Creating a clearer purpose for design leadership

Design at Co-op plays an important role in solving users’ problems and Co-op achieving its goals. We advocate for user-centred design, accessibility and a full-service view as key to Co-op’s success. 

The design leadership team are made up of 2 Heads of Design and 5 Principal Designers. We cover our Co-op businesses and colleague facing services, manage our large team of designers, and push forward our core design disciplines. These are interaction design, user research, content design, service design, CRO (conversion rate optimisation) and SEO (search engine optimisation). 

In its current form the design leadership team has existed less than a year. We’ve been busy forming teams, building relationships and delivering for the Co-op businesses, our members and customers. We’ve been sharing challenges and supporting each other, but not spending enough time together working as a group. We needed to focus on why we exist, what value we can add to the design team and what we want for the future. 

We reflected on our purpose by taking part in a workshop 

It was important we took a step back and came together, because as a team, we should have a purpose we align on and can refer to. Our purpose is for our group – it’s not a design strategy. Design strategy is related and part of the wider goals that we share with other digital colleagues. 

Our purpose is a way to focus on the things that are important to us and how we want to grow and enable the design team. 

Part of the design leadership team writing notes and talking around a table

What we did 

The workshop (devised by Imran Afzal, our Interaction Design Principal) was split into 6 parts and helped to guide the group towards creating a purpose statement. 

Thinking about our values 

We discussed the unique qualities we bring to the team and the values we hold. We grouped these into themes. 

A grid of post-it notes with rows according to team member name, with each row showing the values of that person

Discussing our shared history 

We took the time to understand each other and the events and influences that brought us together. This gave us a shared empathy for our individual stories and motivations. 

Designing leadership posters  

We created posters that described the role of leadership in the design team. This helped us visualise our shared challenges and our goals. 

Defining our team purpose 

We defined our purpose by asking: 

  • why does our team exist? 
  • what is our motivation day in, day out? 
  • what are we trying to achieve long term? 
  • how does our work make the world better? 

Bringing our purpose to life 

We considered how we might bring our purpose to life by asking: 

  • what behaviours will bring our purpose to life? 
  • how can we bring our purpose into our day-to-day work? 
  • how can we serve our purpose better? 
  • how can we inspire others around our purpose? 

Our purpose statement 

“The Design Leadership team enable designers to make meaningful change” 

Breaking that statement down, we intend to: 

  • enable our design team to succeed by helping them to grow in their careers through developing their craft and themselves, and making sure they have the confidence to innovate and challenge in the ways they work 
  • ensure we design in a way that is meaningful, creating the conditions where ethical, accessible and sustainable user-centred design can flourish, in turn benefiting our users and the Co-op 

Alongside this we made a set of commitments and behaviours that would help to drive this purpose forwards. 

The commitments that design leadership made are to: 

  • try things and be bold 
  • increase design literacy across disciplines (outside of design) 
  • share our vision for the future of design at Co-op 
  • have challenging conversations 
  • define ways to measure design value 
  • share our story (failures and successes) 

The behaviours that design leadership will display are: 

  • bravery 
  • openness  
  • kindness 
  • vulnerability 
  • reflection 
  • listening 

Conclusion 

We haven’t changed how we think about design by doing this. Much of it we already do quietly, and our objectives align to these commitments, behaviours and purpose already. However, by saying it out loud, we have a reference point to guide us as well as a benchmark to ensure our team’s future and culture can be measured. 

What’s next 

We’re already working on objectives that align to our purpose. We’ll remain open as we keep working. 

Co-op Design Leadership team

How and why we ran a design sprint with 16 people 

Our Funeralcare team ran a discovery into how we can help people who are dying, which we call ‘imminent need’. For people in this situation, it’s after the time when it’s advisable to buy a funeral plan (pre-need) and before the time when someone dies and someone arranges a funeral for them (at-need). 

A timeline showing imminent need sat between pre-need and at-need

To make the most of everyone’s time on the discovery, the team ran a design sprint with 16 people to create a shared understanding of our insight and generate ideas around how we could start to help people better. 

Sharing research generated interest in the work 

As part of our discovery, we interviewed colleagues and subject matter experts. People were excited that we were looking into imminent need and keen to follow our progress. After our research, we held a playback of our work and explained that our next step would be a design sprint. Lots of our colleagues expressed an interest, including our Chief Commercial Officer, and we were keen to follow up with these people. 

What is a design sprint?

A design sprint is a method of generating lots of ideas collaboratively with people spanning different disciplines and business areas. 

The ideal number of attendees for a design sprint is around 4 to 8 people. This makes sure there’s enough time for the valuable discussions that happen as part of the process. Usually, if you involve more than 8 people it can become hard for everyone to contribute and feel heard, and the session agenda can become difficult to manage. 

The two sprint facilitators stood in front of a screen that displays 'Welcome to day 1'. A big table of people look towards them.

Why we chose to run a big design sprint

Our design sprint team totalled 16, including two facilitators. 

We were hesitant – it was a big group and we had concerns about being able to get through all the sprint activities and have enough time for discussion. However, we felt we could manage this and there were some good reasons to go ahead with a big team. 

We wanted to include the broad knowledge across Funeralcare and avoid extra meetings 

Our design sprint team represented skills and knowledge from teams across marketing, commercial, propositions, operations and funeral homes plus design, research and product. 

Having all those people in the room meant we could discuss barriers and opportunities in real time and within the context of each person’s role. This also meant we could avoid having lots of additional meetings with people to provide updates or answer any potential unknowns.

We wanted our colleagues to get the experience of being in a design sprint 

The main value of a design sprint is the rapid validation of ideas, but there is also huge benefit in bringing engaged stakeholders on the journey and the relationships we can develop in collaborative sessions. 

Our purpose wasn’t to bring in people who didn’t want to be there or would likely be disruptive to have in the session. It is still a good idea to push back on unreasonable requests to take part where it is likely to negatively affect the session and outcomes you want from the design sprint. 

We also wanted to make sure all six of our ‘imminent need design team’ could come along. We put a lot of emotional investment into the research and it was important to make sure everyone got to see the discovery through to the end. Plus having the balance of designers in the room also helped with managing the flow of the day. 

