Lessons learnt by a non-digital colleague: the benefits of agile ways of working

Last month we introduced ‘Visit’ to 55 Co-op Food stores. Visit allows store visitors to efficiently, and independently, check in and check out on store tablets or customer till screens.

We began designing Visit in October 2018. Below is a photo of me setting up an early alpha test in store.

Photograph of Nick, middle-aged man wearing a smart coat and shirt holding a paper sign saying 'Visits' above a tablet with the Visit product on there.

Visit is in beta right now meaning that our research and testing are ongoing and we’re making small improvements regularly. We’re hopeful that we can roll it out to all Food stores by autumn and that it will save time and solve efficiency problems.

But this post isn’t really about how we went about researching and prototyping a new product. It’s about the processes and practices associated with agile – a way of working that was unfamiliar to me and many of my immediate colleagues. It’s about the benefits of working in this way and why non-digital teams should be collaborative, open-minded and committed to learning about, and designing for, their user.

The problem: a long, old process

I work in the Risk team. Visits to a store are frequent and essential, and as part of my role I saw a lot of inefficiency when it came to signing in store visitors. The process would often be:

  • ask a colleague at the till for the visitor book and a pen
  • fill in your details
  • listen to the colleague to explain the store fire process
  • wait for a manager to take you to the back office
  • sign on to the PC
  • read the asbestos report
  • sign a paper acknowledgement of the report in the health and safety folder

It shouldn’t have so many steps in the process. It shouldn’t take this long. It shouldn’t involve so many people.

Our Field risk team regularly visit stores to train management on health and safety controls. As a result of the complicated, long-winded visitor flow, this was one of the least followed processes. There was also a lack of visibility around who has visited, so on occasions third parties have claimed to have visited a site but there is no evidence they have been.

I wasn’t the only one who wanted to improve this process.

Learning new skills and different ways of working

At this point, my knowledge of digital design was limited. I knew that digital product Shifts was co-designed for Co-op Food colleagues, and that other pieces of the Leading the way work relied on expertise from Digital, Food colleagues at support centre as well as Food colleagues in stores. I was aware that this coming together of specialists had been successful within the Co-op before.

I signed up for the Digital masterclass, a half-day training session that helps colleagues whose skills are outside digital understand how the Co-op Digital team works (more information at the end of the post). Richard Sullivan who ran the training introduced me to the benefits of agile ways of working.

Getting support

I’d identified the problem around checking visitors in and out but to fix it I needed expertise from the engineers from Retail IT as well as the Digital team including delivery managers Lee Connnolly and user researcher Rachel Hand.

Together, we started to learn more about the problem.

Putting theory into practice and learning more

Working on this project in an agile way, in a multidisciplinary team was very different to how traditional teams would tackle it. That includes the Risk team I’ve been part of. It was a sharp learning curve.

Here are 3 reasons why:

1.Testing over requirements

I’d been used to handing over a list of requirements to a technology team and asking them to find or create a piece of software that might fix a problem. For Visit, we put paper prototypes in front of store colleagues as soon as we knew enough about the problem. Their feedback helped shape the design meaning the product was tailored to their specific needs rather than it being an off-the-shelf solution.

2.Questions over assumptions

I approached the problem (the process of checking visitors in and out is inefficient), with a solution (so we’ll put software on store tablets to make it better). It seemed such an obvious solution to me (and in the end this is in fact our solution) but the Digital team showed me the dangers of assuming rather than questioning. We did an ‘assumption mapping’ session which helped us see if or where we were making assumptions about the desirability, feasibility of the product. Identifying assumptions reduces risk.

Photograph of a whiteboard with many yellow post it notes of notes arranged across a grid. This is an example of assumption mapping. 

3.Build in team time

I’d never worked in a team where we’d schedule regular time to reflect on our progress and our team health. This is what retrospectives are for. Until now, praise and problems were private – not something a team could be part of together. I didn’t realise how essential I’d begun to consider retros until we had to cancel one.

Progress through collaboration and thinking differently

Despite this being my very first digital product, I feel I can say with confidence that when Visits rolls out to all Food stores later this year, it will solve problems and meet our store colleagues’ needs. This is because the product is design-led. We were never tied to a solution, we changed our minds as we learnt more and our understanding of what store colleagues need improves.  

