How a voice user interface could help our Funeralcare colleagues

Sometimes in organisations – and especially in digital teams – we start a piece of work but for various reasons we don’t roll it out. The work we’re talking about in this post is an example of this and although it looked very much like it had potential to meet our colleagues’ needs, we’re taking a break from it. The work helped us learn what a complex area we were dealing with and how very important it would be to get this absolutely right.  

We may revisit the work in the future. For now, we’re sharing the valuable insights we got from it. 

Co-op Guardian uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) and in August 2019, as part of Amazon’s consultancy package, we decided to explore voice interfaces. We wanted to find out if  Amazon Alexa – their virtual assistant AI (artificial intelligence) – could help us solve a problem on one of our projects. We worked together to see how we could use AI to help our Funeralcare colleagues who embalm the deceased.

This post is about what we did and what we learnt, as well as the problems a voice user interface might fix, and the problems over-reliance on – or careless use of – one might create.

About the embalming process

Some of our Co-op Funeralcare colleagues ‘embalm’ the deceased. Embalming is the process of preparing the deceased by using chemicals to prevent decomposition as well as making sure they look suitable for the funeral or a visit at the funeral home. Many friends and family members feel that seeing their loved one looking restful and dignified brings them peace and helps with the grieving process.

What’s not so great right now

floorplanAt the moment, our embalmers have tablets with their notes and instructions about how to present the deceased. They refer to them throughout the process. But colleagues tell us there are problems with this, for example:

  1. Tablet screens are small and not easy to see from a distance.
  2. Although they’re portable, positioning tablets conveniently close to the embalming table is tricky, and the charging points aren’t always close by.
  3. Wifi can be spotty because embalming suites sometimes have thick walls and ceilings, plus extra insulation to help with careful temperature control.

Perhaps the biggest problem however comes when colleagues need to double check instructions or details and the tablet has timed out. They need to remove their gloves, sign back into the tablet, find the information and replace their gloves. Recent government guidance, plus an internal review, suggests hands-free devices are a good way to avoid unnecessary contact.

Could Alexa help? We had a hunch that she could. Here’s what we did.

Captured possible conversations and created a script

As a starting point, we used what we’d already seen happen in embalming suites during our work on Guardian. We thought about what an embalmer’s thought process might be – what questions they may need to ask and in which order. Based on that, we drafted a script for the sorts of information Alexa might need to be able to give.

photograph of post its up on a wall depicting what alexa and the embalmer might say

But language is complex. There are many nuances. And an understanding of users’ natural language is important to be able to help Alexa win their confidence and 2. accurately identify (‘listen to’) questions and respond.

Turning written words into spoken ones

We pre-loaded questions and responses we knew were integral to an embalming onto a HTML soundboard using Amazon Polly, which can recreate an Alexa-like voice. At this early stage of testing it was better to use the soundboard than to spend time and energy programming Alexa.

laptop_alexa_embalmerWe:

  1. Wrote the content peppered with over-enthusiastic grammar which we knew would prompt Polly to emphasise and give space to important information. For example, “We’re ready to go. From here, you can. ‘Start an embalming’. ‘Review a case’. Or. ‘Ask me what I can do’.
  2. Connected our laptop to an Echo speaker using bluetooth.
  3. Turned the mic off on the Alexa. Told participants that she was in dev mode and asked them to speak as they normally would.
  4. Responded to what they said to Alexa by playing a relevant clip from Polly.

This is a great way of learning because it allowed us to go off script and means we didn’t have to anticipate every interaction.

Over time we’d learn what people actually say rather than second-guessing what they would say. We’d then add the wealth of language to Alexa that would allow for nuance.

Research run-through

One of the reasons for doing this piece of work was to see if we could give time back to embalmers. With this in mind, we did a dummy run with ‘Brenda’ in the photograph below. It helped us to pre-empt and iron out problems with the prototype before putting it in front of them. Fixing the obvious problems meant we could get into the nitty-gritty details in the real thing.

photograph of 'brenda' a outline of a person drawn onto a huge sheet of paper placed on the table for the research dummy run.

During research, we were manually pushing buttons on the soundboard in response to the participants’ conversation (although the embalmers thought the responses were coming from Alexa).