For some people, this was their first design sprint. For most, it was the first sprint since COVID changed how and where we work. Bringing people from across the business to work together in person is a powerful thing and it was incredibly valuable to showcase that. 

How we ran the design sprint 

We chose to run the design sprint in person as we felt it would be easier logistically and would provide the fun design sprint experience that we wanted people to have. 

We followed a format similar to Design Sprint 2.0, which condenses the traditional 5-day format into 4 days and only needs the full group for the first two days. By shortening the time, we hoped to make it easier for people to attend without the need for lots of diary juggling or planning months in advance. 

Our sprint team included our core project team of design, research and product, plus 9 people from around the Funeralcare business. We had two facilitators to support the large group (and each other). We spent one and a half days together as a larger group, then the core team continued remotely for the final days of prototyping and testing. 

The back of a dark haired woman adding to a poster sheet-sized paper covered with post-it notes

Day 1 (half day): Understand 

We wanted our design sprint team to have a shared understanding of our research and insights. To do this we shared: 

  • a simple journey map 
  • a clear problem statement based on our research 
  • lightning talks on different aspects of the research 

During the lightning talks we asked the team to generate ‘how might we’ (HMW) statements around the problem areas.

We did not have time for everyone to present back all their HMWs, so we summarised themes, asked everyone to add their HMWs to a theme and dot voted on the most important themes. 

The two sprint facilitators next to a screen displaying 'why we do ideation'

Day 2: Diverge and converge 

After recapping on the themes, we did 2 rounds of ideation using a 3-step sketching process. Usually, we would give each person 5-10 minutes to present their ideas back, but this could have taken a full day which we did not have. Instead, everyone discussed ideas in pairs or small groups and then fed back to the group for a wider discussion. 

We originally planned 3 rounds of ideation, but we had so many great ideas from the first round, that we realised we would cover all the themes with 2 rounds and make better use of the time. 

The 3-step process included: 

  • Mind-mapping 
  • Rapid 8s 
  • T-bar sketching 

In the afternoon each person picked an idea from the morning that they found interesting and presented it back to the group for feedback. 

The group then dot voted on the ideas. We gave everyone 3 blue dots to vote on the ideas they wanted to take forward the most. We then gave everyone pink dots to vote on anything they thought had been missed. The blue votes tended to focus on things that were practical and that people were more sure about. Some of the themes that only had pink votes, were ideas that were more experimental or things we’d not tried before. 

A close up of an idea sketched in t-bar format titled 'guide to dying'.

Day 3 and 4: Converge continued, prototype and test 

The core project team continued the rest of the sprint remotely. We focused on narrowing down what we were going to test then set to work on the prototype which we tested with some of our funeral home colleagues. 

Outcomes of the design sprint 

The design sprint was a great success. We generated a broad range of ideas, some we tested successfully and some that will contribute to future workstreams. We have since released guidance content for a person who knows they are dying and someone supporting a person who is dying. This is the first small step in what we hope will be many more in helping people with this need. 

And importantly, there was a feeling of togetherness and brilliant discussions happened in the room. The agenda was tight, but the pace of the day kept energy levels and engagement high. 

We had brilliant feedback on the sessions. It’s exciting that people are reaching out to ask if we could help them run design sprints or similar ideation workshops for projects in their own teams. 

7 people (coincidentally all wearing harmonious shades of green, blue and black) in thought, reading ideas stuck on walls.

Our tips for running a large design sprint

Have two facilitators 

Having more than one facilitator for a session this large is a must because it: 

  • makes it easier to keep an eye on time and make any agenda changes, whilst helping people in the room and listening to conversation 
  • helps manage energy levels of facilitators as you can switch between the two roles above and lead different sections of the day 
  • means the facilitators are supported by each other 

Be mindful of group mix and personalities 

Strong personalities can create challenging workshop environments and the more participants you invite, the risk increases that you have one or more people who might (unintentionally) derail your well-planned agenda. We were lucky that we knew none of our participants were likely to behave this way, but it is something to be mindful of when expanding your participant list. 

When you start adding more stakeholders or subject matter experts, it’s good to increase the number of designers (or others with design sprint experience) to support with guiding people who’ve not done workshops like this before. 

Run it in person 

This sprint would’ve been extremely difficult to run remotely, would’ve felt much more rigid and we would’ve missed the pockets of great conversation that ripple across a room when people are together. 

One of our subject matter experts travelled to Manchester from Devon and we were very grateful. 

Plan your sessions and agenda out in detail, but be ready to adapt on the fly 

Our agenda and timings were planned in detail and we made the timings for every activity visible to everyone. On day 2, after getting through more ideas than expected, it felt like the energy could drop if we did more sketching. We tweaked our afternoon agenda to finish the day with a dot voting exercise we originally planned to do asynchronously. 

Send out pre-reads or homework 

We knew we would not have time in our sprint to recap on what a design sprint is so to deal with this, we sent out a short one-page explainer document to all attendees and asked them to read ahead of the session. 

One or two pages of pre-reads or homework can be good ways to get around session time constraints. 

Set clear ground rules 

This is good advice for any design sprint, but more important here. Some of our rules are: 

  • keep to time: give everyone in the room accountability for arriving after breaks on time and wrapping up tasks when the timer runs out 
  • no multitasking: full focus on the sprint in the sprint, use breaks for checking emails if required 
  • be inclusive: we displayed the inclusive meeting guidelines on the walls for our sessions. 

Don’t feel you have to stick to a traditional design sprint 

Design sprints don’t have to be 5 days long and not every activity has to be done ‘by the book’. If you have limited time, be really clear about what outcomes you can get to in the time and plan accordingly. 

If you want more help with facilitating, have a look at the facilitation guide on the Experience Library.

A pile of 'how might we' post-it notes

What we learned overall 

When we set out on this discovery, we wanted to find ways to help people who know they are dying and their families. We rely on doing 1-to-1 user research to gain a deep understanding into the problems that our customers face. In Funeralcare it helps us to learn about the complex emotions that people are experiencing when they need to arrange a funeral plan or funeral. 

