12 things we learnt about creating effective surveys

At Co-op Digital we sometimes use surveys to get (mostly) quantitative feedback from users. They’re quick, cheap and they’re a useful research technique to capture data at scale.

But they can also be a waste of time and effort if we do not ask the right questions in a way that will give us meaningful answers.

We’ve compiled a list of things we keep in mind when we’re creating surveys.

Strive for meaningful data

1. Be clear on the purpose of the survey

We consider what we want to be able to do as a result of the survey. For example, when we’ve collated the responses, we want to be able to make a decision about doing (and sometimes *not* doing) something. To create an effective survey, we must know how we’ll act on each of the things we learn from it.

We give our survey a goal and consider what we want to know, and who we need to ask, then draft questions that help us achieve that goal.

2. Make sure each question supports the survey’s purpose

We keep in mind what we want to do with the survey responses, and make sure each question we ask is relevant and presented in a way that will return meaningful data from participants. If we can’t explain how the data we’ll get back will help us, we don’t ask that question.

We know that the more questions we ask, the more time we ask of our users, and the more likely they will be to drop out.

3. Check a survey is the most appropriate format

It can be tempting to cram in as many questions as possible because it’ll mean we get lots of data back. But quantity doesn’t translate to quality. Consider the times you’ve rushed through a long survey and justified giving inaccurate or meaningless answers just to get through it quickly. When we find ourselves wanting to ask lots of questions – especially ones with free text boxes – a survey isn’t the most appropriate format to gather feedback. An interview might be.

Consider what we’re asking and how we’re asking for it

4. Use free text boxes carefully

Free text boxes which allow people to type a response in their own words can be invaluable in helping us learn about the language that users naturally use around our subject matter.

But they can also be intimidating. The lack of structure means people can get worried about their grammar and how to compose what they’re saying, especially if they have low literacy or certain cognitive conditions. For many people they can be time-consuming, and so can make drop out more likely.

If we use free text boxes, we make them optional where possible. It can also increase completion rates if they’re positioned at the end of the survey – participants may be more invested and so more likely to complete them if they know they’re near the end.

5. One question at a time

Be considerate when you ask questions. To reduce the cognitive load on participants, reduce distraction and ask one question at a time. Ask it once. Clearly. And collect the answer.

Questions like ‘How do you use ‘X’, what’s good about it, what’s bad?’ are overwhelming. And then giving a single box to collect all 3 answers, often end up collecting incomplete answers. A participant will quite often answer only one of those 3 questions.

6. Ask questions that relate to current behaviour

People are not a good judge of their future actions so we don’t ask how they will behave in future. It’s easy for a participant to have good intentions about how they will, or would, behave or react to something but their answer may be an unintentionally inaccurate representation. Instead, we ask about how people have behaved, because it gives us more accurate, useful and actionable insights. “The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour,” as the saying goes.

7. If we ask for personal information, we explain why

Participants are often asked for their gender, sex, age or location in surveys but often nothing will be done with that data. If there’s no reason to ask for it, we don’t.

When there is a valid reason to ask for personal information, we explain why we’re asking.

For example, in the Co-op Health app we ask for an email address so that we can send essential service updates. Without explaining why we were asking for it, many people were reluctant to give their email because they thought they were going to get spam. By explaining the reason we were asking, and how the information will be used, the user was able to decide whether they wanted to proceed.

Explaining why we’re asking for personal information is essential in creating transparent and open dialogue. It gives users the context they need to make informed decisions.

8. Avoid bias. Show the full picture

Give participants context. For example, an online survey might reveal a snippet of text for a limited amount of time in order to find out how well participants retained the information. If the survey results say that 90% of people retained the information, that’s great but it doesn’t necessarily mean that was conclusively the best way to present the information – that’s only one of the possible ways of presenting the text. In these cases it’s better to do a multivariant test and use multiple examples to really validate our choices.

Be inclusive, be considerate

9. Avoid time estimates

Many surveys give an indication of how long the survey will take to complete. Setting expectations seems helpful but it’s often not for those who with poor vision, dyslexia or English as a second language. It also rarely takes into account people wo are stressed, distracted or are emotionally affected by the subject matter. Instead, we tend to be more objective when setting expectations and say how many questions there are.

