Explaining the tech behind the new ‘one Co-op’ site

We talked about our work to bring each Co-op business area under the coop.co.uk url in our post One Co-op, one website. In it we explained why we’re doing this and our progress so far. To recap: in the past, having completely different websites for Co-op Food, Insurance, Funeralcare, Electricals, Ventures and Legal has worked ok for the business. However as the Co-op changes we’re finding this inefficient as well as expensive, and the online experience for customers and members is visually inconsistent.

The thinking behind our work isn’t revolutionary but the cultural shift is.

This post explains the technical reasons why moving to a single url will help save time, energy and money. Plus it describes how we’re doing it.

Slow to build, expensive to run

Before we could start designing the pages people see and the content people read when they visit a Co-op website, we knew we needed to build a sturdy infrastructure.

We looked at what we already had in place and found that our many individual sites were:

1.Slow to build

When building websites, it’s standard practice to create different ‘environments’ for the team to test new content and new features on before making the website available to the public. Most teams will use 4 of them (development, testing, staging and production) and each one of these takes time to build. As it was, we had 5 sites, all with 4 environments. This meant that not only was our infrastructure slow to build, it was also expensive in terms of colleagues’ time.

2.Expensive to run

Aside from the environments, the costs include hosting (where each website lives on the web), and subcontracting third parties to maintain the sites (writing copy, adding it to the site, updating it as well as looking after site security). In most instances, Co-op colleagues didn’t have access or permission to make changes themselves.

We needed to find something more sustainable – something cheaper, quicker and easier to update.

The solution: what we’ve done

When we’ve been explaining what we’ve done to non-technical people at our show and tells, we’ve borrowed an analogy from Docker – industry leaders in this kind of work. I’ll paraphrase.

Let’s think about the most sustainable infrastructure we could build for the content across our businesses to ‘live’ in.

At the moment, many websites from across the Co-op business exist on their own – so let’s say the content on them lives in ‘houses’. Houses are self-contained. They have their own infrastructure, for example, plumbing, heating, electricity and security. A lot of time and cost is involved in building and setting up all of those things.

Apartments, however, are built around shared infrastructure. The plumbing, heating and electricity is shared and there’s a communal door to keep the inhabitants safe and secure. Sharing these things means that building websites is quicker and that running them is cheaper.

We’re trying to bring the content from across the business to the same place – so instead of leaving it and trying to maintain it all in self-contained websites (houses), we’re beginning to house it together in ‘containers’ (flats) under one roof in a ‘cluster’ (an apartment building).

containers-jpeg

You can see the full blog post ‘Containers are not VMs’.

Benefits we’re seeing right now

Moving everything to the single coop.co.uk url is a work in progress. However, we’re already starting to see benefits. Since we started using containers, it’s taken just 50 minutes to create the environments we need to test and deploy to – this used to take up to 4 weeks.

We’re also saving 57% on platform costs a year. As it was, we were paying Amazon to host 5 sites, all with 4 environments. As we move everything across to our own single platform we estimate the saving will reach 70% on what we were paying out.

Benefits we expect to see shortly

There’ll be more benefits to come too. For example:

  • our costs will reduce dramatically when Co-op colleagues can design, write content, publish and maintain our sites ourselves rather than paying third parties to do it for us
  • our costs will decrease when we can host our sites ourselves and look after security internally
  • our engineers will be able to make changes or ‘deploy’ more quickly
  • we’ll be able to build in and manage security and resilience from the start for all new sites
  • we’ll save time when we fix things or add new features because we’ll make one change rather than the same change in 20 different places because our new site will use the same architecture

How we got here

This piece of work is truly transformative in the way that it will, and already is, improving things for any Co-op colleague who has involvement with a Co-op website; the Co-op as a business as well as Co-op customers and members who’ll benefit from a much more joined up online experience.

We’ve come a long way. There’s still a long way to go. We’ll keep you updated on the blog.

Graham Thompson
Principal engineer

One Co-op, one website

The Co-op is an organisation made up of several business areas. There’s Food, Insurance, Funeralcare, Electricals, Ventures and Legal and at the moment each one has its own website that sits separately to the rest of the organisation. Historically, this has worked because each site serves a very different purpose, but as the Co-op changes we’re finding this inefficient as well as expensive.

One site will mean more familiarity

At the moment, our sites are maintained and hosted by various external companies. Moving them onto one platform that we manage ourselves makes sense financially and it also gives us more autonomy to maintain and update content which will be better for our customers and members.

Bringing the businesses together on to one, internally-maintained platform will mean there are more visual similarities too. Each business area will use our Co-op design system which will reinforce the Co-op feel – something that’s difficult to do when each site is looked after by external companies.  

Better for customers, better for business

Co-op Digital’s role has always been to make things simpler, faster, more efficient for our users (that’s our customers, members and our colleagues too). We spoke to users to find out if we can improve their online experience with us and find out what their expectations might be. Expectations and needs can, of course, be very different.

The research told us that members expect to see all their interactions with the Co-op in one place. For example, if they’d visited our Membership site to find out about their rewards, there’s no easy way to move from there to another Co-op service. At the moment, users tend to leave whichever one of our sites they came to, to go search again for another one of our sites. Users felt that having everything in one place would improve their online experience with us.

It also makes sense from a business point of view. Unsurprisingly, analytics tells us we only see 1% of traffic from our Food site go through to our Electrical business, however, having everything together gives us more of a presence and helps remind customers we do more than just the thing they came to the site for.

We’re starting small

This is a big job and it’ll take a significant amount of time to bring everything together. We’ll be checking in with our users along the way and testing what we’ve built with them to make sure the information architecture works for them.

As always, we’ve started small. Coop.co.uk is the homepage for the Co-op and today we’ve put Co-op recipes live under the coop.co.uk/recipes url. The recipes used to live on dinner4tonight.com – but taking ownership of the content under a url that’s more obviously related to us is important.

Working closely with our business area experts

Co-op Digital has been working alongside subject matter experts from different business areas. Without their knowledge and expertise, it’d be impossible to design and build the right things for our customers.

As the team’s got bigger, we’ve split into 4 streams to focus our work. They are:

  • strategy – based on research, decide on and build new things with business units
  • iterate – improve the designs by testing with users and looking at metrics
  • content – creating and managing content and working with the wider organisation to align it
  • ‘engine’ – the technical team that develops and maintains the platform that hosts the site as well as builds reusable back-end components to make it easier to create and scale sites quickly

Gradual and iterative improvement

We’re now working on adding wines and Christmas products to the site in a similar way we did recipes. They’re just a small part of what the Co-op offers but we need to bring everything together gradually while we test our work with users to check we’re making customer-centred decisions.

Over the next year, we hope to bring more of the Co-op businesses under the same same coop.co.uk/ url.

Nate Langley
Lead product designer