What was different about the ideation stage of our imminent need work was the variety and size of our design sprint. We learned that, done the right way, running a large design sprint meant we: 

  • progressed our ideas and work much sooner than we would have otherwise 
  • saved significant amounts of time and money by reducing the need for multiple individual meetings over months 
  • introduced our wider team to design ways of working which, along with a wider focus on this, has led to more people wanting to work in this way 
  • developed even stronger relationships with a wider range of our colleagues and teams, which we’re continuing to build on 

When we put out the call for this big design sprint at short notice, we did not expect so many brilliant colleagues from different parts of the business to sign up. Everyone who was involved fully embraced the process and the ideas and outcomes are stronger as a result. 


There is lots for us to work on in this space, but some ideas come with technical challenges. Our first small step was to create guidance content for people needing help with planning:

Michelle May – Lead UX Designer
Marianne Knowles – Principal Designer

A discovery into helping someone who is dying make funeral plans 

If you were weeks away from dying and wanted to arrange your funeral, new regulations might mean you would not be able to buy a funeral plan. This is because buying a funeral plan only a few weeks in advance can cost more than arranging the funeral after you die. The Funeralcare digital team want to help people in this situation, and we did so by interviewing people to learn about the complex needs associated with planning for a funeral with a terminal illness.  

New regulations have changed the way people can buy funeral plans. People are now asked questions about their situation before they can buy one. One of these questions is, ‘do you have a terminal illness?’ This isn’t something funeral plan providers had to ask before. The reason this is asked now is because a pre-paid funeral plan could cost more than a funeral arranged in the next month or two. Asking if people have a terminal illness is meant to make sure they don’t pay more than they should for their funeral.  

Three coloured blocks next to each other showing the timeline of needs. Pre-need first, then imminent need then at-need.

This affects hundreds of people a month

In November and December 2022, 405 people told us they had a terminal illness by answering the question in the funeral plan journey. We also heard that our call centre could be turning away people who want to buy a funeral plan but cannot, because they might have an imminent need.  

Because a funeral plan isn’t appropriate for someone who is likely to die imminently, the Funeralcare design team did a discovery to see how we could help them by understanding what they needed. We wanted to make sure people in this position could still plan for their funeral, if that’s what they want to do. 

We did a discovery to learn more about:

  • what happens when a client wanting to buy a funeral plan says they are terminally ill
  • what happens when someone wants to arrange a funeral or record their funeral wishes before they die
  • the difficulties we face having conversations with clients about how we can support with end-of-life planning, their will, power of attorney and other legal advice

User research with vulnerable people 

Finding people to speak to in this position can be difficult, but those who say yes to taking part in the research tell us they do it because they want to help others. Our user researcher recruited people who have a terminal illness and people who are supporting those with one. 

We did 20+ hours of interviews with: 

  • 2 terminally ill people 
  • 5 family or friends of people who are dying 
  • 2 people who work in end-of-life care 
  • 4 funeral arrangers 
  • 12 stakeholders across Co-op Funeralcare and Life Services 

We also analysed hundreds of phone calls into our sales team. We surveyed more than 300 Funeralcare colleagues to find out more about their experiences. And we did an extensive competitor review to see what other funeral providers were doing in this space.  

What we learned about people with this need 

Planning for a funeral while the person is still alive is really hard. This is not a pragmatic, forward-planned purchase they can forget about once it’s done. This is a highly emotive experience for people and the mindset is very different from someone buying a pre-paid funeral plan. 

A miro board showing timelines in post it notes

When someone knows they’re dying, it’s not just them involved in the planning of their funeral. It can be a collection of family and friends, often with one person taking the lead and supporting them. Third parties can also be involved, such as hospice workers, charities and support groups. 

Everyone has their own approach. Some want it sorted, some cannot bear to think about it. We found that the person who is dying and those caring for them often had different approaches.   

The top 2 squares show that some carers and people who are dying take an active role in planning – "I want it all sorted". The bottom 2 squares show that some take a more passive role – "I don't want to think about this".

Some were more passive and less willing to talk about what they want.  

 “We needed someone to tell him off and tell him to remove the burden from us.” 

Others were more actively involved in discussing what they wanted. 

“She’s got notes on her phone, of all the things she wants at the funeral. She’s always adding to it.” 

Those who want it sorted know exactly what they want and plan it sometimes without speaking about it with family members. Some take longer to plan these details, maybe being inspired by a song on the radio or an item of clothing they’ve come across. They know they need to let family members know where to find things when they’ll need them.  

Quote graphic from the person who is dying saying - she's got notes on her phone, of all the things she wants at the funeral. She's always adding to it.

Funeralcare colleagues always want to help 

Research conversations with our Funeralcare colleagues highlighted they’re already helping people in this position plan their funeral on paper. They want to do whatever they can to help when someone comes into a funeral home. They do their best with what they have, and they do it well. The work we do next after this discovery will hopefully make this easier for them and for people who need this. 

Listen to your user, however hard it might be to hear 

To create the best services for Funeralcare, you must listen to your user. Even if it’s difficult. Even if their stories are hard to hear. Listening to them is never going to be harder than what they’re going through. 

This project was approached with huge amounts of sensitivity and some bravery. We all had to face into these difficult questions and conversations and be comfortable talking about this topic for concentrated periods of time. 

Look after each other 

This discovery was challenging. The conversations we had with people with a terminal diagnosis, and their families can be difficult to be a part of. Witnessing their anticipatory grief was upsetting. We’ve also been affected by death individually in the team, so we were extra careful to check in with each other every day and allowed ourselves a pass out if it got too much. 

What we did next 

Next, we did a design sprint. We got key stakeholders and Funeralcare colleagues working together to find ways we can help our colleagues help people with an imminent need for a funeral. Look out for our next blog post on how working collaboratively helped us to save hours of individual meeting time, get to the best ideas faster and create universal support progressing the work further. 

Our user researcher, Jamie Kane, gave a talk about the research we did at a recent Content Teatime, watch the recording of that event, which features 5 talks all about designing for death, dying and bereavement.  

If you’ve been affected by anything in this blog post, you can visit the bereavement support pages on the Funeralcare website or go visit the Marie Curie website for more advice and information.  

Helen Lawson, Lead content designer
Michelle May, Lead designer
Marianne Knowles, Principal designer

Environment is everything: why we research in-person in our food stores

Our Colleague Products team designs technology that transforms how our food stores operate. We’ve always designed closely with our store colleagues, doing in-person research in the store environment to learn about their needs and to test future designs. 

