Improving customer experience with content design: how we joined up services in different business areas

If someone is arranging a funeral, we know that they often also need probate. Probate is the legal process of dealing with someone’s money, property and possessions after they have died.  

Co-op offers both services but they are operated by 2 different Co-op businesses: arranging a funeral is owned by Co-op Funeralcare, and applying for probate is owned by Co-op Legal Services. But the way we’re organised internally is irrelevant to customers – what matters to them is a cohesive journey and a frictionless experience. 

We wanted to join up the services to create a seamless experience that helps our customers understand what they need to do, and get what they need. 

Bringing the services closer together 

We started by understanding the existing customer experience. We spoke to people who had recently arranged a funeral, and learned that many did not:  

  • understand probate or whether they needed it  
  • know that Co-op Legal Services offered probate  
  • know that they could get the cost of the funeral covered if they used Co-op Legal Services for probate

We wanted to help people understand if they needed probate and, if they did, make it straightforward for them to get it. We also wanted to make it clear when probate wasn’t needed, to reduce stress and avoid wasting people’s time. 

And we could do this by: 

  • understanding what the existing user journeys were 
  • learning from customers and colleagues 
  • explaining probate at the points where it was most relevant 
  • making it clear what probate is and when it’s needed  
  • using clear, understandable language  

Understanding what exists  

Helen Lawson facilitated a content audit. That’s a thorough analysis of the existing content to help us identify the points where it’s relevant to talk about probate. We are a business and although making money is one of our aims, it doesn’t mean shoehorning sales opportunities into a user journey at inappropriate times. We wanted to understand where it was genuinely in the customer’s best interest to know about probate. For example, when we write about costs, we could explain how Co-op Legal Services could cover the cost of the funeral upfront if the customer uses them for probate. 

We had to be deliberate. We understand our funeral customers are often distressed and have many competing priorities. We knew we didn’t want to get in the way of them completing the task they came to do – arranging a funeral. If we did, we’d make the process more stressful and more time consuming, and we’d increase the risk of them leaving the site and going elsewhere. So, to avoid getting in our customers’ way, it was just as important to decide where not to put the content. 

It was a collaborative effort. We relied on: 

  • the knowledge of people who dealt with our Funeralcare customers 
  • the expertise of colleagues in Funeralcare and Legal Services 
  • insights from research with people who had recently arranged a funeral 
  • our skills in content, design, data and customer experience  

Designing the content  

Probate is complicated. To make it understandable, and not get in the way, we need to be clear and get to the point fast.  

We explain what probate is in clear English. 

image text says:
Co-op Legal Services could pay for the funeral from the estate
If you instruct Co-op Legal Services to carry out probate, they could cover the cost of the funeral up front. Probate is the legal process of dealing with someone’s money, property and possessions after they have died.

They get the money back from the ‘estate’ (the things that the person owned), later.

Not everyone needs probate. It’s unlikely to be needed if the person who died:

did not own a house in their sole name
had less than £20,000 in the bank
Probate can be complicated. There are usually legal and financial matters to sort out and it can take months to finish everything that's needed.

Check if you need probate

We knew we couldn’t assume that our customers had any prior knowledge of the subject matter. Many may never have had to deal with a funeral before, and even if they have, that might not have involved dealing with probate. If we use complex terminology without explaining it, we risk overwhelming, frustrating, and alienating people. So where we could, we used clear English, to make it easier and quicker for people to understand. Where we had to use legal terminology, we explained it in understandable terms. Doing this makes us more inclusive. 

We explained when probate might not be needed.  

We did this to help get relevant information to people quickly– so that the people who don’t need probate don’t waste their time calling us. And the people who do need it, are directed to call us – that means we get the right help, to the right people. It saves our customers, and us, time. 

We also did some other things across the Funeralcare journey: 

  • broke up the text with more sub-headings and into smaller paragraphs which are easier for people to read  
  • used bullets for lists so people can scan them more easily 
  • linked out rather than duplicated content – reducing content maintenance costs as it only has to be kept up to date in one place 
  • moved relevant actions up the page, so we can help people earlier in their journey, without overwhelming them with content  
  • included links to the bereavement notification service, which is a free service for people who arrange a funeral with us, so especially relevant to our audience 

It worked 

As a result of the content changes on the webpages, 35% of all Funeralcare traffic now check if they need probate as part of their journey. 

