How a voice user interface could help our Funeralcare colleagues

Sometimes in organisations – and especially in digital teams – we start a piece of work but for various reasons we don’t roll it out. The work we’re talking about in this post is an example of this and although it looked very much like it had potential to meet our colleagues’ needs, we’re taking a break from it. The work helped us learn what a complex area we were dealing with and how very important it would be to get this absolutely right.  

We may revisit the work in the future. For now, we’re sharing the valuable insights we got from it. 

Co-op Guardian uses Amazon Web Services (AWS) and in August 2019, as part of Amazon’s consultancy package, we decided to explore voice interfaces. We wanted to find out if  Amazon Alexa – their virtual assistant AI (artificial intelligence) – could help us solve a problem on one of our projects. We worked together to see how we could use AI to help our Funeralcare colleagues who embalm the deceased.

This post is about what we did and what we learnt, as well as the problems a voice user interface might fix, and the problems over-reliance on – or careless use of – one might create.

About the embalming process

Some of our Co-op Funeralcare colleagues ‘embalm’ the deceased. Embalming is the process of preparing the deceased by using chemicals to prevent decomposition as well as making sure they look suitable for the funeral or a visit at the funeral home. Many friends and family members feel that seeing their loved one looking restful and dignified brings them peace and helps with the grieving process.

What’s not so great right now

floorplanAt the moment, our embalmers have tablets with their notes and instructions about how to present the deceased. They refer to them throughout the process. But colleagues tell us there are problems with this, for example:

  1. Tablet screens are small and not easy to see from a distance.
  2. Although they’re portable, positioning tablets conveniently close to the embalming table is tricky, and the charging points aren’t always close by.
  3. Wifi can be spotty because embalming suites sometimes have thick walls and ceilings, plus extra insulation to help with careful temperature control.

Perhaps the biggest problem however comes when colleagues need to double check instructions or details and the tablet has timed out. They need to remove their gloves, sign back into the tablet, find the information and replace their gloves. Recent government guidance, plus an internal review, suggests hands-free devices are a good way to avoid unnecessary contact.

Could Alexa help? We had a hunch that she could. Here’s what we did.

Captured possible conversations and created a script

As a starting point, we used what we’d already seen happen in embalming suites during our work on Guardian. We thought about what an embalmer’s thought process might be – what questions they may need to ask and in which order. Based on that, we drafted a script for the sorts of information Alexa might need to be able to give.

photograph of post its up on a wall depicting what alexa and the embalmer might say

But language is complex. There are many nuances. And an understanding of users’ natural language is important to be able to help Alexa win their confidence and 2. accurately identify (‘listen to’) questions and respond.

Turning written words into spoken ones

We pre-loaded questions and responses we knew were integral to an embalming onto a HTML soundboard using Amazon Polly, which can recreate an Alexa-like voice. At this early stage of testing it was better to use the soundboard than to spend time and energy programming Alexa.

laptop_alexa_embalmerWe:

  1. Wrote the content peppered with over-enthusiastic grammar which we knew would prompt Polly to emphasise and give space to important information. For example, “We’re ready to go. From here, you can. ‘Start an embalming’. ‘Review a case’. Or. ‘Ask me what I can do’.
  2. Connected our laptop to an Echo speaker using bluetooth.
  3. Turned the mic off on the Alexa. Told participants that she was in dev mode and asked them to speak as they normally would.
  4. Responded to what they said to Alexa by playing a relevant clip from Polly.

This is a great way of learning because it allowed us to go off script and means we didn’t have to anticipate every interaction.

Over time we’d learn what people actually say rather than second-guessing what they would say. We’d then add the wealth of language to Alexa that would allow for nuance.

Research run-through

One of the reasons for doing this piece of work was to see if we could give time back to embalmers. With this in mind, we did a dummy run with ‘Brenda’ in the photograph below. It helped us to pre-empt and iron out problems with the prototype before putting it in front of them. Fixing the obvious problems meant we could get into the nitty-gritty details in the real thing.

photograph of 'brenda' a outline of a person drawn onto a huge sheet of paper placed on the table for the research dummy run.

During research, we were manually pushing buttons on the soundboard in response to the participants’ conversation (although the embalmers thought the responses were coming from Alexa).