During the pandemic we adapted our methods of remote research to maximise what we could learn, but as soon as it was possible, we went back into stores. Research in-person and on-site is not always the most easy, convenient or cheap option – so why did we return to it? 

In this blog post, our Colleague Products researchers share innovative methods for researching in the environment you are designing for – which is also known as contextual research. Our examples show the benefits of this kind of research and the results for our stores. 

Understanding what stores need 

What works in one kind of store, may be a disaster in another. It can be the difference between an instore innovation saving time, money or energy demand, and making things worse for our colleagues who are working so hard to get things right.  

Stores can be large or small, have low or high sales, and include different checkout formations. We also need to consider that our colleagues interact with shelves, trolleys, products, and move around the store.

Colleagues face obstacles including: 

  • needing to print from an office upstairs which is a big pain point and takes up valuable time 
  • different kinds of goods lifts which can completely change how a store handles a delivery 
  • the layout of the checkout area can make it difficult to see when a customer needs help 
Co-op store environment showing competing visual things likes signs and products
Drawing showing how Co-op colleagues can't see the queue because it's hidden behind the shelves
Diagram of store layout showing that it’s hard to see customers queuing behind shelves.

We’ve developed the design principle that we should always ‘design for distraction’ due to our research in stores. When we did research for SmartGap and News and Mags, we observed how colleagues had to stop the task to help customers or colleagues. We now know it’s vital colleagues can pick up where they left off. Designing so that we reduce cognitive load (how much our colleagues need to think about at once), also helps when they are juggling tasks. 

Meeting a wider range of colleagues on their terms 

Remote research allows us to speak to people we cannot visit because of location, but we’ve learned that being instore means we speak to a wider variety of users. Some colleagues cannot always respond to a remote call or survey. They may be new, work part-time, or not have time to read all the communications. Some colleagues are also less confident with technology, and it’s these colleagues we really need to learn from. 

Visiting colleagues instore can help them feel at ease too. Being in an environment where colleagues are comfortable when we’re asking questions and observing actions can help them feel more in control. 

Observing what people do, not what they say they do

The main benefit of visiting stores is that we get more value from these research sessions.  

We can ask colleagues what they would do in an interview, but when we can see them in action, we can see what they really do. This includes things like: 

  • micro pain points that take extra time 
  • things that they may not think are important when we ask them 
  • shortcuts that they develop over time and are second nature 

These coping mechanisms are valuable for us to know about. In one case, a manager had made a ‘cheat sheet’ explaining how to read a report, which is proof it needed simplifying. 

Making our research as realistic as possible 

Before taking a Date Code design prototype into stores for testing, we created fake products by printing out product photos and sticking them to cardboard. This meant that colleagues could interact with products, and the sell-by-dates that matched the prototype.  

During usability sessions for a till prototype, we created a more realistic experience by making ‘beep’ noises when the colleague mimed scanning a product. This realism is useful for triggering colleague memories and conversation.  

Making fake products to use in user research using cardboard and printed labels
Co-op colleague scanning fake products with their smart phone

Using ‘Wizard of Oz’ testing – a method of testing a system that does not yet exist 

Last year we used a version of the ‘Wizard of Oz‘ testing method during a 2 week pilot in a store. One of the goals of the pilot was to understand whether automated alerts about tasks via headsets and handheld devices would work in a store environment.  

We manually sent alerts while colleagues were carrying out their usual store tasks and observed if, how and when they acted on them. This helped colleagues to understand the concept. It also gave us a first-hand view of how alerts might have an impact on colleagues and their work.  

Getting colleagues involved with prototyping and testing 

We can use physical research methods, such as card sorts, paper prototypes, or process walkthroughs with prototype devices. We also do co-design sessions with colleagues, so that they can get creative with paper and pens to create their own ideal interface. All of this is much harder to facilitate remotely, especially if the colleague is not confident using technology or does not have the right tools. 

Co-creating screens for the datecode app using pen and paper with a Co-op colleague
Sorting cards on a table with a Co-op colleague to group important topics

Usability testing is about more than just the interface design. When we were testing a new app on the store tablet in person, we immediately realised that some colleagues were holding it in portrait mode. This caused issues with the layout of content because colleagues did not realise that some information was hidden below what they could see on the screen. We would not have known this from data alone, or from remote testing. 

Colleague holding a tablet computer showing how information is missed when it is held landscape

Building empathy for real people, not users 

Research in-person is great for getting your whole team involved with research. Our team say it ‘brings it all to life’. It helps show the importance of what we’re doing and helps everyone understand how everything fits together. The concept of ‘users’ can seem impersonal. Research in-person helps to build real empathy for the challenges our colleagues face.  

If you ever have the opportunity to do or observe research in-person – we’d highly recommend it. You’ll always understand more, and your products and services will be better because of it. 

Rachel Hand and Maisie Platts 

Find out more about user research at Co-op and our research community of practice from Rachel Hand, Lead User Researcher.

How our users influenced our new forms guidance

The Experience Foundations team recently updated our guidance on forms in our Experience Library.

Diagram of a web form with markers showing where different form elements are place and what they do

Originally, this piece of work was about making sure we included all the components we knew our community needed. But as we got further into the research, we found our community needed guidance on aspects we hadn’t considered.

In the Co-op Customer Products team, we value having the autonomy to be flexible and divert from a plan when we need to. So, with the aim of meeting newly-discovered user needs, we pivoted our work.

A recap: the importance of familiarity in design

Co-op has many business areas and many products and services within them. In most, there’ll be at least one form that, for example, asks a customer for personal details to register for something, or asks for a customer’s payment details so they can buy something. Although our business areas are diverse, it’s important that all of them use a common design language to create familiarity. This means that interactions work in the same way in each service and each one feels like it belongs to Co-op. This helps us build trust with our users.

Starting with research

As always, we started with research. This involved one-to-one conversations with colleagues from a wide range of teams and disciplines to better understand their needs. The conversations helped shape our focus and we ended up with a list of form components that our community needed. Our goal was to design, build and release these components into the Experience Library.

New information = new direction

However, during the conversations, a new theme emerged around the structure and layout of forms.

Although our original research didn’t highlight this as an area of need, feedback from newer members of the community made it clear that this was important but there was ambiguity.