The most effective services are those which are focused on the customer’s needs and those which are not bound by departmental silos. By focusing on making the customer’s experience better, across whatever channels and departments that involves, we can create services that help people, increase loyalty and make our business more successful. 

Joanne Schofield

Lead content designer

The similarities and differences between content design and other content disciplines 

Before we became part of the Co-op Content Design community, Marianne worked in marketing and communications, and Mary was a copywriter. Like most content designers and content strategists at Co-op, we moved into this discipline from roles that also demanded strong writing skills. At Co-op, we work alongside many disciplines that also depend on well-crafted written words, for example, the Brand, Marketing, Communications, and the PR teams.  

We’re writing this post to unpick some of the similarities and differences between content design at Co-op, and our experience of other content disciplines. We hope that by sharing this we can improve understanding of how these disciplines can relate and even overlap, but also highlight the things that are specific to content design within multi-disciplinary teams. 

photograph of marianne and mary looking at post-it notes on a white board
Marianne and Mary in a workshop.

What content design means at Co-op 

Content design is about putting the right thing, in the right place, at the right time and in the right format. 

That’s how our Content community defines what we do. 

For us, good content design:  

  • meets a user need (this means it has a well-defined purpose and fulfils it) 
  • is accessible to everyone 
  • can be understood by everyone  

Content designers zoom in and look at the details. For example, we choose the words that create long or short-form content. But we also look at a wider context. We decide whether we need to create content at all. If we conclude that we do, we ask where it should live, and in which order and format it should be presented so that it clearly conveys meaning to the reader.  

If it’s not accessible, it’s not good content design 

Accessibility underpins everything we do in the Co-op Experience team. It means we build products and services that everyone can use, including people: 

  • who have a disability or condition 
  • with English as their second language 
  • with low literacy 
  • who are not confident using digital technology 

This means designing content that everyone understands, and navigation that everyone can use. Co-op has an accessibility policy and accessibility guidelines

As content designers, we choose words that are clear not clever. 

That can take some getting used to when you’ve worked as a copywriter. We had some bad habits to unlearn from previous roles. For example, we would often plaster over complex processes with words and phrases like: 

  • quick and simple 
  • this only takes 2 minutes 
  • you’ll need your NHS number handy 

We were assuming a certain level of speed or ability. In reality, what’s easy for one user might be difficult for another. User research told us that putting your phone down, climbing upstairs and rifling through old letters to find your NHS number was not ‘handy’. Some people might struggle to do this at all. Deleting one word can make all the difference and, in this example, it makes more sense to more people if we leave ‘handy’ out.  

Joanne Schofield digs deeper into this idea in her post We are not our users: we should not tell them how to feel

You’re the expert, you own it 

Before becoming content designers, we worked in teams according to our specialism at the time. For example, a communications team is usually made up of several comms specialists and there’s usually a hierarchy within it. It’s the same for digital marketing experts, PR people, or editorial teams. 

At Co-op, it’s different. Here, our expertise sits alongside other sets of expertise and we’re part of multi-disciplinary teams that include service designers, interaction designers, researchers, delivery managers, front end developers, engineers, business analysts. We also work with subject matter experts like store managers in the Co-op Food business and leaders of community projects. 

We each bring our different but complementary skill sets to the team, and we work together to deliver a cohesive customer (or colleague) experience. Often, there will only be one expert in a certain discipline per team. This means we’re empowered to make decisions on the things that fall under our remit.  

Support from the content design community of practice 

As content designers, sense-checking and support comes from our community of practice (CoP). This is a safe space for others in similar roles across different product or service teams. 

At Co-op, the Content CoP gets together twice a month. We learn by sharing, seeing or discussing content in different contexts. This often involves content designers asking for feedback on presentations or prototypes through a ‘content crit’ (group critiques), or we talk through case studies to share what has been successful. CoPs provide the kind of support that content creators might experience from their team in a traditional editorial or writing role.  