High-level takeaways from the research

Four weeks after we began work, we took our prototype to Co-op Funeralcare Warrington and spent half a day with an embalmer. We found:

  1. The embalmer didn’t have to take her gloves off during the test (cuppa aside ☕).
  2. For the 2 relatively short, straightforward cases we observed with the same embalmer, the voice user interface was both usable and useful. That said, the process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours and more complicated or lengthy cases may throw up problems.
  3. The embalmer expected the voice assistant to be able to interpret more than it can at the moment. For example, she asked: “Should the deceased be clean-shaven?” But the information she needed was more complex than “yes” or “no” and instructions had been inputted into a free text box. Research across most projects suggests that if someone can’t get the info they want, they’ll assume the product isn’t fit to give any information at all.

The feedback was positive – yes, early indications showed we were meeting a need.

What we can learn from looking at users’ language

When someone dies, family members tell funeral arrangers how they’d like the deceased to be presented and dressed for the funeral and any visits beforehand. Colleagues fill in ‘special instructions’ – a free text box – in their internal Guardian service.

We looked at the instructions entered in this box across the Guardian service. Our analysis of them drew out 3 interesting areas to consider if we take the piece of work forward.

  1. User-centred language – Rather than collecting data in a structured ‘choose one of the following options’ kind of way, the free text box helps us get a better understanding of the language embalmers naturally use. Although we don’t write the way we speak, we can pick up commonly-used vocabulary. This would help if we wrote dialogue for Alexa.
  2. Common requests – After clothing requests, the data shows that instructions on shaving are the most frequently talked about. Hair can continue to grow after death so embalmers will by default shave the deceased. However, if the deceased had a moustache, embalmers need to know that so they tidy it rather than shave it off. It could be hugely upsetting for the family if the deceased was presented in an unrecognisable way. With this in mind, it would be essential that the AI could accurately pick out these details and make the embalmer aware.
  3. Typical word count – Whilst the majority of instructions were short (mostly between 1 to 5 words) a significant amount were between 35 and 200 words which could become painful to listen to. There would be work around how to accurately collect detailed instructions, in a way that made playing them back concise.

AI can make interactions more convenient

Everything we found at this early stage suggests that designing a voice user interface could make things more convenient for colleagues and further prevent unnecessary contact.

However, because it’s early days, there are lots of unknowns. What happens if multiple people are in the embalming suite and it’s pretty noisy? How do we make sure our designs cater for differing laws in Scotland? When we know the ideal conditions for voice recognition are rarely the same as real life, how do we ensure it works under critical and sensitive conditions?

They’re just for starters.

With a process as serious and sensitive as embalming there’s no such thing as a ‘small’ mistake because any inaccuracies could be devastatingly upsetting to someone already going through a difficult time. Sure, Alexa is clever and there’s so much potential here but there’s a lot more we’d need to know, work on, fix, so that we could make the artificial intelligence part of the product more intelligent.

Tom Walker, Lead user researcher
Jamie Kane, user researcher

Illustrations by Maisie Platts

How to run a design sprint remotely

I’m on the Operational Innovation team which supports store colleagues and empowers them to spend more of their time and energy on customers and members rather than on admin and paperwork. Unsurprisingly, lockdown has affected a lot of work for our teamWe had to pause some trialsand of course we couldn’t do face-to-face user researchBecause we haven’t been able to get what we’d been working on into our users’ hands to validate our assumptions, we’ve had to delay making some decisions. 

Making the most of things with a design sprint 

Thpause on our regular work meant we had an opportunity: suddenly, the team had enough time in their diaries for a design sprint. 

A design sprint usually lasts 5 full working days and involves a small team. The team works together to understand a problem and design a solution. It’s challenging, because each part of the sprint is time-boxed and lasts one day only. The intensity means the pace is super quick but generally, teams keep focus, build momentum and sustain incredible productivity over the short time.  

Design sprints can be really inspiring but our question was, how can we do this well, remotely, with the added anxieties of lockdown? 

We adapted the format 

We knew the usual 5 full days would be impossible. Staring at our screens for 8 hours a day isn’t realistic or fairespecially when some people are caring for elders or children, or they’re keeping things ticking over on other projects. So, we broke the work up into 10 lots of 2-hour chunks and spread these out over 7 daysEven though we all agreed to try a design sprint and make it our biggest work-related focus, we also refused to let it become completely exhausting.  