Some of the questions they asked included:

  • What spacing should I use between field sets, labels and buttons?
  • Is it better to use single or double columns for laying out forms?
  • Where should I position buttons?
  • How should I show optional or required fields?

We realised our community needed more than form components and guidance on when and how to use forms – it needed guidance on designing single or multi-page forms from the ground up.

Getting a deeper understanding of the problem

The outcome we were aiming for was for all design colleagues to be comfortable and confident setting up forms for the products and services they look after. So we needed to understand the practices that already existed, and also what change was needed.

Here are 4 things we did to deepen our understanding.

1. Carried out user research

We facilitated conversations with newer members of the design community. We asked questions like:

  • When designing a form, what did you feel unsure about?
  • What guidance did you expect to find in the Experience Library for designing a form?
  • Is there anything else you feel would have helped you in designing a form?

These open questions helped us understand which areas needed clear guidance.

2. Reviewed Co-op forms

When we started the forms work, we reviewed forms across Co-op products and services. We went back to the analysis we did but this time we focused on layout and structure and therefore the usability rather than individual components.

This helped identify variations in form design across Co-op.

3. Analysed other design systems

We looked at the guidance other design systems had on form design. An important take-away was how some design systems used visuals to explain guidance.

4. Revisited best practice

We revisited forms specialists Caroline Jarrett and Adam Silver’s work on forms and considered how it applies to our form design at Co-op.

Designing the ‘Form design’ page

Content designers and interaction designers worked together to define the topics that our guidance should cover. We had some difficult conversations to help us understand different takes on the same topic and often challenged each other’s view. Referring back to the insights allowed the team to have those difficult conversations. We reflected on different perspectives and continually iterated on the content. Through this process we were able to define our stance on things like button positioning. Once we were aligned, we added detail and referenced the insights we’d found in the research.

We also found the need to visualise some of our guidance. For this, we defined a visual language that can be used on diagrams in the future.

Diagram showing how a form in one column is easier to use than a form in 2 columns

We shared early versions of the page with people from the Design, Product and Engineering communities to review. We value different perspectives, and want others to contribute to our work. By designing in the open, our community sees our approach, which helps build trust. Showing them the depth of our process encourages buy-in and the early feedback in the reviews was positive.

A ‘people-first’ design system

Our new Form design page wouldn’t exist without the feedback from our community. We designed it for them, based on conversations we had with them. Delivering guidance that meets their needs shows that we’re listening, we’re collaborative and this builds trust with our colleagues. Our work is less about a page in a design system, and more about the people that use it. We’ll keep listening and iterate when we need to. Like the rest of the Experience Library, this page will evolve with our community’s needs.

Imran Afzal, Lead Designer

It’s an ‘Experience Library’ (because ‘design system’ implies it’s only for designers)

Screen grab of the Experience Library homepage highlighting part of the copy that says: the experience library is for anyone working on products, services and communication at co-op

Our Co-op Experience Library is a reinvention of our design system. It’s got guidelines, tools and resources to help us create better customer and colleague experiences – things like online interactions, content guidelines, team activities and accessibility standards. 

It is for anyone working on products, services and communications at Co-op. It’s not just for designers.

Although it started as a place to help digital designers create online experiences, we changed the name from Design System to the Experience Library to reflect the range of:

  • subjects that it includes 
  • people who can benefit from it

How design at Co-op evolved

In 2017, when Co-op Digital was in its infancy, we launched a ‘design manual’. At the time, the Design team was growing quickly and designers were joining from very different backgrounds and had very different approaches. The design manual included the foundations, elements and components that designers need to design accessible, consistent digital products and services for Co-op – things like colours, fonts, buttons, banners, check boxes. The design manual meant that designers could focus on meeting user needs rather than on making basic design decisions. As a result we could release things faster.

Over the next year we wanted to understand how useful the design manual was for our designers, content designers and researchers. Through research, feedback and analytics, it became clear that although it was being used, it needed to be more comprehensive. In July 2018, we launched our design system which included a pattern library, a content style guide, guidance on our design thinking, principles and resources like Sketch files and brand assets. 

We treated it like a digital product. We knew it would never be finished and we added to it and iterated parts when needed. 

Fast forward to 2021 and the release of the Co-op Experience Library. 

The design system’s focus was on ‘online’ products and services. But users don’t just interact with the online part of a service. Their end-to-end experience often includes different channels and interactions. So it makes increasing sense for the Experience Library guidance to cover more – across services and be channel agnostic.

For example, many of us write on behalf of Co-op every day. We communicate with customers, members and colleagues through lots of channels and many of them are not just online. For example, posters in stores, presentations, communicating to customers.  If we talk about things in a consistent way we create familiarity. People are more likely to understand that they’re interacting with Co-op and trust us.

So we broadened our content guidelines to   go beyond online journeys. And in doing so, we opened up the Experience Library to a wider audience, saving time for everyone who communicates on behalf of Co-op.

It can also help teams work better together

We work closely with the Digital Skills team. They help teams outside of digital disciplines to understand agile and design methods. They coach teams, run masterclasses and develop resources to help show the value of user-focused, iterative development and the various techniques teams can use to design and deliver products and services. At the end of the masterclasses, teams across Co-op have access to tools, activities and techniques that they can use to help them work together and solve problems.

So it makes sense for these tools, activities and techniques to be available on the Experience Library. Helping teams work together better means Co-op can make colleagues and customer experiences more effective and efficient.

Why this is important

The Experience Library has continued, and will continue, to grow. It now also includes information on accessibility, form guidelines, search engine optimisation and brand guidelines.  

And this makes sense. We are all responsible for creating value for our colleagues, our customers and the Co-op business. All our teams and business areas are interlinked at varying levels as we inevitably try to achieve these goals.   