If you recognise opportunities for operational improvement, no matter which team you’re in, you can speak to Chris Ward, Product manager for Operational Innovation Store. You can also email Richard Sullivan to arrange a place on the Digital masterclass.  

Nick Bullough
Product owner

Pair writing clear, accurate content for ‘How do I’

This week, the design team held a show and tell to discuss 2 questions:

  1. What is design?
  2. Why should you care?

We’ve been posting some of the examples from different areas of design that we talked about. The posts are aimed at Co-op colleagues whose expertise are in something other than a digital discipline.

Today we’re looking at how pair writing played a huge role in the success of How do I.

In November 2017 we launched How do I so that all Food store colleagues could find out how to do something in their store quickly and easily. ‘How do I’ is a website with up-to-date policies and procedures on it, written in a clear, user-focused way.

It’s all down to great collaboration

To meet colleague and business needs, the guidance on procedures needed to be:

  1. Clearly written and easy to understand.
  2. Accurate and legally compliant.

There wasn’t one set of people with the correct skills to make sure the content did both these things. We needed content designers who are skilled in writing and presenting content for the web, and we needed subject matter experts such as policy owners – in other words people who know their stuff.

Forms and surveys specialist Caroline Jarrett puts it brilliantly here:

Over 6 months we reworded, reformatted and redesigned over 500 Co-op Food store policies and procedures for our store colleagues. The technique we used, in various formats, was pair writing.

What pair writing is and how you do it

It’s as simple as it sounds. Pair writing is when a content designer and a subject matter expert bring their skills and knowledge together to write content that works for users. Working together, on the same thing, at the same time speeds up the process of getting content live because feedback is in real time.

Pair writing best practice

While working on How Do I, content designers from Co-op Digital spent hours pair writing with subject matter experts from the Food business. Here’s what we found worked best.

Our set up

Sitting together allows you to talk and listen, question and clarify without distraction. We found that although this worked well in front of one person’s computer, it worked even better if the pair could take a laptop into a quieter place because the technique often needs quite intense concentration. We found 2 hours was enough and we swapped who was writing every 30 minutes.

If you have access to Google Documents, you can work in the same document at the same time from your respective computers. If you do this, make sure only one person is typing at a time, and you’re constantly thinking out loud and discussing what’s being written so that you’re both pulling in the same direction.  

Talking in real time is what matters

Sometimes it’s not possible to get together in person but that’s ok, you can pair write from afar. The important thing is that you’re getting time together to talk and share your understanding. For How Do I, we had regular phone or video calls with depot managers across the country to create content. It’s also crucial that you remember to get something written down – it doesn’t have to be perfect and it’s never finished. You can come back later and tidy it up.

Our process

  1. We started by setting some ‘acceptance criteria’, in other words, deciding which questions we wanted the content to answer. It’s important to do this so you know when you’re happy for the content to go live. It’s so easy to find yourself in an endless loop of feedback and tweaks until it’s ‘perfect’.
  2. We agreed a sign off process. The content designer signed off on clarity, the subject matter expert signed off on accuracy.
  3. We then looked at the existing content and asked if it did the job. In most cases the information was already there but it was hard to find, hard to read and not structured in a useful way. Together we cut out the unnecessary stuff.
  4. We simplified and reworded once we had the bare bones of what we absolutely needed to include. It’s the content designer’s job to pull out tricky, unfamiliar words and replace with language that research has shown to reflect the words people use.
  5. We tackled the order we should present content in. Together we prioritised information and reformatted it. We figured out the ‘important’ stuff based on the way someone would complete the task in store, how frequently something was asked and whether there were legal compliance issues.

When both of us were happy with what we’d got down, we gave it to Digital and Food colleagues to make sure the content was usable and addressed the user needs we’d developed. Don’t leave it too long before sharing and give a deadline for feedback so colleagues don’t slow down the process. We reacted to feedback and redrafted together if we needed to.

Lengthy detail to task-based content

Image is split down the middle. Left hand side shows how information about 'restricted sales' was presented. It's very copy heavy. Right hand side shows how we present it now. Further description in the post copy.

Together we transformed a copy-heavy page of information on restricted sales into several, task-based chunks of content. Research told us that when store colleagues wanted guidance on selling a restricted item, they would naturally search for the thing that they were about to sell. We left out the unnecessary information and instead gave colleagues the exact information they needed to complete the task.

How pair writing has influenced outcomes

Pair writing has helped us redesign, reformat and reword over 500 policies and procedures for Co-op Food stores.