The activities and stages during the sprint followed the methodology developed at Google. Our sessions focused on: 

  1. Understanding the problem and mapping the user journey. 
  2. Interviews with subject matter experts. 
  3. Sketching ideas using the Crazy 8s technique. 
  4. Critiquing ideas. 
  5. Storyboarding one cohesive idea. 
  6. Feedback from subject matter experts. 
  7. Start prototyping. 
  8. Review and finish prototyping. 
  9. Testing with users. 
  10. Synthesising research. 

Format: things to note 

We had one or 2 sessions each day, depending on what else we had on. On the days with 2 sessions, we scheduled in a 2hour lunch break which felt needed 

Prototyping took around 6 hours (2x 3 hour sessions) rather than the 4 hours we had planned and was pretty tiring, so I’d recommend splitting up the 2 prototyping sessions and spreading them over 2 days 

Organising and setting up the remote research took a couple of hours outside of the group sessions, so if you’re a facilitator or researcher, schedule in the extra time.  

It would have been good to spread the research interviews out over a long morning so we could reflect on our observations together. As it was, it felt like we were cramming all the interviews into that 2hour session 

Preparation and facilitation  

Once the team had given the go-ahead for the sprint, put together a plan that laid out the activities, the timings and the tools needed for each session. I had Annette Joseph and Emily Cowell as co-facilitators who gathered the problem statements and relevant materials beforehand, invited subject matter experts to the relevant sessions, and helped me find users to research with – I couldn’t have done it without them.  

Agree roles and responsibilities from the startAs well as facilitators, it will speed things up if you involve at least one subject matter expert, as well as designers to lead the prototyping and user research. A mixture of skills and experience is really beneficial to a sprint. 

Structure sessions so everybody gets to share. And related: decide how you’re going to interact. For example, will you all respond to open questions, or have cameras on? 

Agree what you’re trying to learn with the prototype and decide the scope of the sprint. It’s easy to be overly ambitious but a design sprint is such a short space of time.  

In our team, a couple of people hadn’t worked in this way before so at the start of each session it was essential to outline how it was going to work, how to use the tools and most importantly, the desired outcome of the next couple of hours. 

I made the basic mistake of not checking what browser user research participants were using which resulted in technical difficulties and a last-minute change of plan. 

Get the whole group to take part in synthesis – so everyone sees all the notes and engages with the learnings. 

Online versus in real life 

Plenty has already been written about the difficulty of facilitating sessions when you can’t read the room. I learned to avoid ‘open discussion’ style sessions, in favour of more structure. I asked participants to take turns to share by reading out the notes they were adding to the whiteboard. 

I also felt that despite getting loads of valuable insights from the research, the team lacked that amazing buzz we usually have when we’ve just observed research in person, and we can’t stop talking about it. Maybe allowing time for team reflection after each interview could go some way to replicating that feeling. 

Online tools 

Digital teams are used to working remotely and although some are more favourable than others, there’s usually a piece of software to help with remote collaboration. Lockdown has probably caused us to experiment with more of it, but use something you’re familiar with so you know it does what you need it to do for sprint sessions.   

Here’s what we used: 

Miro – an online whiteboard 
In the absence of physical whiteboards and sharpies, the team used Miro to write and group post-its simultaneously. There’s also almost infinite space (unlike on our office walls), so we could keep all our notes and maps in one place, everyone could see everything at once because we weren’t in each other’s way, and there was no illegible handwriting. 

Figma – for prototyping  
We normally use Figma so there wasn’t much difference here. 

Microsoft Teams – for video calls and scheduling.  
Again, our usual.  

User Zoom – for user research  
User Zoom is a remote research tool that shows the prototype on the user’s screen and allows us to watch them using it via video. Very different from face-to-face research, and prototype on a device.  

I’d do it again 

Overall, the sprint went well – we went from no knowledge to a validated prototype in 10 sessions, and it didn’t feel like we’d compromised in our learnings or output.  

It was a tiring 2 weeks, but we‘re proud of what we achieved. A remote design sprint is not without its challenges, but I’d be happy to run one again.  

Rachel Hand 
User researcher 

How we’re making accessibility more relatable

Co-op Digital has been looking at our understanding and awareness of accessibility.