“Meeting twice a month with likeminded content people is brilliant, and taking part in content crits has helped me become less protective of my work.” 

Sophie Newbery, content designer, Funeralcare 

All good content is grounded in good research 

Whether it’s content marketing, PR, video journalism, or magazine feature writing, successful content depends on thorough research and a good understanding of your audience. We work alongside dedicated user researchers whose role is to help the team learn about our users so we can design the right thing for them. 

Together we: 

  • facilitate usability and accessibility testing 
  • observe and take notes in research interviews 
  • go through all the research findings together 
  • build service maps to understand the customer experience 

Content designers at Co-op gather data and evidence from many sources. We do quantitative research with tools like Google Analytics and qualitative research by listening to and observing our users. We combine this with desk research, market research and insights from focus groups – methods that we learnt from our marketing and communications roles. 

“The Co-op’s Experience Library is a collection of guidelines, tools and resources to help us create better customer experiences at Co-op. Everything in it has been researched and iterated based on research findings. This means we can be confident that the advice, templates and patterns that the library provides can be used as foundations for teams to meet their colleagues’ and customers’ needs.”  

Jo Schofield, lead content designer 

If content doesn’t succeed at first, we iterate 

‘Iterating’ means improving content in-line with regular feedback from users. 

The beauty of digital content is that you can track, monitor and improve it. This is an example of iterative design and it’s a luxury that other disciplines do not have, for example, any mass-produced printed material.   

Small changes can make a big difference to the reach or the impact. 

In 2021, for example, we were challenged with how Co-op can support grassroots community groups beyond funding. We identified an opportunity to join up 2 different services that already exist: 

  • Co-op Local Community Fund, which meets the need for funding 
  • Co-operate, an online community centre, which meets the need for finding volunteers and raising awareness of their group 

When applying for funding, users now promote their group on Co-operate at the same time. 

One risk with joining up 2 forms was that users would promote their group on Co-operate and exit the journey – without continuing to apply for funding, which was their main goal. 

To help the user, we added content at crucial points to explain where they were in the journey: 

Thanks for adding your group to Co-operate 

Next, apply for funding 

To apply for the Co-op Local Community Fund, complete the next 8 steps. 

We guided around 10,000 applicants through the form and achieved our target of onboarding all applicants to Co-operate. In this year’s iteration, we’re exploring whether using a visual to demonstrate progress helps support the content: 

The fund happens every year. We’ll continue to iterate and improve on the journey each time, based on what we learn from data and evidence. 

There’s still so much to learn 

We’re always developing our craft as content designers and we’re still learning every day. We’re both glad we made the change to work in an environment that puts people and accessibility first. 

Our Content community of practice (CoP) meets online every fortnight. If you’re a Co-op colleague and would like to join us, contact us for an invitation.   

Mary Sanigar, content designer and former copywriter  

Marianne Knowles, lead content designer and former marketing and communications writer 


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Inclusive, accessible services: the importance of content design

We want as many people as possible to be able to use Co-op products and services. Aside from it being good business sense, we know that being inclusive with our design is the right thing to do. 

We’ve posted before that we are committed to further improving inclusivity. However, we haven’t explicitly spoken about the importance of content design in making services accessible. At Co-op, we design content to open up our services so that as many people as possible can: 

  • find them 
  • use them 
  • understand them 
  • trust them 

Often, when we think of accessibility, there’s a tendency to think about colour contrast, screen readers and typefaces. All of them are important, but no more so than clear and well-considered content design. 

Here’s why:

1. We use words people understand

We design content so that as many people as possible can understand what we’re saying. So we write using plain English – everyday, familiar words without unnecessary jargon.

We research words that our users use and reflect these in our products and services – these might not be the words we use at Co-op, or the way we want people to refer to things officially. But doing this makes what we’re saying more understandable, relatable and increases trust between us and our users. 

If we use unfamiliar or complex terms, it can:

  • cause confusion
  • be misleading
  • add additional mental effort
  • leave room for doubt  
  • mean the difference between people using our services and not   

We use objective and neutral language that does not make assumptions about our audience, their circumstances or what they might be going through. We design so that no one is alienated, and in doing so, open up our services so they can be used by more people.