10. Don’t tell participants how to feel

A team working on a service will often unthinkingly describe their service as being ‘quick’, ‘easy’, ‘convenient’ or similar. However, these terms are subjective and may not be how our users experience the service. We should be aware of our bias when we draft survey questions. So not, ‘how easy was it to use this service?’, which suggests that the service was easy to begin with, but ‘tell us about your experience using this service’.

11. Consider what people might be going through

Often, seemingly straight-forward questions can have emotional triggers.

Asking questions about family members, relationships or personal circumstances can be difficult if the user is in a complex or non-traditional situation. If someone is recently separated, bereaved or going through hardship, they could also be distressing.

If we have to ask for personal information, we consider circumstances and struggles that could make answering this difficult for people. We try to include the context that these people need to answer the question as easily as possible.

12. Give participants a choice about following up

Sometimes survey answers will be particularly interesting and we may not get all the information we want. At the end of the survey, we ask participants if they’d be happy to talk to us in the future.

We also give people a choice about how we follow up with them. Some people may be uncomfortable using a phone, some may struggle to meet you face to face, some may not be confident using certain technologies. Ask the user how they want us to contact them – it’s respectful, inclusive and is more likely to encourage a positive response.

When choosing who to follow up with, avoid participants that were either extremely positive or negative – they’ll can skew your data.

Time is precious – keep that in mind

At the end of the day, when people fill out a survey, they feel something about your brand, organisation or cause. They may like you or they may just want their complaint heard. Sometimes, they’re filling out your survey because they’re being compensated. Whatever the reason, view it as them doing you a favour and be respectful of their circumstance and time.

If you’ve got any tips to share, leave a comment.

Joanne Schofield, Lead content designer
Tom Walker, Lead user researcher

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

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.

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

Why FAQs aren’t the answer you’ve been looking for

I was recently sent an email with a very polite request asking me, as the content designer on our team, whether we could add frequently asked questions (FAQs) to coop.co.uk.

The request was well intentioned. The sender had seen someone asking a question about one of the Co-op’s services, and naturally had wanted to help them. Alongside that, there were perceived business benefits to adding FAQs too: reducing the number of calls colleagues would need to answer.

As content designers, we balance business needs with user needs but we always put the user first. We give people the information they need, clearly, once, at the point they need it. We consider where the user is and what they’re trying to do.

Every situation is different, but we can advise Co-op teams if they’re receiving lots of questions about their product or service. However, this post outlines general reasons for opting against FAQs.

FAQs don’t solve the real problem

Imagine if you ran a walk-in barber’s shop. As a competent small business owner you’d have the opening times on your door and on your website. But I imagine that the most common question a barber is asked over the phone is:

“Are you open on x day at y time?”

You might want to reduce the calls like this coming in but the people phoning you up aren’t calling because they looked at your opening times on your door or website and didn’t understand when you’re open or not. They weren’t outside your door or on your website in the first place, so adding your opening times into a FAQ section on either of these places won’t stop the calls.

FAQs are unlikely to answer the exact question a user has

FAQs force users to navigate (or, wade through) your content by questions they may have, rather than look for the information that they know would answer it.

Recently, a local paper presented an ‘all you need to know about our exciting running event, including start times and route’ as FAQs. The content gave lots of information presented as ‘answers’ including what the route was, whether it had changed since last year, where you could park, where the toilets were, where the finish line was. But all those ‘questions’ (and many, many more) could be answered simply and clearly by a route map. This would have been a clearer, quicker-to-grasp way to present the information.

Time-consuming hard work for users

Using the same example, I wanted to know what time the run itself started.

I had to scroll through reams of information in the FAQs before finding out that: “Runners must be ‘in their pens’ at 10.30am”.

As a spectator, I’d presumed the FAQ would be: “What time does the race start?” The FAQs writer seems to have chosen to answer the question from a runner: “What time do I need to be in my pen?” The ‘answer’ available was certainly related to my question but only really gave me half an answer. And I’d read a lot of information I didn’t need.

