Supporting each other through communities of practice

As with a lot of teams, coronavirus forced Co-op Digital into remote working this week and for the foreseeable future.   

We’re physically disconnected from our colleagues, and many of us are understandably feeling more anxious than usual. But, despite being asked to physically isolate ourselves, we do not have to work on our own. 

What a community of practice is 

A community of practice brings together a group of people who share the same profession – whether that’s content writers, engineers, user researchers – to share learnings and solve problems.  

Our communities of practice operate in safe spaces.  

When we say ‘safe space’ we’re not referring to a physical location. We mean a group of people who have similar values. People who commit to being supportive and respectful of each other – whether that’s during a meeting or call, interacting online, or working within our teams. 

We use our community of practice meetups to ask for help, critique each other’s work and ask questions. We admit when we don’t know, when we’re unsure and when things have gone wrong. 

Our communities encourage us to listen without interruption and understand other perspectives. They are spaces for security and empathy. 

They just got more important 

Staying in touch and supporting each other is now more important than ever. Our communities of practice are helping us to do this. They allow us to connect with our peers, be more creative within our work and deal better with uncertainty. 

During difficult times when we feel less in control, we tend to create deeper connections with others as natural instincts of empathy, kindness and cooperation intensify. Communities of practice are increasingly becoming a place for moral support and compassion too. 

Apart, but not alone 

This week, several teams ran communities of practice remotely. Here’s some of the feedback on them: 

Content design the content community worked around some tech issues. “‘I know it was plan C – but time-boxed Slack chats are actually pretty good!… I’ve found this really helpful, thank you.” said Rebekah Barry.  And content community lead, Hannah Horton says she thinks “community is more important than ever, but we’re going to need to think more creatively about how we work together and support each other.”

DeliveryRachael Shah “was a marvellous host” says Neil Vass. 

Engineering – started with team updates before several lightning talks and moving on to remote pair programming breakout sessions. 

Business analysists – “The topic of conversion involved how we’ve found this week – something I’ve been experiencing in other team meetings too. It’s felt super supportive,” agile business analyst Katherine Welch says.

Screen grab of video call involving Chris Winkley, Katherine, Soraya Hassanzadeh, Gary Brown. Plus a tiny Liam Cross in the bottom right.

Here’s Chris Winkley, Katherine, Soraya Hassanzadeh, Gary Brown dialling into the call. Plus a tiny Liam Cross in the bottom right.

Service design – Principal researcher Lucy Tallon said there was “loads of energy – a good break from business as usual!”  

Supporting through uncertainty 

Our communities encourage us to be open about our uncertainty. This can be uncomfortable and scary.  We might be worried about what people think. The emotional exposure can make us feel insecure and vulnerable. 

But having the courage to admit our mistakes and show our fragility, means we can deal with uncertainty better in future. It can reduce anxiety and fear when we’re dealing with new experiences, and it can help us learn how to deal with discomfort – both personally and professionally. 

Becoming comfortable with discomfort can help create a culture where people are more prepared to: 

  • work collaboratively  
  • take risks
  • try new things 
  • push the boundaries of what’s gone before 

And in doing so we come up with innovative solutions. As Brene Brown, Research Professor at the University of Houston, says:


Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change… To create is to make something that has never existed before. There’s nothing more vulnerable than that.

– Brene Brown

Using courage to grow communities

By having the courage to be open and truthful about our insecurities and uncertainties, we also become more relatable. When we feel heard and understood, we tend to connect with those around us and we grow as a community. 

We can do this by: 

  • listening intently 
  • paying attention 
  • empathising with our colleagues 
  • showing compassion 
  • giving reassurance  

By doing this we remind those around us that we’re all trying to achieve a shared goal – that we’re all in this together. 

Here’s to everyone who’s offered comfort and shown compassion at your community of practice this weekthank you. 