2. We do not use words if something else works better  

Content design means giving information to people in a way that’s most effective. This may not always be words. Some things can be more meaningful and quicker for people to understand in a different format –  for example, a video illustrating how to change a till roll, or a calculator to give tailored financial information.

We do research to understand users’ mental models – how the user believes or understands things to work. This helps us work out the easiest way for them to consume information. We hide complexity where we can to make content and interactions relevant to our users. 

By being deliberate about the format of our content we:

  • make things quicker for people to use
  • increase understanding
  • remove ambiguity and doubt

3. We remove things that are unnecessary  

People often come to services to find information, buy something, or report something. They want to do the thing and then leave quickly. If there’s information on a page that’s not relevant to them it can become overwhelming and confusing. So we edit ruthlessly. We give only the essential information people need to achieve their goal.

Although we write in a familiar and friendly way, we are not overfamiliar. As well as replacing any jargon with plain English (or at least plain English definitions), we remove any figures of speech that could be confusing, misinterpreted or meaningless to people. 

We do not use metaphors like ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’, or similes like ‘clear as mud’ – they can be confusing if you’ve not heard them before. As Helen Lawson pointed out poignantly in her recent blog post, ‘The principles that guide our content design and communications in Funeralcare’, some misunderstandings can also be distressing.

We use playful content, in the appropriate context, but not at the expense of usability. If something could be misinterpreted, misunderstood or incomprehensible to people, we get rid of it.

4. We structure content to reflect how people read  

We know that lots of unformatted content can be hard to follow and understand. So we:

  • use short sentences
  • make only one point per sentence
  • use descriptive sub-headings to break up walls of text
  • front-load sentences and bullet points (put the most useful words near the start) 
  • put the most important content at the start, for example, what we’re talking about, who it’s for, how it can benefit them

We structure content to reflect how we know people read online – they scan, looking for words, phrases or links that will help them decide if they’re in the right place to achieve what they came to do. By focusing relentlessly on what the user needs to know, and structuring content in a more manageable way, we reduce the amount of shortcuts users take, and help them get to where they need to be, quickly. People often compare tasks across multiple websites, using minimum effort on each (from NN Group). By reducing the effort needed to navigate our site and services, we make it more likely they’ll choose – and stay with – us.

5. We research when to communicate, and through which channel

We research the full end-to-end service with users to understand where they are when they need to understand information. We then choose the most appropriate time and channel to give that information – this could be a poster in store, a message on Co-op packaging, or a text message reminder for an appointment. 

By surfacing content at the relevant time and place, we create services that reduce friction and effort for people.

Making services accessible makes them easier for everyone

Designing accessible services means:

  • focusing persistently on the experience of our users
  • meeting their needs
  • reducing effort
  • removing barriers

This is content design. 

Everything we do as content designers is to increase understanding, usability and reduce the effort required of the user. By being respectful and thoughtful of our users’ circumstances, we create services that are easier to use for all. We remove barriers and open up Co-op services to more people. 

Joanne Schofield
Lead content designer


Co-op has recently been rated as the number 1 supermarket website for accessibility. There’s still more to do. If you have feedback or suggestions on ways we can be more accessible, please leave a comment.

The principles that guide our content design and communications in Funeralcare

Becoming a funeral director at Co-op Funeralcare is not something people go into half-heartedly. Our colleagues in this front-line role meet recently-bereaved people daily and it demands a level of care and empathy from them (especially during the pandemic). They also need to be able to communicate clearly and calmly with people who could be in an emotionally heightened state.

The Digital part of the Co-op Funeralcare team supports colleagues in funeral homes in many ways but in this post we’re looking specifically at the language we use when we engage with clients online. It must reflect the clarity, kindness and reassurance a client would get from speaking to one of our colleagues.  

In short, coop.co.uk/funeralcare is the online voice of our funeral directors.  

We created 4 principles to guide our content design and communications decisions.  

When we write for Co-op Funeralcare, we are:  

1. Down to earth  

‘Good’ content design opens up what we’re communicating so that it’s accessible to, and understood by, as many of our (potential) clients as possible.  