A user can only guess what you’ve chosen to be an FAQ. This means every user has to look at every question and answer to find out if it answers their need. Even if their query is covered it’ll take a long time.

If it isn’t covered (or they don’t see the information they need), they’ll phone you up anyway. And they’re more likely to be annoyed.

Like all content, FAQs need maintenance

Often FAQs repeat information found elsewhere, but as a ‘quick’ or more ‘friendly’ summary. But once you start duplicating information, even if you remember all the different places that information is located, you’re increasing the work you have to do in future.

The FAQs I was asked to add concerned a page that already contained a PDF manual of how to use the service in question, and that did (in a more detailed way) answer the same questions. Attempting to summarise or simplify main problems has a need, but the problem was one ‘answer’ gave a completely different process to that in the manual.

Iterate the content you already have

All content should have an owner – someone committed to updating it for factual accuracy as well as keeping an eye out for if it still meets user needs. If you find that the same questions are being asked regularly, revisit your original content.

You’ll find one of 2 things:

  1. The information is missing.
  2. The information is in the wrong place.

If it’s missing, add it in in clear language in the place that would make sense to your user.

If you think you’ve already given the answer to the question, then it’s either the wrong answer, or it’s in the wrong place.

Put your effort into working on that. Start by asking the people who are asking the questions if they’ve seen the original information. If they have, it needs work because they didn’t understand it. If they haven’t, it’s in the wrong place.

If it’s in the wrong place, consider where else it could be placed. Where are your users before they’re asking the questions. For example, it may be that you should add information into a welcome email not a website. Perhaps you should put it out on social media?

And finally, talking to a content designer is really a good first step. You can email the Content community.

Tom Adams
Lead content designer

Making things simpler for colleagues on colleagues.coop.co.uk

Photograph from over the shoulder of a Co-op Digital colleague who is using the update colleague site on their phone.

We’re redesigning the Co-op Colleagues website and updating its content to make the navigation easier and the information more helpful to colleagues.

The problem we want to solve

There are lots of places where colleagues can find information about our policies, procedures and working at the Co-op. This is confusing because:

  1. We’ve never flagged one channel as the single, definitive place to find information.
  2. The information we give across the different channels doesn’t always say the same thing.

We’re now working with our internal comms team to make colleagues.coop.co.uk the main place to find out about being a Co-op colleague. It will help people who work here with everything from checking when they get paid through to finding out what to do before they go on maternity leave.

Favouring a website over the intranet

When we built the site a couple of years ago, we put it straight into the public domain, even though the main audience is people who work here at Co-op. It was a quick proof of concept, to show we could be open about our policies and procedures and make them more user-friendly. Doing it this way meant one Google search from any device could get a colleague straight to the information they need, without having to get onto our network or remember log-in details.

The best way to make information available to everyone who needs it is to make it open – that’s why the right product decision was to build a website rather than pour time into redeveloping our existing intranet.

There are other problems with the intranet too. Around 80% of our staff can’t access it because they work in our stores and warehouses and don’t have a work email address to log in with. For those who can log in, the search doesn’t work very well and the navigation isn’t intuitive. It’s not surprising many colleagues can’t find what they need and end up phoning our internal call centres for help, which takes longer, causes frustration and costs us more.

We’ve created a content ‘quality filter’

To avoid the Colleagues site going the same way as the intranet, we want to empower colleagues to help themselves. So we’ve created a proposition that provides a quality filter for everything that goes on the site.

All content must:

  • have a clear user need
  • be about being a Co-op colleague
  • have a named content owner who’s committed to reviewing it at least once a year

If a piece of content doesn’t fit these requirements, it doesn’t go on.

A big culture shift

People are used to being able to publish any content they want to our colleagues – our proposition takes away that right. Everything for the site will now be reviewed, edited or created by a small team of trained editors from around Co-op. They will make sure everything fits the proposition and is designed to help users find out how to complete their task as quickly and easily as possible.

