We’re live! Funeralcare colleagues have started to use the digital service in Edinburgh

We reached a milestone last month when our colleagues in Edinburgh started arranging real funerals with the digital service we’d designed together. Although they’re keeping some of the existing, more paper-based ways of doing things as a safety blanket until they get used to things, our Edinburgh branches are the first to use our new ‘at need’ digital funeral arrangement service.

We’ve been testing the service with colleagues in Bolton and Edinburgh. For this post, we’ve spoken to Jamie Rafferty, a Funeral Director in Edinburgh, to find out how colleagues feel about what we’ve built so far. We recognise that Jamie is just one user and that what he’s sharing here is what he’s found to be the general opinion of the digital service so far.

Some of our Edinburgh Funeralcare colleagues in our Angel Square office helping us improve the digital service. Jamie Rafferty is second from the right.

Of course, we’re still listening to colleagues about what we need to improve before we roll things out to other branches and we’ll continue to do that.

Saving time and keeping details central and safe

When Funeralcare colleagues receive a call telling them that someone’s died, they record details of the deceased. The digital service is helping them move away from paper forms and instead asks them to add the details into a digital form. This change means the information is held safely and is available immediately so other Funeralcare colleagues can access it when they need to.

Jamie’s found that colleagues like only having to capture information once. He says, “It’ll help save time. At the moment there’s lots of duplication as we have to keep repeating information such as name, address etc in several paper forms.”

Giving everyone instant visibility

It’s incredibly important that colleagues know who they have in their care and where they are. The deceased can now be booked in and out through the digital service. It also requests that 2 people verify unique ID numbers when colleagues move them to a different location.

Edinburgh colleagues say they’re getting used to doing these things digitally rather than relying on paper records. “Previously, we’d have had to make lots of phone calls to consolidate the paper mortuary registers in all the branches,” says Jamie. Now, the transparency is making it easier to keep track of who’s where, when.

Photograph of Elizabeth, a colleague in the Edinburgh who is using the digital service on a tablet.

Knowing what’s been done

Colleagues get involved at different stages of planning and performing a funeral so communicating progress is essential. We’ve developed a new care and preparation section to show which tasks have been completed, which ones are in progress and which ones are still left to do.

Not only does this help manage the workflow, Jamie’s colleagues who speak directly to clients say it’s helping them arrange viewing appointments for family members. Now, if a client wants to come in and see their loved one, they can make an appointment straight away because colleagues don’t have to make several calls to find out about the progress.

Personalising the funeral

There’s no such thing as a typical funeral and our all colleagues want to do everything they can to help families give their loved one a personal send-off.

To help, we’ve built ‘about me’ text boxes so colleagues can make notes as they learn more about the deceased. For example, if someone was a big football fan, colleagues can make a note and might then suggest choosing flowers in their team’s colours or plan a route that goes past a certain stadium.

The boxes for extra details have been welcome additions. “It’s all about making the funeral special and making sure the wishes of the family are followed,” says Jamie.

Visibility of availability

The digital service gives colleagues access to a shared calendar which can be seen by all Funeralcare colleagues within a region. It has filters so they can see when funeral directors within their care centre are available. This means they can provide a quicker service by provisionally booking in a funeral while a client is sitting with them. “Before the digital service, colleagues had to leave the client on their own, or ring them back, because we’d have to phone a resource department in order to find out about availability,” says James.

Where next for the Funeralcare digital service?

Two colleagues from the Digital team looking at the whiteboard roadmap to see what's coming up in the future.

We’ll be coming out of beta soon and we expect to be live in 4 regions before Christmas. Then we plan to roll out the digital service across the rest of the country during 2018. We’ll also be doing more work to make things more comprehensive. As well as doing more to help colleagues we have plans to build some client-facing services. So while the service gets more users, it also keeps getting better through continuous delivery.

Funeralcare team

Funeralcare: taking the beta to Edinburgh

Since April 2016, the Funeralcare team at Co-op Digital has been working to make life easier for our colleagues at our funeral homes across the UK. Our aim has always been to reduce the time our colleagues spend juggling and filling in paper forms so that they can spend more time with their clients – people who are grieving for their loved ones.

It’s been awhile since we wrote an update on our work. Back in August Andy Pipes, our Head of Product Management, said that we were rethinking how we deliver our at-need funeral service (an ‘at-need’ service is the immediate assistance someone might needs after reporting a bereavement).

