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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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:
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
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Give the user context.
Allow users to change their answer.
Give examples to make it clearer what a user is expected to do.
Tell users why we may need certain information.
Use plain English; be clear, concise, specific, consistent, and human.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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:
How do the Operational team get access to the right people support first time?
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.
We’d love to hear about new ways of working you’ve adopted – what’s worked and what has flopped?
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.
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.
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.
We’ve found that although colleagues are aware of – and have often contributed towards – their immediate team’s objectives and understand how they feed into the overarching Co-op vision, there’s often less visibility around how a wider team’s work aligns with it.
So for example, the Co-op Membership team is made up of people with expertise in Operations, Marketing, Insight and Finance, as well as us here in Digital. It’s a huge team. Each of these areas of expertise has its own set of objectives but up until recently there hasn’t been much visibility between areas of expertise. We’ve always believed it is better to be joined up than to work in silos and universal remote working has forced us to make a conscious effort to do this better.
How might we align better?
At the beginning of last summer, the product community of practice invited Martin Eriksson, (Founder of ProductTank and Mind the Product), to speak to us. He introduced us to the ‘decision stack’ – a framework intended to “connect the dots from vision and mission, through strategy, objectives, and principles to every single daily decision.” From top to bottom it asks how we are going to do something, and from bottom to top it asks why we are doing it.
It sounded like it would go some way to solving our visibility problems on the Membership team so I spoke to people from all areas of expertise to find out what their objectives are.
When I had a list of objectives plus metrics on how we’ll know each has been met, I looked at how we could present them alongside several other connected elements such as strategy and principles. Even though few people are involved across all elements at the same time, it felt important for everyone to be able to see both the big picture, the details and the links between them all in one place.
So, in Figma (later Miro for ease of visibility), from top to bottom we stated:
Co-op vision – “Co-operating for a fairer world”.
Co-op visionary principles
Co-op Membership vision – “A membership that makes a difference for me, the communities I care about and a fairer world.”
Co-op Membership strategy – “A frictionless experience that motivates Members to participate by showing the impact that trading with Co-op has on their community”
Co-op Membership ‘north star’ (this is the number we care about above all other metrics)
Co-op Membership objectives (including all areas of expertise within the Membership team).
Objective metric (how we know we’ve been successful).
We now call this our ‘Vision and strategy framework’.
Our hope is that by making the flow of priorities from the top of the organisation transparent, we can empower teams to deliver work that meaningfully contributes to our organisational vision. We hope it will help us make sure that we’re all working towards common goals.
Showing the thing
When we showed what we’d done to the people with digital expertise in the Membership team, the feedback was that this was a useful way of thinking about how vision and principles and objectives are connected – in other words, the organisation’s goal and targets set within individual teams. So we shared it more widely: first to the rest of the Membership team and from there it’s been picked up by senior management and other teams have used the framework to align their work too.
The general consensus has been that this framework has made it easier for us to:
zoom in and focus on the immediate priorities
zoom out and put work in context
have a single accessible source of truth
share progress and update figures
How we’ll use it in the future
The framework should evolve to reflect what we have learnt, and any shifts in direction the business area or team might take. To make sure we have rigour around each framework, we are looking at how we can visualise these strategies alongside each other and how they are joined up by broader objectives on an organisational level.
To update the framework, someone has to add information and data manually. It has been a challenge to manage this and creates a bottleneck if someone is uncomfortable using Figma or Miro. In the next iteration, we will look at how we can automate live metrics and targets.
Like everything we do at the Co-op, the user should be central to these frameworks too. We are looking at how we can bring user experience outcomes alongside our business objectives to ensure we are accountable to the people who are ultimately affected by these strategies.
We’re really interested in hearing how teams of all sizes stay aligned. What do you come back to time and time again to keep you on track?
As a Digital team we are proud of the work we’ve done to support our communities, our customers and our colleagues – particularly those on the front line in our Food stores and in Funeralcare.