That’s why we’ve written guidelines for creating content completely open too. We’re asking a lot from people, so it’s only right that we’re completely open about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. Then they can hold us to the standards we’re trying to set.

Where we’re going from here

We’ve already made some changes with support from Code Computer Love, but we’ll continue to add new content and restructure what’s already there over the coming months. We’ll also continue to review and iterate the guidelines to make sure they’re helping our editors to create content that meets our colleagues’ needs.

There’s a feedback button at the bottom of every page, so please let us know how we’re doing.

Hannah Horton
Content Community Lead

Our writing guidelines (they’re for everyone, not just for writers)

Words matter. The words we choose and the way we present them is vitally important to how users interact with our services, our products, our brand.

And although most of us create, use or interact with content on a daily basis, the words and the content design is hard to get right.

Most people are time-poor and have a lot of things competing for their attention. So if we want our content to be effective, we need to get it to them:

  • quickly
  • in a way they understand
  • through the most effective or expected channel
  • at the time that’s best for them

Doing the above helps us meets the needs of the people who are interacting with us, shows respect for their time, and makes our messages, services and brand more successful.  

Working with words at the Co-op

Co-op has a community of content designers, creative writers, editors, social media experts and copywriters who are making interacting with the Co-op more straightforward and effective. We work across a range of services, departments and channels to create content that puts the user first.

But absolutely everyone across the Co-op, no matter what their job role, communicates to different audiences, for different purposes. This makes it hard for our approach and our messages to be consistent.

We’ve written guidelines to help

We hope these pointers will help people put the needs of the people they’re communicating with first. Each tip is based on things we’ve learnt about how people read, how they speak, their motivations, anxieties and their priorities.

Of course, the guidelines will evolve based on feedback. We’d love to know what you think so let us know in the comments or email content@coopdigital.co.uk

Co-op Digital writing guidelines

Be respectful
People talk about things in different ways.
Use words your audience understands.

Be clear
People don’t know what you know.
Don’t make assumptions about people’s knowledge.

Be considered
Too much content complicates your message.
Use the right words, not more words.

Be sensitive
People arrive at your content with different experiences, insecurities and struggles.
Put yourself in their shoes.

Be inclusive
Jargon and acronyms confuse and alienate people.
If you have to use them, explain what they mean.

Be purposeful
People are busy.
Find out what they need to know and give it to them quickly.

Writing’s on the wall

We’ve made a set of posters on the guidelines and they’re starting to appear on various walls around Federation House and Angel Square. We’re hoping they’ll remind people to be mindful when they’re communicating – to help them make each word count.

You can download our writing guidelines now.

Thank you to Jack Fletcher for designing these posters.

Jo Schofield
Content designer

 

From digital design manual to design system

In January 2017 we released our digital design manual. Now, 18 months later, the design manual has evolved into a design system.

Although it’s been live for months, it’s still (and always will be) a work in progress. We’re sharing it now in line with one of our design principles: ‘we design in the open’.

You can see the Co-op Digital design system at coop.co.uk/designsystem

Evolution of the design manual

The aim of the design manual was to help teams release things faster so they could focus on user needs rather than on making basic design decisions. We iterated and added new pages as and when there was a need, for example, we added guidance on forms, guidance on tables and our secondary colour palette.

But a year after its release, we were at a point where more of our digital services were going live, so we revisited the design manual and asked if it could be more useful.

What we learnt from our users

We asked our design, content design and user research community how well they felt the guidance in the design manual was serving its purpose. Feedback was mixed but most people felt that it didn’t quite cover enough.

A workshop made it clear that users wanted:

  • example-driven patterns
  • guidance on when to use specific design and content patterns
  • examples of ‘experimental’ patterns
  • all guidance in one place

Afterwards, we dedicated time to making some major changes to the content as well as the navigation and layout.

Design system – nice for what?

We found lots of excellent examples of design systems in our research but good, solid design systems are good and solid because they’re unique to the organisation or business they belong to – they meet the needs of designers, content designers and researchers who work there.

