Improving the customer experience for Nisa’s independent retailers

Last week we published a post that explains what we mean when we talk about customer experience at Co-op. Today’s post aims to show the applied, practical side of some of the things we spoke about. We’re using a piece of work that we – the Customer Experience Strategy team – has been involved in as an example.  

(Slightly surprising) background and context 

Most UK residents will be familiar with Nisa Locals, the convenience shops. What is perhaps lesser known is that those shops are actually independently run – in fact, Nisa’s tagline is ‘the family of independent grocers’. Nisa is a wholesaler who the independent shops buy their stock from (plus, many independent shops also buy from them but do not call themselves Nisa). So, when we refer to ‘customers’ in this post, we’re referring to each independent, local shop.  

Since Co-op completed its acquisition of Nisa Retail Limited, teams from both businesses have been sharing approaches and ways of working. The Nisa leadership team were concerned that the customer experience (CX) for the independent retailers who interact with the wholesaler was lacking in some areas – they said they would like to improve customer retention, loyalty and sales.  

This felt like a good chance for Co-op’s relatively newly-formed Customer Experience Strategy team to set out a vision for what the experience of interacting with Nisa could be. We knew the vision should stem from our research with Nisa’s customers, and this would then inform the CX strategy. 

Taking an end-to-end view to understand challenges   

User researchers and designers from the CX Strategy team interviewed the independent retailers remotely and, where possible, in-store where we could see their behaviours, frustrations and coping mechanisms first-hand. This is called ‘contextual research’ and it’s particularly useful because we know that asking people about their experience is very rarely the same as watching them actually have that experience.  

In short, our research allowed us to identify the top pain points the shops were having when interacting with Nisa when they: 

  • place an order for stock 
  • receive a delivery  
  • update prices or promotions in their stores 

We then used these conversations to map the customer experience for those 3 user journeys. It was important that we also took internal data into consideration, as well as the existing processes and systems that Nisa colleagues currently use which will also have an impact on their experience. We worked closely with Nisa teams who helped us unpack the complexities of the business and improve our understanding of how and why things happen so we could more easily identify genuine opportunities.  

A zoomed out view of the ‘stock my store’ service map that was generated through conversations with Nisa team members and customers.

Defining an ‘experience vision’ 

Our insight from the user journey maps, contextual research and interviews with Nisa colleagues meant we could pinpoint opportunities for immediate improvement.  

But more importantly, and on a bigger scale, the maps helped define an overarching ‘experience vision’ – this is what an organisation aspires to become for its customers. This experience vision feeds into Nisa’s existing brand proposition, which in turn supports its brand purpose (but that stuff was outside the CX Strategy team’s remit).  

The experience vision the team defined needed to relate to the brand proposition and purpose that were already in place.

Working out how to get there  

If an ‘experience vision’ is something aspirational – a place where Nisa is aiming to get to – we started to look at how they were going to get there. This is where the concept of ‘strategic priorities’ came in – in other words, guiding principles to help Nisa make better decisions that give customers the experience they want. Those decisions could be around things like a new technology architecture, updates to the ordering system, or an improved onboarding process for new customers. The strategic priorities allow Nisa to assess whether their actions support the delivery of the experience vision.  

Together, we identified 3 strategic priorities, within those the CX team created ‘service briefs’ which formed the bulk of our recommendations. They included: 

  • our observations of customer pain points 
  • the underlying reasons these were happening 
  • our recommendations for improvement 
  • the metrics to track impact 

Basically, the top priority work for them to start delivering on the strategic priorities.  

We underpinned the service briefs with 3 ‘foundational principles’ that focused on setting the teams and organisation up with appropriate ways of working to achieve the vision. (You can read more about how we make sure team objectives align with a vision here).  

Strategic priorities help define how to achieve the vision. Service briefs were the top priority actions to take, and they are underpinned by foundational principles.

Our approach was intended to give Nisa colleagues a framework for problem solving – in other words, to introduce them to holistic ways of working and give them direction. We purposefully avoided prescribing a solution – we believe that that work sits within their teams. 
Wherever possible the strategy and recommendations were linked closely to existing or ongoing work. For example, we partnered with Nisa’s team who were creating a new Tone of Voice document to include our new proposed accessibility and content principles, rather than duplicating effort in communicating similar aims.   

Early days but so far, so good

We only recently shared our recommendations, but changes have already been put in place. For example:  

  • The Nisa brand team championed the new tone of voice document and encouraged colleagues to use it .   
  • Nisa’s senior leadership team is taking our recommendations on board and has confirmed it will put an accountable project sponsor in place. (In 6 months, we’ll check in on the progress).   

