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.

A discovery into data at the Co-op

We’ve been looking at how we handle our data. Over the years we’ve had recommendations from both in-house and consultancy teams about how to do this, but now we want to break the cycle and finish what we started.

Above all we’ve been thinking about how we can take a more ‘Co-op’ approach to our data. We pulled together a multidisciplinary team from across the business to look into this and they’ve become know internally as the ‘data layer’ team (explained in more detail by Rob in his being trusted with data post).

So, where to start?

We want to be trusted with data, and use data to inform what we do. The purpose of the discovery was to explore how we should go about creating the right conditions, both online and offline, to support this; and where to start.

We wanted to understand:

  1. How we deal with data now.
  2. The options for doing things differently.
  3. What we should test, explore and do with the data we have.
  4. What we can, and should, do with data in the longer term.

The purpose of this discovery was to stay at a high level when thinking about data rather than focusing on any one area in particular. We knew that would come later so didn’t want to get into specifics at this stage.

What we did

photograph of 4 members of the team gathered around post-its on the team wall going through the things we've learnt from user research

We needed to understand the problems and opportunities we faced: not just in the Co-op, but in the wider world too. This meant referring to a mix of research, from reading previous data reports to holding interviews and workshops.

The data science team

We started by speaking to the data science team here at the Co-op to get an idea of the challenges the business faces when it comes to data. They identified 47 points that needed to be addressed. We discussed each one and prioritised them in terms of urgency.

Inside the Co-op

We also spoke to different Co-op groups and the Executive team. We wanted to understand how people around the business approach data, how they’re working with it and how we can meet our Co-op ambition of being more trusted with data.

People outside the Co-op

To get a better external perspective we met 4 private companies that work closely with data. We found examples of how easily accessible data can improve the way a business runs, and creates an environment for identifying new product and service opportunities.

The public

Speaking to the public gave the team a different view of data and consent. We like to speak to our members regularly about data in order to be better informed. Understandably people feel strongly about how their personal information is used, and approaches change depending on how this usage is explained and how customers feel about the business in question.

Where we ended up

photograph of walls in the data layer team area showing what the team had found by the end of the discovery

Three main themes came out of our research:

1. We have multiple versions of the truth

Teams work from different databases that don’t necessarily stay in sync, or use consistent definitions. This makes it hard for users (colleagues) to find the best source for information, and be sure they are interpreting data correctly.

2. We under-leverage our data for analysis and insight purposes

Individual teams own lots of data and use it only within their team. We could be much better at sharing data and insights across the Group so it could be helpful for everyone. The problem is partly down to technical constraints, and partly a reflection of our how widespread we are and how differently we work: even within the Digital Group itself.

3. Consent and preferences aren’t understood holistically

Customers opt in to marketing for individual parts of the business, but we don’t have a clear central understanding of the consent an individual has granted across the group. This means that we may not be giving the best customer service that we could.

None of these themes came as a surprise – but the value in the work came from prioritising how we should move forward.

What’s next?

We identified 4 alphas which will be the first step in our vision for a Co-op that is built on, and led by, relevant, transparent and trusted data.

First we need stronger data governance across the whole of the Co-op group, so that our data can become more consistent, more joined up, and easier to find and understand.

Secondly, we should have a single view of each individual so that  all of our information on members and colleagues matches up. We’ll look at membership to help with this.  

Thirdly we want to look at what we mean by ‘consent’ when we ask members to trust us with their data, and we want to be sure this meaning is exactly the same across all Co-op businesses: from Food to Funeralcare.

Finally, we should develop a data science lab so that our data scientists and analysts have the right environment, tools and processes to develop and improve the work they are doing. This will also help us to attract more of the kind of people that will make the Co-op a centre of excellence.

These 4 alphas will start from September, and we will share our progress as we go. It’d be great to hear your thoughts.

Jack Fletcher
Interaction / service designer

Rob McKendrick
Head of Data Engineering

Our data team is growing, and we’re looking for talented people to join us in a number of different roles. Find out more about working for Co-op Digital.

A 10-day discovery into an app for members

Part of our job at Co-op Digital is to listen to our colleagues in the wider Group and help them help our customers and members. Our Food store colleagues get to know customers really well, often by name, so insights that come through them are super valuable. One of the most frequent bits of feedback is that colleagues would love to see a digital version of Co-op Membership because they’ve seen members forget their cards and use temp cards regularly.

A discovery into a mobile app

We know that 71% of the UK’s adult population own a mobile phone and many carry them with them most of the time. It’s reasonable assume then that mobile could be an important platform for us. Many projects in Co-op Digital have highlighted opportunities for mobile technology and we’ve experimented with some in the past.

We started to think about what an app for Co-op members might look like and what it could do.

We started by speaking to customers

I’m an interaction designer and I teamed up with service designer Kathryn Grace to find out how customers might interact with a mobile app and what functionality might provide the most value to them.