The Co-op Digital design system includes our:

  • pattern library
  • content style guide
  • guidance on our design thinking
  • design, user research and content design principles
  • tools (front-end and prototyping kits)
  • resources (Sketch files and brand assets)

Most importantly it’s a living document. Like all good design systems, ours will never really be ‘finished’ but it’ll evolve as our teams and services do. Over the past 6 months we’ve established processes that allow our team members to contribute to the system.

We audited our existing design work and looked for similarities and opportunities to create familiarity. We’ve also spent a lot of time building the foundations for a stronger and more collaborative team through workshops, design crits and making sure we design in the open.

Familiarity over consistency

The Co-op is an organisation with very distinct businesses which all need to communicate with Co-op members, customers and users in an appropriate and relevant way. For example, the way we communicate with a customer in a food store is likely to be very different to how we speak to a customer in a funeral home.

So it’s likely that our services might feel different. And that’s ok, as long they feel familiar.

A design system lets us create this familiarity. It should lead to a much more unified experience when they interact with different Co-op services.

Pattern library

We’ve started creating a library of design patterns – this is the most significant addition to our previous guidance. It doesn’t replace our design guidelines, it just pulls out the useful stuff we learnt designers look for when they’re designing a service. 

Each pattern will have:

  • an example, ie, a visual example of the pattern
  • an associated user need
  • design guidance, ie, how you use it
  • accessibility guidance

Our colour palette pattern is a good example.

The library will be the de facto standard for how we display certain types of information.

Anyone at Co-op can contribute by submitting their pattern to the design community. They can do this by filling in a form justifying why users outside their service might benefit from this pattern or, why what they have created is an improvement on a current one.

Evolution of the design system

We want to continuously improve the guidance designers are looking for. To help us do this we’ll speak to more of the external teams that work with us and invite our colleagues in the Brand and Marketing teams to contribute their own guidance. We’ll also put the system to the test with teams as they build more Co-op services.

Watch this space.

Jack Sheppard
Matt Tyas

How Co-op Insurance is making its marketing terms and conditions more accessible

Most people need insurance at some point in their lives but so few people read the small print before buying it. It’s not laziness on the part of the customer, member or consumer – it’s lazy content and bad design.

At Co-op Insurance, we’ve been making changes to our marketing terms and conditions (T&Cs) because we believe that everyone deserves to understand what they’re agreeing to when they tick a box or sign their name.

Part of my job as a direct marketing consultant at Co-op Insurance is to look after the leaflets and customer letters we send out. I teamed up with Sophy Colbert (a content designer at Co-op Digital at the time) to work out how we could present the small print in a clearer, more succinct way so we don’t alienate people with legal jargon.

Understanding the challenges

Regulations from the Financial Conduct Authority mean that there are certain things that we need to include. Thankfully, how we say them can sometimes be flexible. But writing T&Cs that are easy to understand, as well as legally compliant, isn’t easy.

When writing the legal parts, there’s a tendency to include more information to be certain that all bases are covered – there’s a misconception that saying something in a long-winded way might reduce risk. This is not only problematic from a plain English point of view but also in terms of the limited space there is.

We believe that through good content design and good visual design we can move away from this approach: instead we can say things once, clearly.

A simpler layout

Before we changed much of the copy, we changed the layout. Here’s an example of a leaflet from May 2017:

From May 2017, an example of how the T&Cs used to look. Text is in one big block. Hard to read.

And here’s our communication from June 2018:Example of Co-op Insurance communication from June 2018. Shorter copy, less crowded layout, easier to read.

Putting the terms into columns and adding subheadings makes the content feel less daunting because the shorter lines make it easier to read. Laying things out like this also makes it easier for us to check there isn’t any repetition.

Making the language accessible

According to the National Literacy Trust, around 15%, or 5.1 million adults in England have literacy levels at, or below, those expected of an 11-year-old. This means they can understand short, simple texts from everyday sources on familiar topics, but reading information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics like terms and conditions for example, is likely to be difficult for them.

With this in mind we’ve:

  1. Explained any terminology that we’ve been advised not to reword completely.
  2. Got rid of repetition.
  3. Been consistent with our choice of language.
  4. Improved the flow of the copy by taking out a lot of the brackets and incorporating information into the main sentences.