High-level takeaways from the research

Four weeks after we began work, we took our prototype to Co-op Funeralcare Warrington and spent half a day with an embalmer. We found:

  1. The embalmer didn’t have to take her gloves off during the test (cuppa aside ☕).
  2. For the 2 relatively short, straightforward cases we observed with the same embalmer, the voice user interface was both usable and useful. That said, the process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours and more complicated or lengthy cases may throw up problems.
  3. The embalmer expected the voice assistant to be able to interpret more than it can at the moment. For example, she asked: “Should the deceased be clean-shaven?” But the information she needed was more complex than “yes” or “no” and instructions had been inputted into a free text box. Research across most projects suggests that if someone can’t get the info they want, they’ll assume the product isn’t fit to give any information at all.

The feedback was positive – yes, early indications showed we were meeting a need.

What we can learn from looking at users’ language

When someone dies, family members tell funeral arrangers how they’d like the deceased to be presented and dressed for the funeral and any visits beforehand. Colleagues fill in ‘special instructions’ – a free text box – in their internal Guardian service.

We looked at the instructions entered in this box across the Guardian service. Our analysis of them drew out 3 interesting areas to consider if we take the piece of work forward.

  1. User-centred language – Rather than collecting data in a structured ‘choose one of the following options’ kind of way, the free text box helps us get a better understanding of the language embalmers naturally use. Although we don’t write the way we speak, we can pick up commonly-used vocabulary. This would help if we wrote dialogue for Alexa.
  2. Common requests – After clothing requests, the data shows that instructions on shaving are the most frequently talked about. Hair can continue to grow after death so embalmers will by default shave the deceased. However, if the deceased had a moustache, embalmers need to know that so they tidy it rather than shave it off. It could be hugely upsetting for the family if the deceased was presented in an unrecognisable way. With this in mind, it would be essential that the AI could accurately pick out these details and make the embalmer aware.
  3. Typical word count – Whilst the majority of instructions were short (mostly between 1 to 5 words) a significant amount were between 35 and 200 words which could become painful to listen to. There would be work around how to accurately collect detailed instructions, in a way that made playing them back concise.

AI can make interactions more convenient

Everything we found at this early stage suggests that designing a voice user interface could make things more convenient for colleagues and further prevent unnecessary contact.

However, because it’s early days, there are lots of unknowns. What happens if multiple people are in the embalming suite and it’s pretty noisy? How do we make sure our designs cater for differing laws in Scotland? When we know the ideal conditions for voice recognition are rarely the same as real life, how do we ensure it works under critical and sensitive conditions?

They’re just for starters.

With a process as serious and sensitive as embalming there’s no such thing as a ‘small’ mistake because any inaccuracies could be devastatingly upsetting to someone already going through a difficult time. Sure, Alexa is clever and there’s so much potential here but there’s a lot more we’d need to know, work on, fix, so that we could make the artificial intelligence part of the product more intelligent.

Tom Walker, Lead user researcher
Jamie Kane, user researcher

Illustrations by Maisie Platts

Karen Lindop: we’re hiring! Plus our ‘Federation Presents’ events

(Transcript) Karen Lindop: Hello, and welcome to our update on what’s happening in the Digital team.

Firstly I want to welcome some new people to the team. Caroline Hatwell, Matthew Edwards, Lucy Bridges, Devon Gillespie, Lowri Davies, Kyle Welsby, Dominic Jefferson, Danny Wilson, Mark Pittam and of course Kim Morley who returns to cover Cara’s maternity cover. Welcome to you all, it’s great to have you here.

I also want to congratulate Carl Burton who won Disruptive Leader of the Year last week at the Tech Leaders Awards for his work on Guardian for our Funeralcare Business. It’s really well deserved, we’re all proud of you Carl as well as the whole team, past and present!

We host lots of different groups and organisations events in The Federation. Anyone can use our events space, and you can find details of all upcoming events on the website and we’ll add the link to our blog.

We’ve also been running a series of free events called Federation Presents which has been designed to explore ethics in the technology industry and society and using technology for good. We have collaborated with experts from around the world to talk about our industry’s big issues such as surveillance capitalism, racial and gender bias in machine learning, ethical business models and the future of work. This week we held one on Toxic Tech, and our next one will be in December – keep an eye open for more details.