This means we work hard to remove barriers in several ways. 

  • We reduce the chances of misinterpretation by being very deliberate with the language we choose. For example, we say “he died” not “he passed away” because euphemisms can be misunderstood – especially when English is not someone’s first language. Defined by Collins Dictionary as “a polite expression used to refer to things which people may find upsetting to talk about”, euphemisms about death do not soften the blow but they can lead to confusion. A bereavement counsellor explained the terror of a child when they were told their sister had “passed out”. Months before, their mother had died and her death had been referred to as her “passing away”. The child had assumed the same had happened to their sister. The language we use is informed by years of working alongside funeral directors and research. 
  • We lower the cognitive load by explaining terms specific to funeralcare at the point the customer needs to understand them – words like ‘embalming’ and ‘disbursements’. Providing definitions within the content means we save them the unnecessary frustration of looking them up, and – from a business point of view – giving them everything they need means they’re less likely to leave our site.     

We say: If someone has died and you need our help, you can call us 24 hours a day. We’ll bring the person into our care at a time that suits you, then guide you through everything that needs to be done. 

We don’t say: We’re sorry your loved one passed away. Please accept our condolences. 

Example of our down to earth tone from our website

2. Empathetic 

Most clients who make contact with us shortly after someone has died, are grieving. However, we have to be careful with our tone because they’re not coming to us for an outpouring of sympathy, they come to us because – as experienced funeralcare providers – we understand what they’re likely going through and we are here to provide a service. Being empathetic through our language online means giving customers what they need to know clearly, quickly and sensitively.   

We say: The first thing we do is listen to you, then advise, guide, and inspire you to create the perfect funeral arrangement.  

We don’t say: We’ve been arranging funerals for more than 100 years. 

3. Reassuring  

Dealing with the death of someone is often a distressing time and we cannot heal anyone’s grief. We’ve found the best reassurance we can give is through clear, concise guidance to make the task of organising a funeral as painless as possible. Just as a dentist wouldn’t lean over you with a drill and say “this is going to hurt”, (of course it is) we focus on conveying that we’re knowledgeable and experienced, trustworthy and kind to try and remove any anxieties a customer might have around leaving such an important service in our hands.  

We say: Our team will support you from the moment you get in touch with us. We’ll help you through the funeral arrangements, on the day and even after the funeral. 

We don’t say: We know how difficult and disorientating it can be when someone you love dies. 

A reassuring tone avoids adding to the overwhelm

  4. Inspiring  

Research shows that in recent years, attitudes towards funerals in the UK have begun to change and personal touches that reflect the person’s personality or interests are more popular. Our tone and language around the extra touches we can offer should be inspiring – it should focus on possibilities and what can be done.  

For example, the hearse doesn’t need to be a traditional hearse. It could be a tractor, a motorcycle hearse or a converted VW camper van. We even have a poppy covered hearse and one with a rainbow flag. Families can choose one that best reflects who the person was. Or they can keep it traditional. When clients tell us what they want, we do our best to make it happen, and it’s important this message comes through on our site. 

We say: When we arrange a tailored funeral with you, the first thing we do is listen. Then we’ll advise, guide, and inspire you to create a tailored funeral arrangement. Tell us what you want, and we’ll do our best to make it happen. 

We don’t say: There are three different funeral types to choose from. 

Content intended to inspire from coop.co.uk/funeralcare

A caveat: the spoken word is different to the written word  

The 4 principles above guide how we write for Co-op Funeralcare’s online platforms. Although in the most part they reflect how our front-line colleagues in our funeral homes speak to a customer, there’s a difference between the spoken and written word and it feels important to say that this post is not an attempt to influence the language or tone of our brilliant colleagues.  

When we communicate through spoken words, we have body language (or at least intonation) that contributes to how we convey and understand a message. So for example, mirroring someone else’s language is empathetic and if a customer says “passed away”, a colleague is likely to say that too (often subconsciously). But with the written word we rely solely on the clarity of words on a page which makes it important that we understand our users and design content for people coming to terms with loss.

We’ll continue to develop these principles over time. 

Helen Lawson

Lead content designer

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