At that point we’d built:

  • a ‘first call’ service that logs details of a death and automatically alerts an ambulance team by SMS to take the deceased into our care
  • a funeral arrangement service which captures the client’s decisions, the costs, and keeps colleagues in various locations from funeral homes and the central care centre updated
  • a hearse booking system, staff diary and staff assignment service
  • a coffin stock control system, and a way for clients to browse the existing coffin range
  • an audit system that captures certain steps in the service

Since then we’ve been busy testing with colleagues and iterating.

We’ve added new features

As we’ve learnt where the gaps are in the service, we’ve added new features. They include a digital mortuary register and a digital belongings log to record possessions.

Deceased can come into our colleagues’ care at any time of the day or night and it’s vital the funeral director knows where that person has been taken. To help, we’ve developed a digital mortuary register so that ambulance staff can book the deceased in and the funeral director can see where the person has been taken.

image shows a screen with the first page of the digital mortuary register. the options are 'booking in' and 'booking out'

Another new feature is a digital belongings log. Often, when someone is brought into our care they’ll have jewellery on them or other personal belongings with them. This means that when a funeral director at a funeral home gets a call from the grieving family to check up on jewellery, they don’t immediately know what the deceased came in with because the paper record is with the deceased at the mortuary. To make this easier and more efficient, we introduced a digital log instead of needing multiple phone calls between different locations.  

Live trial and user testing

We’ve been testing in 2 ways. From September to November we continued to visit funeral homes all over the country to observe how colleagues work but we were also doing usability testing on each of the individual features in the bulleted list above with colleagues in mock labs. We tested and improved each feature separately until we thought we’d built enough of a service to be valuable to colleagues. At that point, in December, we rolled out a beta trial in Bolton.

interaction designer Matt researching which content is most valuable to one of our colleagues with a paper prototype.

We asked colleagues in Bolton to use the service in parallel with their current process which involves whiteboards, post-its, paper diaries, fax machines and the old, often painful-to-use software. Letting them use it for real is the best way to learn what’s working and what’s not. It drew our attention to 3 major things we’d overlooked during usability testing.

  1. We thought we were being helpful by preloading the local churches and crematoriums but we hadn’t given colleagues the option to create new ones.
  2. We found that the calendar couldn’t cope with all day events.
  3. We discovered that colleagues help each other out so having restricted access for specific roles creates a problem if someone is off ill and cover is needed.

Testing the beta with a small number of colleagues helped us catch problems like these before we rolled the service out to more people.

Trialling the service in Edinburgh

We want our service to be useful everywhere but we’ve been told many times by colleagues that there’s no such thing as a ‘typical’ funeral. They vary from region to region for reasons including local traditions, operational set up, affluence, traffic as well as legislation. Because our aim is to give time back to colleagues so they can spend it with their customers, we need to create something that works for all users not just our colleagues in Bolton. That’s why we are launching our at-need funeral service trial in Edinburgh in March.

We’re still learning

The beta has shown us that funeral arrangements are made up of multiple interactions like choosing flowers, booking venues and signing off obituary notices. Funeral arrangements are iterative with lots of tweaks along the way, so iterating the design is the only way we can cope with all the new things we keep learning.

We know that standard software packages don’t solve every problem. By involving colleagues throughout we’re building something that meets their needs and will improve things for both colleagues and their customers.

We’re transforming the Co-op Funeralcare business but we believe that what we’re doing here will actually help transform the entire industry. To help us do this, Co-op Digital is working towards having a dedicated digital product teams within the Co-op Funeralcare business.

If that sounds like something you’d like to help with we’re looking for an agile delivery manager and a product manager.

You can read more about the agile delivery manager role and more about the product manager role.

Come to a talk about the digital transformation of our Funeralcare business on 28 March. We’re particularly interested in speaking to product managers, delivery managers, software developers and platform engineers. You can get your free ticket at Eventbrite.

Carl Burton
Product lead

Helping Funeralcare rethink how we deliver our at-need funeral service

Hello. I’m Andy Pipes. I joined the new CoopDigital team in February as a product manager. Product managers design and build digital services that help Co-op customers, members and colleagues solve real problems.

CoopDigital is helping the Funeralcare business rethink how we deliver our at-need funeral service. The funeral business is a care service at its heart. It’s a traditional industry. It’s safe to say the internet age hasn’t really influenced its practices and delivery mechanisms.