It’s enabled us to develop content that all colleagues (not just managers) can quickly scan to help carry out a task. They feel empowered. We’ve seen a reduction in time that colleagues spend looking for information and it’s helped to save money too. Calls to our Food store helplines went down by around 40% in some stores, contributing to a saving of over £300k per year.  

Human to human – an extra benefit

Building a relationship with a colleague in person, or at least in real time on a call, builds empathy and breaks down barriers unintentionally set in place by businesses. Subject matter experts have come to me for further writing support because they know what I look like – this is less likely to happen if you’ve only ever spoken on email. They’re also now sharing their content, helping to eliminate unnecessary duplication of work and speed up sign-off processes.

Working collaboratively

If everyone shares an understanding of the benefits of being design-led, it’ll be easier for experts from around the business to work together to deliver value to Co-op customers, colleagues and the Co-op as a business. If you didn’t make the show and tell but would like to find out more, email Katherine Wastell, Head of Design.

Matt Edwards
Content designer

Field research: designing pre-paid plans with Funeralcare

This week, the design team held a show and tell to discuss 2 questions:

  1. What is design?
  2. Why should you care?

If you couldn’t make it, we’re writing up some of the examples from different areas of design that we talked about and we’re posting them on the blog this week. They’re aimed at Co-op colleagues whose expertise are in something other than a digital discipline.

Today we’re looking at how we used field research when we were designing a digital form with Funeralcare colleagues who arrange pre-paid funeral plans in our branches. (You can also make a pre-paid funeral plan online).

Buying a pre-paid funeral plan: how the paper forms process works

Here’s how the process tends to work:

  • a client rings a local branch to make an appointment
  • the client goes into a branch
  • a colleague and the client fill out a lengthy paper form together
  • the client pays at least a deposit to their local branch
  • 3 copies of the paper form are made – one for the client, one is kept in branch and the other is sent by post to head office which often takes 7 days
  • a colleague at head office manually copies the information from the paper form into a customer relationship management system
  • the form is dug out on the request of the client’s family after their loved one has died

The process is expensive, time-consuming and as with all human processes, there is room for error.

What we wanted to achieve

We wanted to create a more efficient, easy-to-use service. We wanted to connect the computer systems that are already being used in Co-op Funeralcare branches and integrate them directly with the customer relationship management system colleagues use in head office.

Where to start?

What we knew was limited. We had an idea what the start of the process was for clients and colleagues because we knew what the paper form looked like. We also had sales data from the very end of the process. But in order to improve efficiency and ease of use, we needed to know a lot more about how things are working in between these 2 points.

For both colleagues and clients we wanted to get a clearer picture of:

  • what a plan-making appointment was like (both practically and emotionally)
  • the paper form filling process
  • whether there were frustrations with the process and where they were

We arranged some site visits for our ‘field research’.

Learning from field research

We visited Co-op Funeralcare branches.

Green image with white copy that says: The approach. Get out of the office to learn and test

Why? Because when people feel at ease they’re more likely to open up and speak honestly. For this reason we spoke to our funeral arranger colleagues in a context they’re familiar with – in the rooms where they regularly create plans with clients. Talking to them here helped them relax, and because they weren’t in a place where their seniors might overhear, they were less guarded than they might be if we brought them into head office.

Seeing mistakes happen, figuring out why they happen

Talking to them was good but seeing colleagues fill out the paper plans was invaluable because we could observe:

  • the order they approached the questions
  • whether they made mistakes and where
  • if and where they used any common work-arounds where the form didn’t meet their needs

All of this helps us see where we can improve the design.

Feeding observations into the design

When we were talking through the paper forms with arrangers, they told us they often found there wasn’t enough space to capture a client’s personal requests. Because they’d come up with a reasonable work-around, it might not have been something they would have mentioned to us if we hadn’t been there, in their office, looking at the forms together. Being there helped us make sure we didn’t miss this. They showed us examples of when they had worked around a lack of space by attaching an extra sheet to the paper form they were submitting.

In the example below the client has requested to be dressed in ‘Everton blue gown with frill’ and they’ve been very particular about the music before, during and after the service.

Every funeral is different – just like every life they commemorate and the paper form didn’t accommodate for the level of detail needed. The work-around they’d come up with wasn’t hugely painful but good design is making processes pain free. We fed our observations back to the digital team and designed a form that allowed for individuality. It has bigger open text boxes to record more detail as well as including drop downs and free text boxes for music on the day.