What does accessibility mean to us? Are we good at it? Are we doing enough to embed it into our working practices throughout a project? Do we even know what accessibility means in ‘human’ terms?

We identified 3 problems we need to tackle:

  1. Awareness – how can we help more people understand what accessibility is about?
  2. Process – how can we put accessibility at the centre of every decision in a project?
  3. Communication – how can we make sure accessibility is being talked about throughout Co-op, not just in Co-op Digital?

This blog post focuses on our first step: raising awareness.

But first, here’s why we should all be taking accessibility seriously.

Why accessibility should never be an afterthought

1. It’s the right thing to do

We’re a co-operative, a different kind of organisation. An ethical business that puts members at the centre of everything we do. We should strive to be the most accessible organisation we can be. We need to live by our co-op values of equality, equity and self-help and make sure our products, services and websites are open to all.

Digital accessibility is a benefit to everybody, not just those with impairments.

2. It makes good business sense

The business benefits are clear, however the Co-op Digital team recognise we need to do more. Accessibility is now a known risk, and  our senior leadership team will monitor it over the next 12 months to make sure accessibility sticks.

There’s also the real possibility of legal action. More businesses are carrying out ‘accessibility audits’ because of 2019’s new regulations for public sector websites and a rise in accessibility litigation. Think Domino’s Pizza, which lost its legal case last year following a complaint by someone who was blind.

3. It’s more important than ever

The digital world was woven into our daily lives before, but during this crisis it’s become essential. It’s everything. As thousands of ‘physical’ businesses are getting to grips with moving their services online to reach people, accessibility is taking centre-stage in a way we’ve never seen before.

But we know it’s not about legal compliance. Or lawsuits. It’s about people. It’s about making sure our services are inclusive and for everyone.

Raising awareness

We tried to raise awareness in 3 ways.

1. We started with a survey

We asked Co-op Digital colleagues to fill in a survey so we could find out about their understanding of accessibility and how good they thought we were at ‘doing accessibility’ at Co-op Digital.

The results didn’t come as a surprise. They showed:

  1. Less than 50% of people were confident about delivering an accessible product.
  2. We were sometimes failing to:
  • Describe images.
  • Describe links and buttons.
  • Make sure there is good colour contrast on text.
  • Create focus states that are clearly visible.
  • Use HTML not PDFs or Word.

2. We set up workshops

We realised there was learning to do for all of us. Over 50 colleagues attended the ‘Jeopardy to practical accessibility’ workshops which aimed to:

  • give them the confidence, tools and skills to apply accessibility at any scale
  • demystify the complex language surrounding accessibility and make it relatable to your everyday life

The feedback was humbling:

A good eye-opening session about what accessibility means on the web. Some of the factors mentioned were surprisingly relevant to me, given I wouldn’t identify myself as needing accessible formats. Trying to read in motion or after a long tiring day – accessibility is surprisingly relevant to everyone and it is about time we engrain it in our DNA.

Sol Byambadorj, agile delivery manager

I must say that was a stonking accessibility session. I think the whole Funeralcare digital team along with digital marketing would benefit from seeing it.

Gail Mellows, lead designer

I was able to see accessibility needs from the perspective of users I had not previously been aware of, by giving situational examples as well as highlighting specific disability needs. I’ve come away and applied the tools that help to consider accessibility needs, almost immediately to my role.

Samantha Sheristondesigner

3. We created rhymes to help with relatability 

One of the problems the Digital team faces when it comes to raising awareness of accessibility is that it is often described in terms that are quite unrelatable. For example, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) describes web accessibility as:

“…websites, tools, and techniques [which] are designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them. More specifically, people can:

  • perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the web
  • contribute to the web”

When we’ve used this definition to explain accessibility, it has been understood, but it’s not something that everyone – especially those whose expertise is not in digital – can relate to. And without being able to relate to it, it’s easy to forget it or disregard it.

We needed a human, more emotional approach to accessibility. Something that put people first. Something visual showing that context and circumstance can change everything.

We wanted to reframe conversations and start thinking about situations most people have experienced. Like their commute to work, a stressful deadline, or sending a text message while their dog pulls the lead.