When the virus took hold back in March, we reprioritised where we could add the most value so we could keep colleagues safe and we could continue to serve communities.
We were in a position which meant we could respond to the pandemic with relative ease.
Our ways of working meant we were set up well – we were used to pivoting and changing direction; we were already collaborating with subject matter experts; and getting value into users’ hands quickly and iterating on feedback has always been what we’ve aimed for.
Over the years, we’ve also attracted a group of smart, determined and – most importantly – compassionate people who are intent on doing the right thing.
We are thankful to everyone who has helped transform Co-op so we could respond quickly, and well, to a pandemic. ❤️ 2020 has been awful but there is a lot to be grateful for too. ❤️
The big focus for our teams this year has been evolving and relaunching Co-op’s Membership proposition to maximise its value to members, communities and Co-op.
Members can now donate their personal rewards to other like-minded organisations. 70,000 members donated over £500,000 in total from their rewards to the Members Coronavirus Fund.
Customers can now use Co-op’s digital services without becoming a member through ‘Co-op Account’ (they can upgrade to a Co-op Membership later).
Members can now choose a local cause through the Co-op app or direct from their email without signing in – we saw a record breaking 619,000 people choose a cause in the first 8 weeks.
Members can now scan a digital members ‘card’ on their smartphones in store – no need to remember the plastic card.
We improved and grew stuff too.
The Co-op App surpassed the 1m download mark, with a rating of 4.4 stars across both app stores. We were number 2 in the app store on relaunch day, second only to NHS Track and Trace.
750,000 members choose 8.1 million offers in 2020, and 4.6 million of those have been used. This saved members over £2 million on their shopping and generated millions in incremental sales for the Food business.
The systems and services that power our product stood up to 10 times our biggest ever day’s traffic, for weeks, thanks to the investment we made in moving to serverless technology.
We also connected up our digital experiences:
Members can now sign in, shop and earn their rewards through Co-op’s ecommerce service.
Groups can sign up to use Co-operate to publicise their activities within their communities.
We implemented a new Membership design, which ties together how Membership looks and feels online with stores, on emails and in our marketing activity.
Joel Godfrey, Head of product
This year we took some big steps towards making the law accessible — by creating experiences that allow people to proactively use the law for themselves.
Our team grew from a small group working on a conversational tool, to a multidisciplinary agile team working across digital services, website, email and search.
We started embedding design thinking, marketing and OKRs into our ways of working with multiple business areas.
And it’s started to have an impact:
our work redesigning user journeys led to all-time high levels of probate enquiries in Q4
our SEO work more than doubled organic traffic in some business areas
one of our wills chatbots had 10,000 visits this year and increased average order value by £75 — because users are better informed about their needs
we created a self-serve digital service that guides people through the probate process — we think it’s the first of its kind in the industry 🙌
Pete Kowalczyk, content designer
Digital service community
2020 has been the year that we reorganised and went from being the digital service ‘team’ – all sitting together in the Membership team – to digital service ‘community’ embedded across delivery teams. Being present and more visible at all stages of a product or service lifecycle has helped us put integrated processes in place and ensure continuous service delivery. This year we’ve helped our teams deliver 1,600 changes with 99.98% success rate – something we’re really proud of.
We’ve also improved our post-incident review process, increasing visibility across product teams to prevent reoccurring issues.
As part of our post-incident review process, we’ve started to share any outstanding actions with product teams which has helped prevent reoccurring problems – it’s all about working in the open! We’ve also created a ‘production readiness’ checklist which has allowed us to provide the best support for new services.
We’ve created and built support models to ensure a robust service too.
A big focus has been on embedding best practices and championing new ways of working – lockdown has felt like the perfect opportunity to do this. Everyone on the team has completed their ITIL 4 training which is making it easier to support our product teams to enable them to continue to do some awesome things!
Our mission this year has been to look at how we design and build accessible products by default.