Collating these resources from across Co-op and presenting them in an open, central place, in an understandable way, enables delivery. It means colleagues can: 

  • save time, using proven and evidenced shared standards
  • focus on meeting their customers’ needs
  • get on with their work and feel confident they’re making the good choices 
  • learn and upskill in new areas 
  • collaborate and, in doing so, reduce silos across businesses
  • have more inclusive conversations within their teams
  • solve problems
  • point to evidence which gives weight to decisions when they need to persuade stakeholders (for example, they can point to evidence that shows why abbreviations, acronyms and initialisations can be confusing) 
  • feed back on and help improve the Experience Library
  • get involved and contribute to the Experience Library

And this, in turn, helps Co-op:

  • create coherent and accessible experiences for customers and colleagues
  • save time and money by operating more efficiently
  • become a familiar and trusted brand
  • increase loyalty 
  • work in the open, and in doing so, recruit new people

Get involved

Get in touch if you work on something that could help colleagues across the business do their jobs more efficiently. This could be things like how to communicate to a particular audience, how to understand analytics, or how we can improve our sustainability.

By sharing best practices across Co-op, we make things better for our customers and colleagues.

Joanne Schofield

Lead content designer

How we’re prioritising responsible design

Last week, the product and design team attended Design Council’s 2-day event Design for Planet which coincided with the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, and our Co-op26 campaign. The purpose of the event was to galvanise the UK’s design community to address the climate emergency and sustainability issues.  

Coming together with a wider Design community (albeit virtually) felt important after 18 months of remote working and being relatively inward-facing within Co-op. The collaboration and idea sharing was inspiring and the discussions that were sparked were important ones.  

Over the past decade, digital delivery teams have adopted the mindset of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ and we’ve reached a point where a lot has broken. We need to be more responsible when we design products and services, and the team learnt how we (as designers and product people) can help tackle the biggest challenge of our time. 

Design, after all, can be a powerful agent for positive change. 

Designing in the ‘right’ way 

We’ve spoken a lot over the years about designing the right thing in the right way, but we need to keep adapting and changing what ‘the right way’ means in the context of the challenges we face in our communities and globally. 

Last week’s event prompted us to think harder about what we can do to make our working practices and processes better so that ultimately, we can design more responsibly, more mindfully, more sustainably and keep ethical considerations at the forefront (of course, we already have Co-op values to guide our work). If we get this right, we can make things better now, but also in the future. 

Diverse expertise. One shared mission 

‘Design for Planet’ is an all-encompassing name for an event which gave platforms to specialists from many different areas of expertise. For example: 

  • Economist Kate Raworth and architect Indy Johar spoke about the need for systemic change, using Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’ model that highlights how unsustainable unchecked growth is. 
  • Designer Finn Harries spoke about the importance of storytelling in reframing the climate crisis and our relationship to nature.  
  • Andy Hyde, user researcher Anna Horton and service designer Aurelie Lionet talked about the need for ensuring a ‘just transition’ when designing low carbon journeys to ensure we don’t exclude or disadvantage people in the process.  

Despite speaking on vastly different topics, they all share a very similar mission: to make the planet better for everyone and everything that lives on it now, and in the future. 

We’re aiming for that too and we kept this mission in mind when we were thinking about where we can improve.

What we’re going to do

We have a Slack channel brimming with ideas about how to address some of the issues that already exist and how to safeguard sustainable design. We’ve already agreed on several actions as well as some things we’ll be looking into more:

  1. Introduce sustainability champions (hi Siobhan Harris, who is our first). Champions will raise awareness and nudge people into thinking about sustainability more consistently and at each point a significant decision must be made. The aim is to keep it at the forefront of all our minds.  
     
  2. Revisit our design principles and add a sustainability-related one. It will likely focus on longevity and designing products, services and experiences that work well and last, as well as creating less content. 
  1. Continue to encourage people from the wider business to use our Experience Library so we do less, but we do it better and to a certain, ‘good’ standard.   
     
  2. Investigate how we can change our ways of working to collect less and delete more data, as soon as its not needed. There is too much tech data waste and we need to be more mindful. Particularly since working remotely, many teams record and store sessions for people to watch back, but we should look at how often they are actually watched and how long we store them for. 
  1. Encourage colleagues to minimise using video bandwidth by doing things like talk and walk phone calls, instead of video meetings. This could cut carbon emissions of the call by 96%
     
  2. Look at how we can design for ‘endings’ – for example, when a service is no longer needed, used or supported. Leaving it live is irresponsible because it takes up space on the internet and often contributes to ‘link rot’ (meaning it’s likely to link to old, out of date pages). 
     
  3. Prioritise and continue our discussions on climate change. The service design and visual design communities of practice had a structured debate about some of the topics that came up at the Design for Planet event.
Here’s our Miro board from our debate.

Plus, lots of us have also signed up for UnGifted Secret Santa for “climate-friendly, socially-distanced colleagues who want to gift unforgettable surprises instead of unwanted stuff.” 

It’s a good start and we’re still learning. It’s good to be pushing these considerations and questions forward at Co-op – a place that has values that already very much support a ‘better’ way. We know that we can’t just do things better, we need to be doing better things too. As a team we’ll be pushing the wider Co-op business to use design thinking and digital ways of working to make big shifts in the products and services we offer. 

Lucy Tallon, Head of Design

Alistair Ruff, Lead service designer

Introducing the Co-op Experience Library

The Co-op Experience Library is a collection of guidelines, tools and resources to help us create better customer experiences at Co-op. It’s the latest iteration of the Co-op Design System, and it’s for anyone working on products, services and communications at Co-op. 

And it’s now open to all, at coop.co.uk/experience-library 

Here’s what the Experience Library looks like

What’s in the Experience Library

The Experience Library includes advice and guidance on: 

Why create an Experience Library

Co-op is made up of many business areas including our Food stores, Funeralcare, Legal and Insurance. And colleagues from each of these businesses communicate with their customers every day through a wide range of channels including websites, apps, email, telephone, forms, in store and in communities. 