Co-op’s interim results came out last week, I’d encourage you to have a look. There’s some great progress in 6 months by doing things #TheCoopWay.

Within the interim results we announced that we’ve acquired Dimec who are a healthcare technology start-up who have developed a platform which enables patients and their GPs to interact and better manage their prescription needs. Dimec will give us the online structure from which to build a new range of health and well-being services for our members. Excitingly, we’re looking for a Head of Product for this new business, if you’re interested the link to apply is on our blog.

We’re also looking for software and platform engineers, BA’s and front end developers, again the links to apply are on out blog.

That’s it for this week. Don’t forget to subscribe for all our updates on our blog and follow us on Twitter. See you soon.

Karen Lindop
Head of Digital Operations

Using our data to improve Guardian, our Funeralcare digital service

Guardian is our digital service, designed with, and for, our Funeralcare colleagues. Next week, it will be live across our 1,059 Co-op Funeralcare branches.

That’s every single branch in England, Scotland and Wales.

At this point:

  • 4,014 colleagues across our 1,059 branches in England, Scotland and Wales are now using Guardian
  • 30,425 funerals have been arranged using the Guardian digital service so far

But the Digital team’s work isn’t complete. We’re working to continuously improve the service for our colleagues and their customers and one way we’re doing that is by looking at the data.

Improving the journey between the ‘first call’ and funeral

One of our key performance indicators in the Funeralcare business is around how much time the deceased spends in our care. Typically, families want their loved one’s funeral to take place as quickly as possible, so often, the shorter the gap between the date of death and the funeral equates to higher customer satisfaction.

From the ‘first call’ when a family member rings up to say they’ve lost a loved one, colleagues take details and the deceased is then in the Guardian system. As they move through the care process, the time they spend at each stage is calculated automatically as colleagues use Guardian.

Guardian then pulls that data through to a dashboard so we can monitor performance easily. Being able to break down the process is really useful in terms of seeing our average time for each stage – it helps us see where we’re excelling and where we can improve.

Giving colleagues autonomy

Giving time back to colleagues so they could spend more time with families has always been the most important outcome of Guardian. Everything has been focused on that.

Ideally, we wanted to build something that would help colleagues deliver the same number of funerals more quickly, ie, colleagues spent less time organising, note taking and communicating details to other colleagues, and more time with families who are going through a tough time.

Empowering colleagues to see for themselves where they’re excelling and where they could improve gives them autonomy and helps them manage themselves. Each branch will have access to their own data so they can see how they’re doing. The data is presented in small chunks and includes things like: number of customers served, breakdowns of the types of funerals, hearse and limousine use, customer satisfaction scores as well as a breakdown of the time the deceased has spent in each part of the process. 

One place for data

Back in early 2016, when we started to identify user needs, we knew we could solve a lot of problems if we could record information about the deceased and about their upcoming funerals, and make that information available to the colleagues who need to see it, at the point they needed to see it.

Early user research found colleagues inventing their own, paper-based systems to log details of the deceased and organise funerals which was time consuming. But above all, it was limiting because colleagues couldn’t easily share their notes with people who worked in the same funeral home as them and it was even trickier to keep external homes in the loop.

Paper processes limit who can work and where they can work from. Some recent feedback from a colleague highlighted this. He said: “What I like most about Guardian is that it means I get a better work life balance – I can go home and finish admin there, rather than having to go back to the office. I get to spend more time around my kids.”

Making data accessible to the right people at the right time

Because Guardian’s data is stored in one secure place, we can use it to help out other areas of the business.

For example, before Guardian, customers would call the central Funeralcare number on the website and come through to the customer service centre. Advisors weren’t able to answer respond efficiently to phone calls like: “My mother came into your care over the weekend. It was all a rush at the time. Which funeral home is she in?” This kind of information would only exist as paperwork in-branch. Advisors can only transfer the caller to a local branch, but this isn’t always the best experience because there’d be no guarantee the branch would answer.

