. This meant that colleagues could interact with products, and the sell-by-dates that matched the prototype.  

During usability sessions for a till prototype, we created a more realistic experience by making ‘beep’ noises when the colleague mimed scanning a product. This realism is useful for triggering colleague memories and conversation.  

Making fake products to use in user research using cardboard and printed labels
Co-op colleague scanning fake products with their smart phone

Using ‘Wizard of Oz’ testing – a method of testing a system that does not yet exist 

Last year we used a version of the ‘Wizard of Oz‘ testing method during a 2 week pilot in a store. One of the goals of the pilot was to understand whether automated alerts about tasks via headsets and handheld devices would work in a store environment.  

We manually sent alerts while colleagues were carrying out their usual store tasks and observed if, how and when they acted on them. This helped colleagues to understand the concept. It also gave us a first-hand view of how alerts might have an impact on colleagues and their work.  

Getting colleagues involved with prototyping and testing 

We can use physical research methods, such as card sorts, paper prototypes, or process walkthroughs with prototype devices. We also do co-design sessions with colleagues, so that they can get creative with paper and pens to create their own ideal interface. All of this is much harder to facilitate remotely, especially if the colleague is not confident using technology or does not have the right tools. 

Co-creating screens for the datecode app using pen and paper with a Co-op colleague
Sorting cards on a table with a Co-op colleague to group important topics

Usability testing is about more than just the interface design. When we were testing a new app on the store tablet in person, we immediately realised that some colleagues were holding it in portrait mode. This caused issues with the layout of content because colleagues did not realise that some information was hidden below what they could see on the screen. We would not have known this from data alone, or from remote testing. 

Colleague holding a tablet computer showing how information is missed when it is held landscape

Building empathy for real people, not users 

Research in-person is great for getting your whole team involved with research. Our team say it ‘brings it all to life’. It helps show the importance of what we’re doing and helps everyone understand how everything fits together. The concept of ‘users’ can seem impersonal. Research in-person helps to build real empathy for the challenges our colleagues face.  

If you ever have the opportunity to do or observe research in-person – we’d highly recommend it. You’ll always understand more, and your products and services will be better because of it. 

Rachel Hand and Maisie Platts 

Find out more about user research at Co-op and our research community of practice from Rachel Hand, Lead User Researcher.

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