These customer experiences (that’s each point a customer interacts with Co-op) must be connected and consistent so that customers understand us, trust us and choose to use our services. So, we want to create a place where colleagues can go to get help building accessible, consistent and inclusive customer experiences.​ 

By creating a central library of reusable assets and guides, we believe that teams can: 

  • create, test and iterate quicker 
  • collaborate and share more easily 
  • save time and money 
  • focus on meeting their customer’s needs 

Why we reinvented the Design System

The Experience Library is the latest iteration of Co-op’s design system. Earlier this year we wrote about how we’d used a brand sprint to kick off the reinvention of Co-op’s design system

We’d spent a lot of time researching the design system with colleagues. And, although we knew it was being used, we found that there were areas we could improve, including: 

  • making it more inclusive for people who were not designers 
  • making it more inspiring 
  • reducing the gaps in design advice and documentation 

So we’ve spent the last few months trying to fix these issues. We’ve: 

  • changed the name to the ‘Experience Library’ to encourage both designers and non-designers to use it 
  • worked with other teams and business units to include a broader range of topics 
  • added more detailed design advice and documentation 
  • established content processes so that anything that gets added to the library is researched, critiqued, understandable and accessible 
  • worked with subject matter experts from around Co-op to feed in and check the guidance 
  • created a new visual language that we hope will inspire people to experiment and build on the foundations within the Experience Library 
  • worked in the open, shared what we’re doing and regularly got feedback from colleagues 

Our vision

We’ve started by focusing mostly on the digital experience. But this is only the beginning, we have big aspirations. We want the Experience Library to be useful for anyone who communicates on behalf of the Co-op. That’s anyone who a customer interacts with, through any channel, in any business area. Our long-term vision is: 

To create and maintain a comprehensive, evolving library of foundational tools, resources and assets that empower us to create better customer experiences across Co-op. 

To do this we need the library to be truly collaborative – the one place where colleagues can go to get trusted and up-to-date guidance that meets their needs and makes their jobs easier. 

So next, we’ll be working with teams across digital, communications and brand to understand how we can better support and collaborate with them. 

Tell us what you think

We’d love to know what you think about the Experience Library. Fill in this form to give feedback

And, if you’d like to stay up-to-date about changes and developments to the Experience Library, sign up to the Experience Library mailing list

The Experience Library team 

Using a brand sprint to kick start the reinvention of Co-op’s design system

The One web team exists to create a platform of tools and resources that all Co-op teams can build efficient, coherent websites on. In September, we reorganised the One web team to help us achieve our vision:

Enable Co-op teams to deliver cost-efficient and coherent user experiences

And, as part of the reorganisation, we finally formed a dedicated team to own our design system (we’d been working on it in the background for 7 years before then).

Starting with research

Part of our work was to look harder at the design system itself. What and who is it really for? How well are we doing right now?

Interviews and a survey told us:

  • there’s lots missing from the documentation
  • designers struggle to know how and when to change something
  • it’s not clear how to design ‘on top’ of the design system to create the right experience for the variety of products we have at Co-op

We’d already begun to address some of these problems by starting to create the documentation for production and process, and by adding new content to a prototype that we planned to iterate internally.

However, the other insights were more difficult to tackle, and linked to feedback we’ve had in the past describing the design system as ‘boring’. But in many ways being ‘boring’ is a good thing for a design system because “The job is not to invent, but to curate.”

We agree with this. Our One web vision is to enable product teams not design what we think is right for them – they know their users far better than we do.

That said, it still felt like:

  • the design system did not inspire enough
  • we were not articulating its purpose very well
  • it did not reflect the values we hold as a design and product community

Exploring the problem with a brand sprint

The customer experience team recently presented a brand sprint they’d run that had begun to define the proposition and design direction for one of our businesses. It inspired me – it felt like a process that could help us solve some of the problems we’d identified.

The Google Ventures article on brand sprints says:

After doing the exercises, the team gets a common language to describe what their company is about — and all subsequent squishy decisions about visuals, voice, and identity become way easier.

The techniques in a brand sprint could help us define a common language we could use to help explain why and how:

  • the design system is good for Co-op and its customers
  • how we ‘do design’ – the values that are embedded in all of our work
  • it is a base for innovation
  • it is for everyone at Co-op – not just designers or engineers
  • it is a community

Doing the brand sprint

We formed a team comprising of the core design system team (design, content, product and front-end), James Rice (who developed the process for us and helped keep us on track) and designers from outside the team to act as fresh eyes and bring specialist skills in visual design and illustration.

The process at a high level was:

  • a 3-hour brand sprint kick off consisting of a custom set of the exercises in the Google Ventures article and using the findings of a survey we conducted upfront to get insight into the values we hold as a community of designers at Co-op
  • a 2-week ‘divergence’ – where we split into 2 teams creating many different concept designs and content directions
  • a series of critiques to identify what we felt was working and what was not
  • a 2-week ‘convergence’ – where we made decisions and worked up final examples of webpages, posters and banners to give a sense of the final direction

Highlights from the 3-hour brand sprint kick off

Personality sliders exercise

The personality sliders exercise showed an apparent lack of consensus on the personality of the design system. What we discovered after group discussion was that we all wanted the design system to speak to people in a different tone depending on what they were trying to do.

The application of design and community content should be innovative and playful, but our documentation should be authoritative, clear, and in some ways conventional.

Defining audiences and sequence of targeting

Our attempt to map and prioritise our different audience groups

We decided initially we would try to create design and content for 2 groups: 

  1. our core users of designers and digital product teams 
  2. senior leadership at Co-op

We want to create something that:

  • designers, know how to use, helps them understand the values of the team and are motivated to contribute
  • helps senior leadership quickly understand the value of having a design system

A culture survey to inform how we talk about culture

We want the design system to reflect our culture, so we sent out a survey to our Digital community to discover what people thought and felt about working on digital products at Co-op. Paraphrasing the results – people said things like:

  • we have a strong culture of collaboration
  • we aspire to be a renowned design team and it’s a conscious goal
  • the design team is here to use design to make things better for Co-op
  • working here is an opportunity to share skills and learn

Anna Pickard sums up what we were trying to achieve brilliantly in her talk: How to make brands sound human

The culture turned inward creates the product. The culture turned outward creates the brand.

Setting a brief for the team

I summarised the outputs into a brief for the next stage, giving closer direction on the audiences we wanted our design to speak to and the kind of outputs we should create. We would create design and content on:

  • the principles of ‘how we design at Co-op’ – for example, how to customise a base design system component
  • community ‘calls to action’ to contribute
  • high-level benefits of why the design system is valuable to Co-op and its customers

Going wide with our design thinking

After the brief was set, we split into 2 teams and spent 2 weeks researching and experimenting with ideas. Here are some of the concepts we came up with, including crit notes from the wider design team.

Converging on a design direction

Finally we took the elements from the diverge stage we felt were working and decided on a set of artifacts that represented how we might apply design and content to different areas of the design system. We created a landing and documentation page, poster, and call-to-action banner.