Paper versus digital forms

The benefits of moving across to digital forms include:

  1. Having easier access to more data, for example, numbers on couples buying together and numbers on people buying for someone else. This is useful because we can direct our efforts into improving the experience where the most people need it. 
  2. Saving time for colleagues who manually copy paper plans to the head office system. Digital plans are sent directly to system and are instantly visible to colleagues in head office.
  3. Reducing the number of errors in paper plans. Common mistakes include allowing people over 80 to spread their payment over instalments and the client’s choice of cremation or burial not being recorded. The design of the digital form doesn’t allow arrangers to progress if there are mistakes like these.
  4. A significant yearly saving on stamps used to send paper forms from a branch to head office.

Field research helped get us to this point

We’re now testing the new digital forms in 15 branches. We’ll be rolling them out to more and more branches over time but we’re starting small so we can iron out any cracks.

So far, the feedback from colleagues is positive. But without observing colleagues in context, there’s a certain amount of assumption about the way they work on our part. Field research contributes to the fact the pre-paid funeral plan service is design-led.

If everyone shares an understanding of the benefits of being design-led, it’ll be easier for experts from around the business to work together to deliver value to Co-op customers, colleagues and the Co-op as a business. If you didn’t make the show and tell but would like to find out more, email Katherine Wastell, Head of Design.

Gillian MacDonald
User researcher

Using ‘sacrificial concepts’ to explore the direction of a product

Yesterday, the design team held a show and tell to discuss 2 questions:

  1. What is design?
  2. Why should you care?

Everyone was welcome but if you couldn’t make it, we’re writing up some of the examples from different areas of design that we talked about. We’ll post them on the blog this week. They’ll be aimed at Co-op colleagues whose expertise are in something other than a digital discipline.

First up: product exploration in the digital offers team.

Exploring the desirability, feasibility and viability of digital offers for members

In September last year we posted an update about our work around digital offers. In summary, we want to create personalised, paper-free offers for Co-op members. We think it will save money for them and create value for the Co-op.

Start somewhere: the format we tried first

We allowed a trial group of 6000 members to choose and use digital offers. Every Monday for 6 weeks, each of these members received 8 personalised offers based on their transaction history. Using our website or app, they could choose to add 2 of those 8 offers to their membership card so that when they swiped their membership card at the till, the offers were applied to their shopping.

At this point, we’d established that giving members digital offers in this way was technically possible which was great news. However, we didn’t know whether giving members a choice of 2 offers from 8, once a week, on a Monday was best for them and/ or good for the business. Would choosing 1 offer from 4 be better for them? For us? How about new offers every 2 weeks? How could we give members an enjoyable experience that would keep members using offers?

Ultimately, we wanted to increase their visits to Co-op food stores and nudge them to consider products that they might normally purchase from another retailer.

Our next piece of work was to find out how we might do this.

Exploring potential product directions through ‘sacrificial concepts’

We looked at the different ways we could give members personalised offers that could cultivate continued, enjoyable use.

‘Sacrificial concepts’, a method developed by design company IDEO, helped us gain insight into customers’ beliefs and behaviour. Here’s an example of a handful of sacrificial concepts that we put in front of a small group of members we visited in their own homes.

slide shows a range of sketches or what we refer to as 'sacrificial concepts'

They’re sketches of ideas.

They’re not presented in the context of a computer or device screen as we might do with designs that already have a substantial amount of research behind them. They’re just ideas, they’re abstract and open to interpretation because we put them in front of potential users to provoke conversation.

The sketches above helped us elicit honest feedback about offers, shopping and their interactions with the Co-op.

Cheap and quick feedback through sacrificial concepts

We wanted to quickly and cheaply test a few ideas with potential users.

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 15.39.43

Existing research suggests uncertainty and mystery motivates people. Would revealing an offer affect a member’s perception of it?

The feedback we heard gave us confidence that there was something appealing about this mechanic: it seemed to peak people’s curiosity. They found it exciting.

We know that people are influenced by social groups and communities. How would voting and social participation affect their interaction with the product?

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 15.40.02

The feedback we heard here was that this idea simply didn’t fit with how members plan their shopping. They didn’t plan their meals far enough ahead to know what they would want a week later.