So we took the 25 accessibility issues we’d run through in the workshops and grouped them into rhymes. We set up a Twitter account A11yRhymes which got brilliant contributions and feedback.

We turned some of the rhymes into posters too.

yellow poster on the left hand side that says: on a sunny day on a wobbly train using my phone is a pain. make it work for everyone. pink poster on the right hand side says: in a new supermarket looking for some strong with these signs i'll be lucky to find a thing. make it work for everyone.

Making accessibility stick

We know from experience that if there’s no accountability in a larger organisation, things are unlikely to get done. So we’re working on an accessibility policy which outlines the standards we’ll adhere to in Co-op Digital, as well as the wider Co-op.

We’ll let you know how that goes.

Dave Cunningham
DesignOps manager

Why an up-to-date service map is essential when teams change direction

A couple of weeks ago, we published a post about how it took us 9 days to launch the Get or offer support service on the Co-operate platform. Part of that post explains how we were able to pivot so quickly from our roadmap to respond to emerging user needs.

For example, the team:

  • communicated and collaborated constantly to avoid confusion
  • worked in agile ways to learn fast and iterate
  • deferred to the design system to save time on decision making

In this post, Claudia and Leila from ustwo (who we’ve been working with) explain why our service map has been essential for direction, alignment and redesigning the information architecture.

What’s a service map?

Teams working on a digital service create a service map, ideally alongside stakeholders. The aim is to show everything that’s needed to maintain the live service with real customers and include all the moving parts from across the business. It means everyone has visibility of gaps and where improvements are needed. A service map changes as the service does – it’s never finished.

(That’s an overview but you can read more about what service maps are and why digital teams bother in this old post).

Our Get or offer support service map

The service map for Get or offer support shows the:

Front stage – this covers the interaction between people who have asked for help and our call centre, as well as the interaction between people who have asked for help and the people offering it.

Screen Shot 2020-05-01 at 14.21.16

Back stage – this covers the Co-operate platform which includes Contentful (the content management system), Smartsurvey (which we use to gather user data), our call centre and their data logging in Salesforce (which is used to securely store data)

Screen Shot 2020-05-01 at 14.21.48

We’re beginning to map the other Co-op business units who use the data Co-operate asks for in order to complete the user’s task. Co-op Health, for example, who will provide support with medication for those in England.

Changing direction and reflecting it in the homepage 

Co-operate has always been about helping people come together to make good things happen in their community. But the lockdown meant communities were no longer able to come together in person – which is why we needed to change the way Co-operate brought people together.

We reflected the changes in the homepage.

Previously, the focus of the homepage was finding and adding activities listed on the site. Our ‘how-to’ guides were also quite prominent.

Now, the focus of the homepage is on matching people who would like support with those who can offer some.

screengrab of the current co-operate homepage. the get support or offer support banner is central and prominent. below are two boxes. one titled: find online activities. the second titled: add an online activity

The homepage is the place where users will immediately recognise our change of direction – it’s obvious because they can see it. But a change in direction has a knock-on effect for the rest of the service too and the team is responsible for making sure it runs smoothly.

Here’s where the service map became invaluable.

Updating the service map: a priority not an afterthought

We updated the service map to reflect it the change of direction. We never view updating a service map as an administrative task – it is essential to the development of the service and to the team’s alignment. Without it, detail is overlooked and teams pull in different directions.

We knew it would help:

  • highlight where decisions needed to be made
  • communicate changes once, clearly, to everyone (particularly essential when we are all working remotely)
  • give the business units (such as Co-op Health and Co-op Food) an overview of where they fit in the bigger Co-operate service

The service map as a comms tool

We’ve used the service map in various workshops to collaborate with stakeholders and map out how the process has changed. We’ve found that showing them a visual representation of the service has been helpful because it moves the service away from something abstract – something they can’t necessarily see like data passing between 2 points – to something concrete that they can understand more quickly.

Having something to literally point at when explaining why we need an urgent decision on something has been invaluable.

During the workshops we’ve shown the stages of the service in a sequence of building blocks such as registration, vetting, training and matching those in need with those who can support. We’ve broken down each building block together to help each team member focus on what we want to achieve.

Making things quicker for users

Service maps focus on users: how a user gets from A to B. Using Co-operate: Get or offer support service map with stakeholders has meant we can naturally guide conversations back to the users – very useful because the ‘user first’ approach isn’t instinctive to people working outside digital.