We delivered accessibility training to over 150 colleagues across many disciplines which has helped us raise awareness about what the term ‘accessibility’ encompasses. It is so much more than screen readers.
“It’s great to see so many people within the business mention accessibility across lots of different internal communication channels. It’s great work!”
“It’s nice to have a policy on a page on the internet but it must never become a virtuous-but-otherwise-empty promise. We know that if we don’t read it, keep it in mind and revisit it, it is just a vanity project.”
By October 2021, our product teams will have embedded our accessibility policy fully in their work and, by collaborating with external accessibility experts Fable, we’ll include up to 1,200 people with disabilities into our research, design and testing of products and services in the coming year.
There are now 760 Co-op Food stores that accept online orders through our ecommerce site, shop.coop.co.uk This time last year, only 32 of our stores were taking part. The pandemic forced us to rethink and reprioritise how our how Co-op Food stores serve their communities. Back in lockdown 1.0 when people were stockpiling, we protected the availability of stock by introducing limits on the number of products each customer could buy on shop.coop.co.uk
We worked with the Identity team to make sure customers can log in to our service using the same details they use for other Co-op services. An architectural change allowed us to show a customer’s previous order for ease of reordering. Early results show greater engagement from customers interacting with previous orders, higher conversions and larger baskets.
With a growing team we needed to reorganise ourselves so we could become more efficient. In mid-October we held a team ‘evolution session’ and split into multi-disciplinary work streams to help us to deliver at pace.
To top it all off the Online Delivered Convenience programme won the E-commerce initiative of the Year at The Grocer Gold Awards 2020.
Making the platform more efficient and secure has been another priority. We have started to move our tenants onto Amazon EKS. This has led to a 30% reduction in deployment times and 95% reduction in failed deployments.
We have also delivered many features for Co-op websites. For example, we added ‘buy online’ buttons to the store finder pages. This allows customers to go from store finder to shop.coop.co.uk to order online.
Our digital expertise are spread across 2 teams: the Customer team which looks after the Funeralcare website, and the Colleague team which is responsible for the software used internally.
Like all other teams, the pandemic has meant we’ve had to pivot from our roadmap, respond quickly, and switch contextual user research to remote research. But, because of the nature of our business, we’ve been busier than ever.
Here’s some of what we did.
The Customer team
wrote guidance on how to arrange funerals during lockdown, updating them as the guidance changed
re-designed the website alongside agencies and our digital marketing team
created – and trained writers in – new tone of voice guidelines
launched an online funeral planner so clients can plan a funeral in their own time and feel more prepared for a conversation with a funeral director
designed and built (not yet released) a function to pay for a funeral online
migrated to a new payment service provider in the process of enabling 3D secure for online payments
designed and built (not yet released) a web chat function
replatformed pre-need funeral plans and direct cremation sites from the episerver
The Colleague team
added a warning to collection notes if there was suspicion that the deceased has died of the virus and may be – keeping colleagues safe is a priority
allowed families who had lost someone to register their interest in organising a memorial service once lockdown restrictions were lifted
unrelated to the virus, we added a ‘quick notes’ function to allow colleagues to capture information around the context of the deceased’s state. It is added to the collection sheet to help colleagues mentally and physically prepare
2020 changed the way people think about health services. With government advice to stay at home and ‘protect the NHS’, people needed more convenient access to repeat prescriptions.
We responded by opening up more ways to use the service. Now, customers can visit coop.co.uk/health and register on our app using a code from their GP.
To reach more people, we launched a TV advert, promoted the service in stores and our Chief Pharmacist, Neil Stewart, appeared on the radio to discuss worries about visiting the GP.
As a result, we’ve grown:
into the 11th biggest UK pharmacy (based on the number of customers who choose us as their pharmacy) – we ranked at number 7,116 in 2019
registrations, with 206 new customers every day on average – up from 30 earlier in 2020
order volumes, with a record-breaking 1,610 orders on 30 November 2020
Our customers rate us ‘Excellent’ on Trustpilot, saying things like, “You have made my life so much easier.”