We were also wanted to find out whether the way we presented the information about how much money members saved by using offers might affect their enjoyment. We explored whether there were any opportunities in terms of how we could show members the value of their offers.

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 15.40.13

The feedback we heard from some people was that they were more interested in savings in the context of their bank, not a specific retailer. But it was interesting to see how members reacted to us reframing the amount saved, so we learnt that there may be potential in this idea but it shouldn’t be the first thing we build.

What the sacrificial concepts told us

We took everything from the concept cards that we felt had potential and incorporated them into a prototype to put in front of members. This time, our designs had the research from the sacrificial concepts behind them but at this point, nothing was built in code. We used the prototype to get more feedback so we can iterate and improve for our members.

We’ve now identified 3 potential features for Co-op members digital offers. We’ll test them with larger volumes of users in May this year and we’ll listen to their feedback and make small improvements regularly.

The benefits of this technique

We started off with a lot of ideas and directions and through talking to potential users we’ve be able to quickly and cheaply ‘sacrifice’ the concepts that our research identified as having little potential. We’re left with the things we have a good idea will meet the needs of our members or at the very least are appealing to them.

If everyone shares an understanding of the benefits of being design-led, it’ll be easier for experts from around the business to work together to deliver value to Co-op customers, colleagues and the Co-op as a business. If you didn’t make the show and tell but would like to find out more, email Katherine Wastell, Head of Design.

Louise Nicholas, lead product designer
Joel Godfrey, product manager

What is design, and why should you care?

Today the Co-op Digital design team held a 90-minute show and tell to address 2 questions:

  1. What is design?
  2. Why should you care?

3 posters. each one is red and has white and green copy that says: what is design and why should you care?

Like all show and tells, this one was open to everyone. We wanted to give Co-op colleagues whose expertise are outside digital disciplines the opportunity to find out how the design process works. If everyone shares an understanding of the benefits of being design-led, it’ll be easier for experts from around the business to work together to deliver value to Co-op customers, colleagues and the Co-op as a business.

orange card with black copy that says: we're in this together. making good products is everyone's responsibility

We need people from all areas of expertise to work together if we want to make successful products and services.

In the show and tell we talked about:

  • why design-led companies perform better
  • what service design is and how it aligns user needs with business goals
  • how the design process begins with research, before testing and iterating and testing again
  • the importance of designing products that meet people’s behaviour, and grow according to market and behavioural shifts
  • why we need to focus on the outcome of design, not the way things look
  • the difference between functional design and playful visual design and when to use each one

Showing examples of design

We also used the session to pull out examples of design at Co-op Digital from the past year. User researchers, content and interaction designers talked about:

  • product exploration in Co-op digital offers
  • content design and pair writing when designing How do I
  • field research for Co-op Guardian
  • service mapping in Co-op car insurance
  • proposition testing and design sprints in Co-op Food e-commerce
  • one Co-op online and the design system

We’ll post about some of these examples later this week.

Co-design is everyone’s responsibility

We need people from all areas of expertise to work together if we want to make successful products and services.

Thank you to everyone who came along. We appreciate your time. If you didn’t make it today but would like to find out more, email me.

Katherine Wastell
Head of Design

How we turn research into actionable insights

One of the main challenges for us as researchers is making our findings more actionable for the rest of the team, particularly during the discovery phases when we’re conducting exploratory research.

At least initially, early stage research can bring more ambiguity than clarity, throw up more questions than answers and we often end up with challenges and problems that are too broad to solve.

As researchers, it’s our responsibility to use research methods that will facilitate good design and product decisions. It’s not enough to just do the research, we need to help translate what we’ve learnt for the rest of the team so that it’s useful.  

How we did it

We’re working on a commercial service. Our team’s remit was to find out what would make our service different because, in theory, if we can solve unmet customer needs, we can compete in a saturated market. A successful product or service is one that is viable, feasible and desirable.

This post covers 3 techniques we’ve recently tried. Each one helped us reduce ambiguity, achieve a clearer product direction and get a better understanding of our users, their behaviours and motivations.

1.Learning from extremes

When we’re testing for usability or we’re seeing how well a functional journey works, we usually show users a single, high fidelity prototype. However, earlier on in the design process, we put very different ideas in front of users so we can elicit a stronger reaction from them. If we only showed one idea at that point, their reaction is likely to be lukewarm. It’s when we elicit joy, hatred, confusion for example that we learn a lot more about what they need from a product.