Nobody should be excluded from understanding what they’re agreeing to. Communicating simply and clearly is not only the right thing to do but it will help us build greater trust.

Increasing white space

Adjusting the space between letters and lines of text can make a big difference to how easy the copy is to read. We’ve made the size of the terms text slightly smaller than it was before, which might seem counterintuitive, but doing this meant we could add more space between individual letters, making it easier for the eye to identify the shape of a word. Making the type slightly smaller also means that we can increase the line spacing, or ‘leading’, slightly which makes it easier to scan.

The right thing to do

We believe we have a responsibility to make our marketing easy to understand and accessible to all customers and potential customers. This is our first step. We know we have a long way to go but content designers across Co-op are committed to inclusive design.

It’ll take time but we’ll get there.

Give us your feedback

We’d like your feedback on how we can improve further. How can we open up our communication more so that it’s accessible to even more people? Let us know in the comments.

Vicky Lowry, direct marketing consultant at Co-op Insurance
Sophy Colbert, content designer (ex) Co-op Digital

Making a will can be daunting. We’re trying to change that.

How changing where we give content has made our digital service easier for users.

I’m Joanne, a content designer working on the wills digital service. We’re building a new way for people to tell us what they want in their will.

Content design is finding out why people come to a web page – what they came to find out, order, apply for  –  and giving them this information:

  • in a way they understand
  • through the most appropriate channel
  • at the time they need it

How and when we give users information is critical for our service.

Why we need to make wills easy to understand

A lot of people find wills intimidating because of the complex terminology used. When you make a will you’re asked to make decisions about your:

  • ‘estate’ (the things you own when you die)
  • ‘executors’ (the people who manage your will when you’ve died)
  • ‘beneficiaries’ (the people or charities you want to leave things to)

We’re asking people to learn new concepts and unfamiliar terminology. We then ask them to make important decisions based on what they understand of these concepts. We need to make this easy, so people can be certain they’re making the right decision.

How we started trying to make it easy

We started by breaking up definitions of complex concepts using short, simple sentences and paragraphs written in a clear way. We presented this content over a few web pages before showing a screen asking the user to fill in the related question.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

We know users tend to read very little on the web – studies show only 16% of people read web pages word-for-word . We thought that by forcing users through these pages of information, it’s more likely that they’d take the time to read them, and therefore more likely that they’d be able to make an informed decision.

Initially it seemed to work. People commented on how straight-forward it seemed – it felt easy, not complex.

But, people were impatient

The further people got through the form, the less they were reading. They were scanning the pages, clicking through them quickly, and missing a lot of the information.

When they were asked a question, they skipped back and forth between screens to remind themselves of the concepts they needed to understand to answer. One person took pictures of the pages before moving on.

People were finding it time-consuming and frustrating.

And, we knew it was likely that this frustration would increase if users:

  • were in a busy environment
  • had short-term memory problems
  • had English as a second language

We realised we couldn’t truly rely on users reading, understanding and remembering the earlier information, even if we knew they would have passed through it.

We needed to rethink where and when we gave users information.

Make it easier, make it successful

By asking users to read information on one page and remember it later, we were increasing the mental and physical effort we were asking them to go through (called the ‘interaction cost’).

Having to go back to be reminded of information – finding the back button, clicking it, waiting for pages to load – also increases the interaction cost.

Research shows that usage goes down as the interaction cost goes up. So, to give our service a better chance of success, we needed to lower the effort involved to use it.

Give information at the point it’s needed

So we moved the information to the same page as the question – to the point the user needs to refer to it to make a decision.

In places, this made the pages long.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

So, we:

  • kept the sentence and paragraphs clear and succinct
  • broke up lists into bullet points
  • interspersed the content with logical subheadings

This makes the text easier to scan – users can jump to the section they need without having to travel to a separate section or memorise information.

We’ve reduced the effort required to use our service and reduced frustration.

We’re giving users what they need, when they need it.

Joanne Schofield