We’re starting a pilot next month, looking at giving our call centre advisors access to relevant information on Guardian, so with a few clicks they could find out quite a lot of reassuring detail for the family of the deceased. For example: “Your mother came into our care last night at around 2am, she’s now at the Rochdale home. Would you like to speak to your Funeral Director?”

What we’ll look at soon

Now rollout is almost complete, we’re looking at what we could do with the data coming out of Guardian. We’ve been asking:

  • How could we optimise the 1,275+ vehicles in Funeralcare-owned fleet?
  • Can we predict the volume of demand for individual branches so we can ensure more customers are served first time in-branch?
  • Can we enable more customers to be served first time on the phone by leveraging the customer service centre?
  • How could we optimise the order and delivery of ten of thousands of coffins annually?

They’re all interesting problems to solve. The hard work isn’t over yet.

Jack Gray
Product Lead

Guardian update: rolling out, listening to feedback and fixing problems

We’re conscious that we haven’t blogged about Co-op Funeralcare for a while so this post aims to give an overview of what we’ve been doing and how it’s been going.

Co-op Digital worked with subject matter experts from Co-op Funeralcare to design and build a digital service which would give time back to our Funeralcare colleagues by taking away arduous admin and keeping customer data safe and secure. You can find previous posts about our progress on this blog.

The service is now called Co-op Guardian.

We’ve started to roll out the service

The last time we posted back in August, 29 branches and around 110 colleagues were using Guardian. Since then we’ve been gradually rolling out. Here are the latest figures:

  • 1,948 colleagues across 563 branches in England, Scotland and Wales are now using Guardian
  • 16,642 funerals have been arranged using the Guardian digital service so far
  • we’ve rolled out to 18 of our 36 regions
  • 12 regions are receiving training at the moment and we’re checking tablets are working and that wifi is in place

It wasn’t easy from the off

When we began the initial roll out there was a lot to contend with. Some of the problems we ran into were consequential and some were mistakes we needed to learn from.

We found we needed to:

1.Extend wifi coverage

A lot of our funeral homes were based in old buildings with thick walls and, consequently, the wifi was weak. We upgraded our coverage so it doesn’t just work in client-facing areas but also in places such as our mortuaries and garages.

2.Make initial training groups smaller

We learnt quickly that our approach to training colleagues up to use the service needed to change. We had too many people in a room at one time and too few people to support them. Now, there’s a maximum of 8 people per session so that each colleague gets the support they need and their confidence is much higher at the end of a session.

3.Give managers more support

We started out giving managers high level training and asking them to support their colleagues. But this put teams under too much pressure. Now, our Learning and Development team give managers much more comprehensive training so they feel more confident supporting everyone in the branches.

4.Improve communication and access to online help

To tell colleagues about updates and changes we had a ‘what’s new’ section within the digital service and we offered support through guides on the intranet. However, we knew colleagues weren’t using either of these things. So, we’ve created a ‘help’ section within Guardian which lets colleagues search and find the help they need and has a much more user friendly layout. It’s also easier for us to update.

This feature had more visits within the first 2 weeks than the intranet did in 7 months.  

Kind words: we’re making a difference

Introducing a digital service into this very traditional profession hasn’t been easy but we’re getting there. The feedback we’re listening hardest to comes from the people who use Guardian everyday: our colleagues.

We asked some of the first colleagues who received Guardian training what they’d say to colleagues who were about to start using the service.

“If you can buy something online, if you can book a holiday you can confidently use Guardian.”

“Having to learn something new in such a short space of time can be a bit daunting but once you go onto the system and see how easy it is to use, that anxiety goes straight away.”

Hayley is a Senior Care Logistics Manager who is based in Crewe care centre.

Exciting problems to solve

We’ve learnt a lot over the last 2 years and these last 6 months since we exited beta have been a really steep learning curve. Now, not only is Guardian getting better with every release, roll out is smoother and training is more colleague-focussed. All of this helps our colleagues trust the service, and we’re getting better data that helps us make improvements for Funeralcare colleagues and their customers.

In the next few months we hope to:

  • complete roll out
  • build data tools to help predict demand peaks
  • explore the option of giving customers access to Guardian
  • look at extending Guardian to also capture funeral wishes and pre-need funeral plans

The Guardian team

We’re looking for engineers to work on the Guardian team. Visit our jobs page for more details.