The visual representation of the service helped us identify the steps followed by a user, and the steps followed by a call centre colleague. Seeing those 2 sets of steps together showed us we could get rid of duplication (asking for consent twice, unnecessarily) and reduce the amount of effort we were asking for from our users.

Service mapping is multi-functional

A large part of how we were able to get a new service live in 9 days was down to the service map. It showed the team an overview, it showed the team the intricate detail. We’ll continue to update it as Get and offer support matures.

Leila Byron, Service design lead
Claudia Ehmke, Product principal

How and why we launched a ‘donate your rewards’ service for Co-op members

The Membership team, like many Co-op Digital teams, has pushed back planned work to react to the virus outbreak.

We recently launched a service that lets our members donate all or part of their reward balance to the Co-op Members’ Coronavirus Fund.

Members can donate at coop.co.uk/donate

The money raised through reward donations will:

  • support food banks
  • help pay for the funerals of key workers when the bereaved can’t afford to
  • support community causes affected by the outbreak

Helping our members to help others

We’ve always helped our members to support those in need. We donate 1% of what they spend on selected Co-op branded products and services to their chosen community cause.

We also add 5% of what they spend to their reward balance.

We knew that our 4.6 million members have £30m in unused rewards in their accounts. Members who have earned Co-op rewards have anywhere between 1p and hundreds of pounds in their accounts.

By creating a way for members to donate these rewards, we’d make it possible for them to:

  • help people who’ve found themselves suddenly or more in need because of the virus outbreak
  • support these people without having to take money out of their bank accounts

Being sensitive to the effects of the pandemic on everyone

We wanted to get the service live and start raising money as soon as possible.

But with the team still adapting to working from home and facing many extra stresses, it was going to be much more challenging than usual to collaborate.

We needed to consider the effect that the virus outbreak was having on our members too.

Some people are unable to work, have lost their jobs or have reduced income. We knew that some members might be relying on their reward balance to help feed their family. Because of this, it was important that it didn’t ever feel like we were putting pressure on members to donate.

Working quickly but remaining realistic

We wanted to give our members the option of choosing how much of their reward balance they wanted to donate, but we knew that this functionality was complex and would be hard to build.

In the interest of getting value to users as soon as possible, we decided we should:

  • release ‘donate all your balance’ functionality first
  • roll out the ‘donate any amount you want’ functionality as soon as possible

At first, we hoped we’d be able to get the service live in time for Thursday 9 April, 2 and a half weeks away. But once we’d explored the requirements in more detail, it became clear that this would be a huge stretch. And we didn’t want to risk jeopardising both the service and our mental health by setting an unrealistic deadline.

We explained this to the stakeholders, and they listened. We pushed the deadline to reduce pressures on the team, and gave ourselves 3 weeks to build the first version of the service.

Launching ‘donate your rewards’

On Tuesday 14 April, we turned on the functionality for members to donate their full reward balance as scheduled.

On Thursday 16 April, we turned on the functionality for members to choose how much of their reward balance they want to donate.

Any member with a reward balance who logs into the membership dashboard on a desktop sees a banner directing them to coop.co.uk/donate (as shown in the screenshot below).

screenshot of what members with a reward balance see when they log in. image shows a purple banner across the top of the page that says: donate the rweards you've earned to the Co-op Members Coronavirus Fund. A button within the banner that says: Find out more

The screenshot below shows the same page on a mobile, followed by the 2 screens that follow if a member chooses to find out more and donate.

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The image below shows the sequence of screens a member would see if they specify how much they’d like to donate.

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Members who donate then receive an email to confirm their donation.

If you donate part of your balance or donate all your rewards but then go on to earn more, you can come back and donate again.

Members will be able to donate their rewards until 31 August.

Our members have been donating generously

We’ve set up dashboards so the team can track donations in real time.

At the time of publication, our members have already donated enough for FareShare to be able to provide hundreds of thousands of meals.

We’ve been emailing our members to let them know about the service. The email takes members straight to coop.co.uk/donate. It also outlines other ways the members can help if it’s not possible for them to donate their rewards.