In this instance, we wanted to uncover insight that would help us define what might make a more compelling product.

We identified the following problem areas:

  1. Time – people don’t have much of it.
  2. Choice – there is so much.
  3. Inspiration – people struggle with it.

Instead of prototyping something that would attempt to improve all 3 of these problem areas as we would do when testing usability, we mocked up 3 very different prototypes – each one addressed just one of the problems.

The extreme prototypes helped users better articulate what meets their needs and what might work in different contexts. It wasn’t a case of figuring out which version was ‘best’. We used this technique to test each idea so we could find out which elements work and therefore include them in the next iteration. It also started informing the features that the experience would be comprised of.

Overall though, it helped us reach a clear product direction which gave us a steer in our next stage of research.

2.Doing a diary study

A diary study is a great way to understand motivations and uncover patterns of behaviour over a period of time. We recently invited a bunch of urban shoppers to keep a diary of how they were deciding what to eat at home.

We asked them to use Whatsapp, partly because it was something they already used regularly but also because its quick, instant messages reflect the relatively quick amount of time it takes for someone to make a decision about what to eat. The decision is not like choosing which house to buy where you might think about and record decisions carefully in spreadsheets, so it would be difficult for people to reflect on their ‘what to eat’ decisions retrospectively in interviews. Whatsapp was a way to get closer to how choices are made so we could better understand the context, behaviour and decision itself.

The engagement was much higher than we expected. We captured lots of rich data including diary entries in text, video and photo format. We didn’t ask for or expect the visuals but they were very useful in bringing the contexts to life for our stakeholders.

When we looked for patterns in the data, we found that nobody behaved in the same way every day, or over time. However, we were able to identify ways people make choices. We called them ‘decision making modes’. We looked at the context in which people made decisions and the behaviour we’ve observed. Each mode highlighted different pain points, for example, they may have leftovers to use up. This enables us to prioritise certain modes over others, get alignment as a team on who we’re solving problems for, and think about features to help address some of the pain points for users.

3.Using sacrificial concepts

‘Sacrificial concepts’, a method developed by design company IDEO, allow us to gain insight into users’ beliefs and behaviour. We start with reframing our research insights as ‘How might we…?’ questions that help us find opportunities for the next stage of the design process.

For example, we found that buying groceries online feels like a big effort and a chore for shoppers because of the number of decisions involved. So we asked: “How might we reduce the number of decisions that people need to make when they shop online?”

We did this as a team and we then create low fidelity sketches or ‘concepts’ that we’re willing to sacrifice that we can put in front of users.

Just like when we test extremes, the purpose of testing those ideas wasn’t to find a ‘winning version’ – it was to provoke conversation and have a less rigid interview.

Sacrificial concepts are a fast and cheap way to test ideas. No-one is too invested in them and they allow us to get users’ reaction to the gist of the idea as opposed to the interface. They give us a clearer direction on how to address a problem that users are facing and they are a good way to make research findings more usable in the design process.

What’s worked for you?

Those are the 3 main ways we’ve approached research in the early phase of one particular commercial Co-op service. We’d like to hear how other researcher and digital teams do it and their experiences with the techniques we’ve talked about.

Eva Petrova
Principal user researcher

Why teams need to think about content design from the discovery phase

Content is the main thing people will interact with in your service. The right content, in the right place, at the right time, will mean your service is likely to work well for your users.

Too often, content is an afterthought when teams are developing a new digital product or service – something to drop in when the design and flow of a service are ready.

This is a mistake.

Digital teams need to think about content from the very beginning. Here’s why.

1.Understanding your audience’s language will help you understand the problem

Before you even know what you’re going to create, you need to understand the problem you’re trying to solve. In digital teams we often call this phase ‘discovery’.

A vital element of discovery is understanding how people talk and think about their problems and frustrations, where they’re already going for help, and what they actually need.

You can start finding this out early without having to organise detailed user research interviews – internet forums, social media and tools like analytics and Google Trends can be a goldmine of content for uncovering your audience’s natural vocabulary. You can also find out what other channels people are using to solve their problems (remembering that they might not always be digital), and where they expect to find the information they need – all this will help you later when you need to make decisions about when you should create content, who it should be for and what channels you should use. It’ll also give you a focus for in-depth user research.