Good collaboration: we needed Nisa’s subject matter experts  

A CX team like ours could not have just come in and made customer pain points less painful without working closely with the subject matter experts from Nisa and the people working in the independent shops. Speaking to them helped us see and understand the underlying reasons for the experiences customers are having.   

It has also been invaluable to work alongside sales and finance teams who helped us to size up the opportunity and balance it against perceived time, effort and expense for Nisa to make the changes. This helped massively with prioritisation.  

Ultimately, a customer’s experience is the sum of all the individual decisions that colleagues make, the systems they use and the processes they follow. Thanks to everyone who has been involved in helping us learn about, understand and improve each tiny part. 

Alistair Ruff

Lead service designer


 

If you’re like to find out more about this piece of work, or how the CX Strategy team works at the Co-op contact cxstrategy@coop.co.uk 

Introducing Co-op’s Customer Experience Strategy team

Co-op recently created a new Customer Experience (CX) Strategy team. This post explains why our team exists, our purpose and how we work. 

What we mean when we say ‘customer experience’

Customer experience (CX) is how a customer thinks and feels about all interactions they have with a brand. Customers no longer base their loyalty on price or product. Instead, they stay loyal to brands that offer the best experiences. This means brands can gain a competitive advantage by providing customers with a consistent, personal and rewarding experience.

We need to consider CX across the whole customer journey 

At Co-op, we offer a varied range of products and services. Customers can come to us to buy both pet food and pet insurance. They can pick up today’s dinner from a Food store or prepare for their future through Life Services. They can place an online food order or plan their funeral. And along the way, they have many different interactions with us. 

Speaking to a Co-op colleague in a Food store is just one of the many interactions that customers can have with us

By meeting or exceeding customer expectations every time they connect with us – whether in physical or digital spaces – we create better experiences for them. This means customers will be more likely to continue to use our services and to recommend Co-op. In the long term, this helps us gain a competitive advantage through: 

  • better retention 
  • more effective cross-selling 
  • bigger customer networks 

Lots of our colleagues are already working to create better customer experiences. But an approach that works across the whole business and considers the entire end-to-end experience for customers is a new and exciting opportunity for us. This is where the new CX Strategy team comes in.

Our CX Strategy team is responsible for the holistic customer experience across Co-op 

The CX Strategy team works in partnership with colleagues across the business to create seamless journeys that solve customer problems and improve their experience. 

We: 

  • collaborate with business areas, working alongside them to develop actionable CX strategy 
  • shape strategies based on customer insights 
  • join the dots across different teams, systems and processes 
  • define opportunities for improving the end-to-end experience for customers 
By considering the whole end-to-end journey customers have with us, including the ways we connect then with their community, we can improve their experiences

The CX Strategy team is partnering with teams across the business 

As well as CX strategists, the CX Strategy team is made up of experts in content strategy, research and service design. When we partner with a business area team on a project, it’s important that we begin by understanding the current landscape. We ask the team to share their expertise on their business area and customers with us. We then work with them to map customer journeys and identify points of friction. As we move through the process of exploring and setting the strategy, we’re able to distil our focus and make recommendations. This helps us create a realistic implementation plan that the business area team can put into action. 

A diagram outlining the working approach that the CX Strategy team use

So far, we’ve: 

  • worked with Life Services to create a customer experience strategy grounded in insight, making changes across a customer journey that crossed two business areas to generate new revenue streams 
  • worked with Nisa to understand the current wholesale customer experience and identified opportunities that have the potential to increase sales by millions  
  • mapped how we’re measuring CX at Co-op 

Next, we’ll be working with Membership, our customer service centre, Co-op Power and Food. We’ll be focusing on creating customer experience that works for our customers, members and communities and that also benefits our business. 

The CX Strategy team 


Co-op colleagues can join our ‘Customer Experience Spotlight’ talks 

We’re marking CX Day 2021 with a series of CX best practice talks on Tuesday 5, Wednesday 6 and Thursday 7 October.   

If you’re a Co-op colleague, you can sign up to join our lunchtime Customer Experience Spotlight talks to find out how Insurance, Life Services and Food are championing CX.  

Inclusive meetings: encouraging collaboration from all  

Remote working means that the way organisations and teams collaborate has changed. 

We’ve created 7 guidelines that we hope will help people to collaborate effectively, respectfully and inclusively. 

Here they are. You can download them in poster format here.