Adapting our ways of working

To make sure we could collaborate effectively while working from home during these difficult times, we:

  • kept our daily stand-up meetings short and to the point
  • documented the work that needed doing and the decisions we’ve made in Jira so everyone could keep track of the work
  • agreed to call time on Slack conversations or video calls if they were straying off-topic or if we needed to capture the conversation elsewhere
  • created the page designs in Figma so we could collaborate in real time
  • added an end-of-day ‘check in’ meeting in the days leading up to launch to make sure we were staying on target
  • checked in with each other more often than usual, and were as honest as we wanted to be about our feelings

 

Getting this service live was challenging, but the hard work was more than worth it. This money is going to make a huge difference.

Molly Whitehead-Jones
Content designer

Tips for joining a digital team during lockdown (and how colleagues can help)

When I accepted my new job at Co-op Digital, I started drawing up a list of all the podcasts I’d listen to during my new morning commute. At the time when I accepted the role, ‘c-virus’ wasn’t even a word.

Fast forward a couple of months and I was meeting my team for the first time through a laptop screen.

I’m not the only lockdown newbie at Co-op Digital. I spoke to Ariadna Gonzalez-Lopez (Junior platform engineer), Elisa Pasceri (Lead product designer) and Pippa Peasland (Product manager) and drew on my own experience as Principal product manager to list the things that have been helpful to get us settled remotely. 

If you’re starting a new job remotely:  

1. Don’t wait until post-lockdown to build relationships  

We’ve been checking in with our respective line managers each day to ask questions, double check priorities and find out who to speak to about certain things. It’s helped get working relationships off to a good start which is essential right now but also means we won’t feel like we’ve left it too late when we’re finally face-to-face. Building the relationship now helps avoid that awkwardness.  


2. Plan your intros

Arrange 1-2-1 introduction meetings with the people you’ll be working with. We’ve found that some prep helps get the most out of the meeting. We’ve been asking our teammates about:  

  • their role  
  • their priorities right now  
  • their longer term goals  
  • the challenges they’re facing  
  • what we can do to help make their day-to-day easier 

We’ve been taking notes in a consistent way so we can refer back to them and ask for clarity if we need it.

Work stuff aside, it’s been important to ask our teammates about themselves. The water cooler chat can still happen remotely and it’s important that it does. Each of us felt reassured when we discovered we were working with competent people, but we also took real comfort in the less formal chats we had.  

3. Use quieter times to settle in   

As new starters, we’re eager to get up-to-speed so we can start feeling productive and self-sufficient. Everyone feels more confident when they don’t need to rely on teammates to tell them about stuff like the history of the project, how to request annual leave and the softer (but just as important) things like team etiquette.  

Reading up on these things during quieter times has been useful from a confidence point of view. Between us, we’ve asked for historical week notes and documents to read, as well as asking about suitable training courses and how we can share our experience on the Digital blog.  

 4. Be kind to yourself  

Starting a new role is hard – even in normal times. Most new people come from a place where they knew exactly how processes and people worked. The 4 of us are learning stuff that was so natural to us all over again. As newbies we talked about how anxious we were to make a good impression and how conscious we were about taking up too much of our teammates’ time.

But we realised that it just takes time – being hard on ourselves isn’t helpful.  

If you’ve (remotely) welcomed a newbie to your team:  

1. Show them the Induction Trello board 

Every new starter I spoke to said how useful they found our digital induction Trello board. Check any new starters have got access to it because working through the board will help empower them.  

2. Make sure you’re a face as well as a name  

Navigating the organisational structure is hard work – especially in big teams, and even more so when we’re all remote. Just because someone’s first week isn’t in-person, it doesn’t have to feel impersonal and a way of avoiding that is by helping new people put your face to your name. If you don’t mind turning your camera on for at least part of a meeting, please do that. Also, Slack profile pics – make sure you have one and double check it’s useful, as in, it’s a photo of your face!  

3. Offer to be an ‘induction buddy’  

When you start a new job in an office, there’s always someone nearby to chat to when you get stuck. But it’s harder when we’re remote. It’s been really settling when people on our teams have told us to “just ask if anything crops up that you’re not sure about”. Thank you.  

4. Remember the social side of work  

It takes time to build the kind of relationships where we feel comfortable bouncing around ideas as part of ‘one of the team’. In an office the non-work chit chat just happens and whether you’re contributing to it or just listening in, just being there helps newbies get a feel for team dynamics and humour and settle in.