Below are some snapshots of the work that will set the direction for the design system brand. It’s important to say that this is a direction – we still have work to do to refine exactly how we’ll apply this kind of design and content.

We’ve also been brainstorming names during the process. We feel the name ‘design system’ could alienate some people we could work with in the future at Co-op who don’t consider themselves to be designers. That name also doesn’t reflect the breadth of what will be included. Nothing is set yet, but on these examples you’ll see we’ve been using the name ‘Experience Library’ in its place.

A section on the website that could promote meet-ups

With photography, we’re keen to reflect how we communicate right now while we’re all working from home, and we’ll also be diverse. We design with colleagues from all around Co-op with a wide range of skills and backgrounds. Our Experience library and the photography we use within it should reflect that.

A poster aimed at helping a wider audience understand what the Experience Library is for
A mock-up of what the homepage could look like

What’s next?

We have a pretty well-formed roadmap for the next few months focusing on creating all the missing documentation and the processes that will support this in the future. During this time we will develop the visual language and also create a content strategy focussed on what we want to achieve and how we’ll achieve it, workflow and governance, our personality and tone, and how we’ll measure success.

We’ll be working this design direction back into the prototype and releasing it iteratively internally to our teams alongside the new documentation. Then we’ll be going back to speak to more of our users and getting even more feedback.

Was the brand sprint useful?

The brand sprint process was intense, and it derailed our work on content for a while. But not only has it helped us develop the design language of the experience library and focus even more intently on our users, it’s also given the team a greater understanding of the vision and goals we’re working toward.

We’re creating a place where Co-op colleagues can go to get help creating better, more inclusive customer experiences.​

It’s not just for designers. It’s for anyone working on products, services and communications.

Matt Tyas

Principal (design foundations)

Sign-up to our updates to keep up to date with our progress.

coop.co.uk/designsystem/sign-up

We’ve updated our forms guidance in our design system

We’ve been quietly working on our forms guidance in our design system. It hasn’t been a quick process because the guidance we’ve added so far is based on research. And this takes time. 

Before we added the guidance, we:

  • looked at the data we had – things like error rate, heatmaps, and where customers appeared to struggle across our digital journeys and components
  • identified each type of component that was being used across Co-op’s digital products and services and considered whether each was necessary
  • identified best practice from different design teams within Co-op, and looked at the great work GDS have published 
  • gathered industry expertise from the likes of Caroline Jarret and Adam Silver
  • invited stakeholders to design crits as a way to check that our forms guidance is specific to us at Co-op

We A/B tested our initial designs across certain journeys, gathered more data as a result, and iterated before adding the designs to our design system. 

The forms guidance we’ve added so far isn’t ‘finished’ (and likely never will be). The roadmap below shows we still have much more to research and design and test, but we’re sharing what we’ve done so far.

Why forms are so important 

Forms are one of the most commonly used design components across our digital products and services at Co-op. From both a customer and a business point of view, they are also an essential part of a service because they allow a transaction to take place. At the simplest level, the user adds information into a form so we can help them complete what they came to coop.co.uk to do – whether that be buy groceries, get an insurance quote, or sign into their Membership account. 

In line with GDPR, we also collect customer and member data through forms and use it to improve services. Having a standardised way to collect data across all digital services makes data more reliable.  

The problem: inconsistency across digital journeys 

Before we began this piece of work there was inconsistency in our form design across the organisation. Design teams were creating forms that worked for their specific service and implementing them – sometimes, there wasn’t consistency within forms in a single service. The form type variations were numerous and the time spent designing each must have amounted to a lot. 

I’m a designer in the Digital Experience team in Co-op Insurance. Our aim is to make it easier to find, buy and manage Co-op insurance online. Part of the user journey to get a quote or buy insurance takes the customer away from a Co-op-managed website and onto our insurance providers’ (we call them ‘partners’) sites. 

When we started our research into forms, we were selling 11 insurance products through 11 different partners. Each partner manages their own online buying experience so there are inconsistencies with customer experience (and this will continue to be the case for a while). The customer journey for each partner looked different, and the functionality of individual components like checkboxes varied too. Considering the huge inconsistencies, we do not think it’s a coincidence that we experience a poor ‘customer struggle score’ (one of our key metrics), an increase in drop-out rates and poor conversion.

Of course, we have no control over our partners’ design decisions but when they designed their pages, we didn’t have thoroughly tested forms guidance to point them towards. I hope we can now use it to start to influence them. We’ve done the hard work and it’s in our partners’ interests to use the guidance to create more seamless, usable customer journeys.  

Impact on our users, customers and members 

When we first posted about the Co-op design system back in 2018, we stated one of the aims was to help create familiarity across our distinct business areas. We said: 

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.

When something feels familiar to a user, it reduces the cognitive load for them because – consciously or not – they know what to expect. And on some level that’s comforting. 

Accessibility is also a huge consideration. It’s something we’ve been determined to get right so we can use accessible components and patterns in our forms across all our services. It’s not only the ‘right thing to do’, it also lessens frustrations for anyone with access needs and reduces the chances of potential customers going to competitors. We know that 83% of people with access needs limit their shopping to sites they know are barrier-free (source: clickawaypound.com). If someone does not have a positive experience with one business area, they are unlikely to return to another.  

Data-driven design 

We made design decisions based on evidence. 

So for example, we used Session Cam to see heatmaps of where users click, hover and scroll and it showed us that when they were choosing an answer from 2 or more options on a form, many weren’t selecting the button itself – they were selecting the label next to it. (On the left-hand side of the image below shows this). This informed the design of our radio buttons and checkboxes shown on the right-hand side of the image below.

Sometimes, we made assumptions based on other teams’ evidence – and that’s ok. For example, at a crit we agreed to use a border for focus, active and hover states so the user would know which areas were clickable. Then we read this post on from GDS which describes why they ended up removing the grey border from radio buttons and checkboxes. As a result we agreed that the area would remain clickable but only highlight the border at hover state. We tested with our own users to confirm our assumption.

The Design System team are taking it from here

We recently put together an official Design System team who’ll be dedicated to taking this type of work forward. They’ll keep you posted on their progress.

Paul Braddock

UX Designer from Co-op Insurance