7 guidelines for inclusive meetings


  1. Give everyone the opportunity to contribute 
  • Ask people if they want to contribute. 
  • Allow people to contribute anonymously or in smaller groups. 
  • Check if people can access the tools you’re using, explain how to use them and offer an alternative if necessary. 
  • Use visible timers and allow thinking time. 
  • Use captions and transcripts where possible. 
  • Consider how people could contribute outside of the meeting, in their own time. 

  1. Set clear expectations, early 
  • Send out an agenda in advance. 
  • Clearly state the purpose of the meeting and the outcome you want to achieve. 
  • Give a running order, include approximate times. 

  1. Give context: do not assume any prior knowledge 
  • Reiterate any information that someone would need to know to be able to contribute. 
  • Give regular recaps. Consider taking notes as you go so you can easily refer back. 
  • Be mindful of late joiners and the context they might lack. 

  1. Use clear language 
  • Do not use acronyms without explaining what they mean. 
  • Use plain English. 
  • Be mindful of people who are new to Co-op, or a team. If you use jargon, explain what you mean. 

  1. Respect people’s time 
  • Book only the amount of time you need with people, and allow people to leave if they’ve contributed all they need to. 
  • Plan your meeting to allow people breaks between meetings, for example 5 or 15 minutes past the hour. 
  • If the meeting is long, schedule in regular breaks. 

  1. Value all contributions equally 
  • Give everyone a chance to speak, do not allow one voice to dominate. 
  • If you’re referencing what’s been inputted, reference contributions from a range of people. 
  • Consider your audience. Be prepared to adapt your approach or process to encourage contribution from more people. 

  1. Encourage clarity, curiosity, and challenges 
  • Explain how people can ask questions. 
  • Encourage people to get clarity on things they do not understand. 
  • Allow people to ask questions anonymously, for example by adding post-its to a collaboration board. 

Why we created inclusive meeting guidelines 

With a lot of collaboration now online, it can be harder for people to contribute effectively. This can mean some voices are not heard. 

We want everyone to be able to contribute in a way they feel comfortable. This means being thoughtful about people who, for example: 

  • have a disability or condition 
  • are new to a team 
  • cannot attend a meeting at a specific time 
  • cannot access certain tools or systems 
  • need thinking time 
  • are introverted  
  • are extroverted  

We hope these guidelines will encourage more inclusive discussions and more perspectives to be heard. 

As a result of more inclusive collaboration we believe Co-op will: 

  • become aware of problems earlier 
  • save money, as problems can be fixed earlier 
  • create more inclusive products and services 
  • open up our products and services to more people 

How we created these guidelines 

Our hypothesis is that remote working has made some of the ways we collaborate exclusive. We wanted to see if this was an issue for others and if so, how they’d overcome it. 

Using a survey, we asked people: 

  • what they believed could prevent people from engaging with and inputting into a meeting 
  • for practical tools and techniques that can help people to engage and input in to a meeting 

We gathered loads of valuable advice, ideas and knowledge from people in Co-op and from other organisations. After synthesising the responses, we ended up with broad themes that helped us form the guidelines. 

Using what we’d learnt to structure the guidelines

From the analysis it was clear that people were time-poor and often meeting-fatigued. They wanted to get the most out of collaborative sessions as efficiently as possible.   

So, we reflected this in our guidelines.  

We focused on the actions – the tools, techniques and ideas  – that could be immediately useful for facilitators and attendees at the start of a meeting.​  

The guidelines are not overly prescriptive, to allow them to be adapted for different contexts and scenarios. And we hope they’ll be shared in a whichever way works well for the facilitator – maybe added to the start of a Miro board, a Word document or a meeting invitation. 

We’re looking forward to learning if and how they’re useful, and if they encourage more mindful and inclusive meetings. 

What’s next 

These inclusive meeting guidelines are a first draft. We will continue to: 

  • get feedback and make them better  
  • understand if and how they’re being used  
  • understand if they’re helping us have better discussions 
  • share updates and get involved in wider inclusion discussions 
  • see how they can complement other work that’s happening in Co-op and beyond 

We’d love your feedback 

If you download the guidelines as posters, we’d love to learn: 

  • how you’re using them  
  • if they’ve helped you, your team or your organisation  
  • how we could improve them 

Get in touch by emailing us at: accessibility@coop.co.uk. We’d also love to hear if you’re doing anything similar in your organisation, and would like to talk more.  

 

Jake Cohen, CX designer  

Suhail Hussain, UX designer   

Jack Fletcher, Lead service designer   

Joanne Schofield, Lead content designer 

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 

 

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