2.Using your audience’s natural language builds understanding and trust

Understanding your audience’s vocabulary in discovery will mean you can prototype more confidently when you move into the next phase (often called ‘alpha’).

Even early prototypes need considered, researched content. A developer or designer might be able to drop content into a prototype that feels OK and follows the Co-op tone of voice, but research with these prototypes will only show you how the design works, not the content. By finding out about your audience’s natural vocabulary as early as possible, your team will avoid making assumptions about language that you need to revisit later.

People are more likely to understand and trust content when it mirrors the language they naturally use and recognise. This often means your product might not use ‘proper’ names for something.

When we built How do I, a service that helps colleagues find out how to do things in food stores, we discovered they consistently referred to Co-op’s national facilities operations centre simply as ‘facilities’. So we called it ‘facilities’ in the service. That’s not the official title of the department but it’s what our colleagues instantly recognise and understand. The old content also expected colleagues to be familiar with the term ‘hotworks’, but we found that ‘welding and soldering’ was much more easily understood.

3.Name your service so that users know what they can use it for

It’s very tempting to come up with a clever and catchy name for a service. However, based on what we know about how people read and understand the world, it’s rarely a good idea to give your product a name that doesn’t give people any idea about what it does or what it’s for.

The best names for services and products are descriptive, action-focused and leave the user in no doubt about what they will accomplish. For example, ‘Start your will online’ is absolutely clear about what the user can do with the service. ‘CITRUS’ (now defunct), on the other hand, could literally be anything.

4.Structure content to reflect how your users understand things working

People’s language also tells us a great deal about how they see and understand things working. The discipline of content design uses that information to understand the best way to communicate with the user – not just in the words used on a screen, but in the way the whole flow through a product is structured and presented.

When we were creating How do I, there was an assumption that we’d organise content according to the names of departments in our retail support centre. It didn’t take many interviews with colleagues to find out very few people knew these names or understood what they meant. Using department names to organise content wouldn’t have been helpful to our store colleagues, because they are often not (and shouldn’t have to be) concerned about the intricacies of our internal structures.

To find a more appropriate, user-centred way of organising the content (often called ‘information architecture’), the content designers ran card sorting exercises to find out how store colleagues naturally grouped different tasks. Unsurprisingly, the results didn’t reflect our organisational structures, but were consistent with how they understood things working. For example, previously procedures for asking a customer for ID or dealing with lost property had been grouped under a department named ‘Safe and secure’. Now they sat in categories that made sense to colleagues, and we could make the website easier to use and navigate from the earliest stage of development, directly contributing to its commercial success.

Exercises like card sorting can be powerful methods to help you organise content into a structure that stands the test of time – organisational structures and department names might change (as Safe and secure did a few months later), but mental models are less likely to.

5.Design content that works for the way people behave online

Writing for digital services is different to writing for print. Online, people don’t read – they scavenge, jumping around a page, ready to zone in on the words or terms they’re looking for. This means it’s really important to structure content and use words in a way that takes this behaviour into account – from plain language and short sentences, through to easily-navigable pages with clear and descriptive sub-headers for different sections.

Our content designer Matt Edwards transformed the way this content about colleague purchasing is presented. He changed it from this: 

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 15.30.14

To this:

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 15.35.23

Even in the absence of research about how people are using content in your service, a content designer can create content that’s optimised for the web. This means in your early testing and research, your content might not be quite right yet, but you won’t waste time on iterating it to reflect the way people read.

So what?

By considering all this up front, you won’t just end up with better content. Your design process will be quicker, beginning with a better understanding of the problem. If you’re going to jump to putting content into prototypes without thinking about the language people use or how they interact with content online, you may as well use Lorem Ipsum – either way you’d need to replace it with the real thing eventually, which could potentially mean undoing earlier decisions. So it’s much better to approach the content properly first and start learning faster.

Your team will also be able to talk more clearly and confidently about the service you’re creating, and it’ll have a name that makes sense to everyone.

The Content community can help

If you don’t have a content designer on your team and need help working through some of these issues, contact the Content community of practice. We’re a digital-led community of content designers, strategists and creators, who set the standards for clear, inclusive and user-focused content across Co-op. We’re always happy to help teams solve their content problems.

Hannah Horton
Principal content designer

We’re hiring a content designer to join our team. If you can take a user needs approach to content and have experience of making complex things easy to understand, we’d love to hear from you. See the job description.