But when we’re not physically together, relationships can’t happen as naturally, so help them along a bit. Make time for a getting-to-know-you coffee, invite new people to the established social gatherings too, like Thursday pub club.  

You do you  

We can share our experiences and package them nicely as a blog post but really, the most important thing is to find what works for you. We’re all wired differently, have different worries and prefer to interact with teammates in different ways.  

Good luck and thank you to everyone at Co-op Digital who has helped the 4 of us over the past few weeks. 

Holly Donohue  
Principal product manager  

If you’ve recently started at Co-op Digital,  join the #newbies channel on Slack.

How the Shifts team is responding to emerging user needs

Two years ago we launched Shifts – a web app that allows Co-op Food store colleagues to view their work schedules and information about their pay and holiday entitlement. We’ve been developing it ever since, but the past few weeks have been especially challenging because we’ve been responding quickly to meet emerging needs of our store colleagues – they are our front-line key workers.

5,000 extra store colleagues

On 19 March, we used Shifts to send out a message asking Food store colleagues to ‘refer a friend’ to come and work in their store. It was a call for people to help serve their communities by taking on work in stores to meet the higher demand for groceries, and to cover for colleagues who were self-isolating. By the end of March, Co-op stores around the UK had welcomed thousands of new stand-in colleagues. The Shifts web app has played a huge role in the induction process for new joiners.

The aim of Shifts has always been to empower colleagues and give them the information they need at a time and in a place that suits them. But a convenient, remote way of receiving information has become more important than ever.

Here are some of the changes we’ve made to Shifts to try to meet emerging needs of existing and new colleagues.

Communicating updates and guidance

Shifts uses Intercom to send messages to colleagues about new features, and colleagues have been able to contact us through it too. It’s been useful in the past, but it’s taken on more importance in recent weeks.

We’ve been working closely with teams in the retail support centre to update colleagues about personal protective equipment, information they need as key workers and what they needed to know regarding school closures.

Screenshot 2020-04-15 at 12.59.10

We also sent them a thank you message from Jo Whitfield, Chief Executive of Co-op Food.

Data shows that some of the messages were seen by over 43,000 store colleagues which we do not believe would have been the case if it wasn’t for Shifts being accessible for all colleagues on their personal devices.

Showing overtime at a different store

We recently added the capability to highlight when someone is working overtime at a store they don’t usually work at. Now, we can include them – and flag that this isn’t their ‘home’ store – on the same screen as everyone else who’s working a certain shift.

image (4)

We’d been finding it challenging to display this information, but at a time when many new crisis colleagues are helping in different stores it became more important to fix it. We prioritised work on this and now it’s resolved, we know it’ll be a much better experience for managers.

Matching up colleagues with shifts and stores

We know the demand for colleagues fluctuates between stores – some have been struggling to have enough colleagues in each day, whereas others have too many. And because a significant number of colleagues may show virus symptoms at the same time, stores could easily be left without their regular workforce while it self-isolates. To help with this, we’re currently working on functionality to allow managers to advertise available overtime shifts in their store to colleagues in nearby stores. This will allow colleagues to work where they’re most needed, and in places that are convenient for them.

Coming soon: showing available shifts

This month we’ll be releasing our ‘Available shifts’ feature which will let managers advertise overtime shifts and which roles they’d like to find cover for – this is open to colleagues who usually work in their store or ones who work in other stores in the area. Until now, managers have been using notice boards, WhatsApp groups or text messages to arrange cover which – according to research – can take longer than it should. The workaround can sometimes cause confusion too so the new feature should simplify and speed up the process. We hope it’ll be one less thing for colleagues to think about.

As always, we’re starting small. We’re testing this new feature with colleagues in around 10 stores and will roll out.

Doing our bit

Here in the Co-op Digital team we’re not on the front line. We’re not key workers.

But our colleagues in stores are.

There’s been a real eagerness in the Digital team to do whatever we can to support our hero colleagues, make their lives a little easier and lessen their cognitive load.

We’re fixated more than ever on adding value right now. Everyone wants to be useful in a crisis.

Caroline Hatwell, software engineer
Matthew Edwards, content designer