Joanne Schofield
Lead content designer

We are not our users: we should not tell them how to feel

When we create new products and services it’s easy to become emotionally invested in them. We’re understandably proud of what we’re creating and often attach adjectives like ‘simple’, ‘quick’ or ‘exciting’ to our descriptions of them. But the way we talk about our work in a team is not always how we should talk about it to others. To create respectful and inclusive services we must put our feelings aside, be humble and focus persistently on the experience of our users.

Why organisations use subjective language

Organisations often proclaim that a service is ‘good’ or ‘convenient’, that a task is ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ to do, that an update to a service is ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’. This might be to:

  • get people to feel the same way about the service as the organisation does
  • encourage more people to use the service
  • create perceptions about an organisation, brand or service

The use of these terms reminds me of a quote by author Laura Amy Schlitz:

‘Good’ is an approximate term. A second-grader once asked me for ‘a really, really good book’ and I asked him what he considered a good book. He eyed me with thinly veiled impatience and replied, ‘Medium-long with poisonous snakes’.

Just as the definition of good may differ depending on who you ask, so too will people’s experience of a Co-op service or process.

Circumstance dictates experience

When we created the Co-op Wills digital service, we did what we could to make a traditionally complex process, less complex. Through regular research we made the service as easy as we could for people to use – clean and clear design with plain English explanations of legal terminology. But users did not always find it easy.

Some people needed to talk to their partners before completing the form, others were reminded of frustrating events in their past, others found it distressing. Different parts of the process had different emotional triggers for people and each user’s experience was unique to their circumstance. It would not have been appropriate for us to talk about our ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ service because, although we’d removed what complexity we could, the process was not always an easy thing for people to get through.

This is true of all services, not just those services that deal with sensitive subject matters. Personal circumstances will dictate how people feel about them. People may not experience them as we intend if they:

  • have a poor internet connection
  • are in a busy environment
  • are stressed
  • have a disability or condition
  • have English as a second language
  • are recently bereaved
  • are in crisis

What’s easy for some may be hard for others. The service we’re offering, or the changes we’ve made to a service, may unintentionally make things harder, more complicated or slower for some people. So, conveying the organisation’s internal excitement, pride or thoughts, can not only be inappropriate it can be also be arrogant, disrespectful and offensive.  

We are not our users

Our perception of terms like ‘simple’ or ‘exciting’ are inherently biased. Our job as designers is to create things that we believe to be simple to use, easy to understand, and that people enjoy (or at the very least, don’t dread) using. To do this we build a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the service we’re working on. We can end up being so knowledgeable about the service that we’re unable to fully appreciate the difficulties our users may experience. When talking about mental models, research-based user experience group Neilson Norman say:

Users’ mental models of the UI (user interface) are likely to be somewhat more deficient [than designer’s mental models], making it more likely for users to make mistakes and find the design much more difficult to use.

Being so absorbed in the work can make it hard for us to stay objective. The level of knowledge we gain, and our emotional attachment to a service, becomes disproportionate to that of our users.

To maintain perspective we must keep the user in mind, always.

What we can do instead

The internet has raised expectations. People expect online services to be easy and straightforward. Having to declare that that’s what they are can raise suspicion and cause mistrust. As customer experience speaker Gerry McGovern says in his post If Google wanted to get found in Google:

If you ever have to say you’re simple, you’re not. Because if you were truly simple you wouldn’t have to waste time telling people you are. You’d just be simple…

The most effective way to give services the impression of ease, speed or convenience is to make them so. We cannot do this without considering the concerns of our users, and being sensitive to their emotional, physical and cognitive states.

The most effective content appreciates that people may be coming to it with their own apprehensions, insecurities and struggles. It makes no assumptions. It’s objective and neutral.

To create services that people want to use, we must make a deliberate effort to remove our emotional attachment to the things we’re creating and let our users decide how to experience them. By appreciating that we are not our users, and being considerate of their circumstances, we create services that are tactful, inclusive and respectful.

Joanne Schofield
Content designer