Our goals for the 10-day discovery were to:

  • speak to real customers and members
  • speak to stakeholders
  • gather ideas from different businesses within the Group
  • form early assumptions to test and validate later
  • produce some indicative designs of what the solution might be
  • give a recommendation that could be explored further

Ten days. We had our work cut out.

Asking colleagues 5 questions

We already knew that many colleagues had strong opinions on what a mobile app should or shouldn’t be. To understand their ideas we went to speak to them and documented what they told us. The best way, given our time constraints, was to conduct a series of stakeholder interviews. Kathryn led these sessions by asking each stakeholder:

  1. Explain your role.
  2. How do you see digital and mobile working for customers and members?
  3. What issues are you currently having to address in your role?
  4. If you could have one bit of functionality in an app what would it be?
  5. What does the Co-op mean to you?

Being consistent with the questions makes it easier and quicker to pull out themes from the interviews and document them.

A colleague sketching session

I gathered information in a different way. I ran a sketching workshop alongside Kathryn’s sessions. It was an opportunity to engage a people from Food, Funeralcare, Digital, Membership and Insurance.

The aim of the session was to get ideas out of people’s heads and onto paper. But not everyone’s immediately comfortable with a piece of blank paper so I guided the session with discussion points. I asked the group to think about things like:

  • how the Co-op could benefit communities better
  • how we can get more customers to become members
  • what Co-op Membership could mean in the future

The prompts encouraged the group to think about solutions to problems rather than Membership or technology specifically. It got them thinking about genuine user needs.

Photograph of two overlapping pieces of paper with sketched from the sketching session on.

At the end of the session we had over 80 different sketched ideas and the stakeholders left feeling engaged and invested.

Stuff we learnt

From the interviews and sketching workshops, we learnt that each business area has their own agenda and their own idea of how we should engage customers and members. However, despite that, the same things kept cropping up about what the app should offer including:

  • having a membership card on your phone
  • seeing your 5% reward balance
  • being able to choose a cause
  • signing up to be a member
  • digital coupons

Talking to customers in stores

Kathryn spent some time in Co-op food stores in central Manchester and suburban Leeds speaking to a diverse range of customers. Armed with a short questionnaire and a quick paper prototype based on our early assumptions, Kathryn looked into how people shop and how they use loyalty cards generally.

Photograph of 3 sheets'worth of paper prototypes that Kathryn showed to customers.

The research raised some interesting needs, attitudes and behaviours.

One of the more surprising observations was that some customers have made their own workarounds to augment their membership experience, from taking a photo of their membership card to adding it to Apple or Android Wallet. Interestingly, stakeholders had mentioned similar things when they’d spent time with Kathryn too.

Things to think about

Membership is central to the Co-op and a physical membership card has been central to Co-op Membership – at the moment it’s what identifies them as a member to us as a business, to colleagues in store. But a plastic card can be easily lost, damaged or forgotten. As a non-interactive thing, it also means that the interaction a member has with their account is usually at the end of their in-store experience.

Our research has made us understand that there’s an opportunity to change the ‘thing’ that links a member to the Co-op might be. At the moment this is the Membership card and it’s typically at the end of the member journey. An app could change that.

At the end of the 10 days of research, we’ve found there’s a user need for:

  1. A ‘digitised’ membership card.
  2. Allowing a user to check their rewards balance on demand.
  3. Accessing coupons from a phone.

We were given lots of ideas that would add value to members if we built an app but including them right away doesn’t make sense. We’ll start small, build the right thing and we’ll iterate and grow over time. By putting the membership card on someone’s device we create a platform for more functionality in the future.

We’re building a Co-op app

A small team has started building an app for members. We’ll build it and test it to gather more insights and identify risks. It’ll also give us an opportunity to observe people using the app in a real environment. Not all tills can scan barcodes on phones so we’ll be trialling the app with colleagues in the Angel Square store because we know that the tills here can. If it’s a success we can then begin to roll the app out to selected stores.

The value behind this kind of trial is that we have no commitment to do more, we can test this initial slice of functionality, learn from it, and then use that learning to decide where to go next.

Jack Sheppard
Interaction designer

Kathryn Grace
Service designer

Service Design workshops in Co-op Food

Last week we began a series of Service Design workshops with our Food business.
We’re working on a two week discovery phase by the end of which we’ll pick three projects to take in Alpha.

The project is being led by myself and Jo Whitfield the Finance Director in Food. We’re working with UsTwo as our service design partner. Importantly, as the unit of delivery is the team, our team is made up of CoopDigital, Food and UsTwo.

The team have visited stores, spoken to our colleagues, spent some time in a depot and with our call centre. We’ve been out talking to customers and members.

Picture of food service design discovery work
Food Service Design discovery

There’s lots to cover so we’ve been sketching user journeys with colleagues from every part of the business. We’re looking for clear user needs that will make things easier for members, customers or colleagues.

Picture of sketches from food service design discovery work
Outputs from a sketching workshop

As we believe in working in the open, we’ll blog about our progress on this blog.

Ben Terrett
Group Design Director