Mary Sanigar, content designer
The Operational Innovation Store (OIS) team has been working across 4 services that support store colleagues. Each empowers them to spend more time and energy on customers and members rather than on admin and paperwork.
Until this year, store colleagues clocked in and out when they started and finished a shift by punching their employee number into a legacy Kronos terminal (at a cost of £1,000 per store). Research told us it was easy to forget to do this and so colleagues would have to ask managers to amend their ‘hours worked’ in order to receive the right pay.
Alongside the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, we’ve made the process simpler, more transparent and more accurate which has helped make sure our colleagues receive the correct pay for the exact minutes they’ve worked. This has led to a 50% reduction in payroll amendments.
We started working on the Clock-in app idea in February and we’d rolled it out to every store by July. It can be accessed from till screens, hand-held terminal or tablet and has replaced the Kronos terminal.
We developed it as an extension of our Visit app and Clock-in times can be accessed from our Shifts app – which most of our colleagues use.
Raza Rizvi, product manager
Entry and exit
Colleagues safety is paramount and we did not want to ask them to stand at store entrances to make decisions on whether another customer could enter, or whether the store was at maximum capacity. To make sure social distancing rules are observed in our stores, we looked at how technology could help.
The Entry and exit solution was developed working with a number of different suppliers – through an iterative test and trial approach across a number of different test sites. The tests included the use of lights, sound and POS to understand what would be required to interrupt the customer journey and start a queue when the store reached its customer capacity.
You can read about how we chose a solution – it uses a camera sensor inside the entrance to keep track of how many people are inside and how many have left. It is connected to a traffic light system with voice messaging that advises customers that the store is full and to wait, or, to enter the store.
We launched the solution in the 250 busiest stores during the summer, and set it up in the 50 student-heavy / campus stores in the autumn.
James Beane, operations lead
Our work this year has been around making it more efficient for store colleagues to carry out date checks on both ambient (non-chilled) and fresh (chilled) products.
We worked closely with stakeholders from the Commercial; Risk, and the Retail loss and costs teams to develop an app that colleagues can access through a hand-held terminal. The app knows when a ‘section’ (small area of the store) will next be checked, and tells colleagues which dates they need to search for. Any items with that date or earlier will be scanned into the app, and colleagues will be prompted to reduce the price of them. Algorithms work out the best time to reduce items and improve the chance of selling them.
Previously, colleagues checked every fresh item, in every fresh section, every day.
The new process means colleagues no longer needed to record product checks and details manually or remember when to go back to reduce products and apply the correct reduction using a static reduction matrix.
Development started in March and we’d rolled out to every Co-op Food store by November.
We believe this product will save the business around £6m each year.
The News and mags app was developed in order to simplify a laborious paper-based system that our store colleagues used to manually log newspaper and magazine delivery, claims and returns. The aim is to significantly decrease financial loss caused by waste and leakage, by simplifying and bringing real time visibility into the process.
We kicked off development in September 2019. The app allows colleagues to scan papers and magazines, identify stocks in store fixtures of the same issue and retains information about previously delivered quantities in the app’s database.
Colleagues can now quickly swap old issues and top up existing stock. It also has an initial stock upload functionality that allows store colleagues to know what stock is currently in store and track what should be returned or if there has been any leakage of stock.
The last 2 months has been focused on the completion of dev and testing to move back into Alpha stores. We have rolled-out into 41 stores and performed stock uploads successfully, while simultaneously reviewing data, analytics and insight. Lockdown has forced us to research remotely but we’ve had remote access to hand-held terminals through Mobi, a smart app that allows us to observe colleagues complete their checks remotely.
Quantitative and qualitative research is ongoing and we’re working towards a full roll-out in August 2021.