The Co-op is the UK’s largest funeral business, arranging 90,000 funerals each year. We look after families in real distress. We play a key part in helping communities deal with loss.

I’m proud to have met and and work with some wonderful colleagues from around the funeral business. They do an amazing job caring for our clients, despite having to fill in lots of paperwork and struggle with technology that can sometimes get in the way rather than help them do their jobs.

CoopDigital is working to design a whole new service for everyone involved in Funeralcare. One designed to make these processes simpler. Do more on behalf of colleagues. Communicate better with clients. And we’re designing it alongside funeral directors, ambulance staff, call handlers, and funeral home managers.

This is Robert Maclachlan. Robert’s the new National Operations Director for Funeralcare. He’s been in the post just a bit longer than I have. His vision for a new operation for Funeralcare couldn’t be clearer: Give time back to Funeral Directors to spend with clients.

Meet Hayley. She’s one of dozens of funeral directors the CoopDigital  team has met as part of our ongoing research. Hayley can spend six hours sorting out admin for every funeral she organises. Filling in forms. Checking on vehicles. Ringing round to find the right coffin, flowers.Confirming who’s officiating, who’s driving, who’s bearing the coffin.

Picture of Hayley a funeral director holding lots of paperwork

In Hayley’s hands is her “system”. It’s a plastic folder full of all the paper forms she’ll fill in for each funeral. It works for her. We’ve met other colleagues with similar home-grown systems. But every piece of information buried on paper in that folder is a piece of information a digital service could act on.

So there are some big problems we want to solve. Above all, we want to create one simple to use system so colleagues can organise a funeral from the first call right to the last detail.  Designed to accommodate the fact that every funeral that our colleagues conduct is unique.

The CoopDigital team practices ‘user-centered design’. This means we listen to and observe the people who will use the service. Our research team visits our colleagues in the field constantly to make sure we’re able to empathise with their concerns and challenge our assumptions about how we’d solve their problems. Three Funeralcare employees work full-time with our designers, researchers and developers in Manchester. An analyst from the Funeralcare IT team has joined us, so that we can introduce user-centred design and agile delivery to the in-house technology squad over time. We’re working together every day to help get the service just right.

Week by week we tackle a different area to work on, from receiving the first call announcing a death, through taking the deceased into our care, to booking transport, ordering coffins, and sending confirmation details to clients right the way through to creating an invoice and tracking payment.

On the walls of our workspace, we build out a picture of the emerging service. For each development period (a ‘Sprint’), we start with a clear picture of the user needs we’re focusing on. Then we sketch out a “flow” of the goals we’re expecting those users to be able to achieve after we’ve done that week. For instance, in the first week, we wanted someone receiving a call about a death to be able to log the most important details easily, and retrieve them later. Beneath the flow diagram, we list a few things that we’re most interested in learning as we test the service with colleagues in the field.

When we’ve built a small part of the service we take it out and test it in our funeral homes to see what the people who will end up using it think. If something’s not working we go back and change it and we’ll keep doing this until we get it just right.

We’re now 17 weeks into our journey. Here’s what we’ve made so far.

First Call service that logs the important details about a death, and alerts an ambulance team to take the deceased into our care.

Funeral Arrangement service that helps Funeral Directors capture all the clients’ decisions, plays back costs to the client, and keeps everybody updated about all the things that are still to be completed.

A hearse booking system, staff diary and staff assignment service.

A coffin stock control system, and a way for clients to browse the existing coffin range.

An audit system that works towards complete transparency about every important action in the service; a clear chain of care and traceability.

Various dashboards to show important “health check” measures for the business. Like busy times of the day for calls, and the % of contacts who are still waiting for an arrangement visit to take place.

Since we work fast, test often and iterate constantly, we understand that what we produce might not be right first time. Some of the areas of the service I am screenshotting above have been revised five or six times during the process.

But already we’re seeing how the service we’ve built will save time, do helpful things on behalf of colleagues, and present Funeralcare staff with useful  information in a way they haven’t seen before.

As we start to trial the service alongside the existing process in a real funeral home over the summer, we’ll see what’s working best, what still needs tightening up, and where we need to really focus next.

I’ll report back on where we take the service over the coming months.

A side note

If you’re interested in doing work like ours, please get in touch. We’re hiring more product managers, designers and developers to join our growing, dedicated team.

Andy Pipes