Matching our research approach to the project

We’ve been drafting our user research principles recently and one idea to come out of the sessions was that:

User researchers shouldn’t fall back on a single research method just because we know it.

It got me thinking about my latest project at Co-op Digital and how interviewing people in a lab may have been easier for us but our insights wouldn’t have been anywhere near as valuable.

My point is: it’s easy to stick with a research method because it’s familiar or we feel confident using it, but different projects demand different approaches and user researchers must think carefully about choosing the most suitable one.

Matching the research approach to the project

I’ve been working on a ‘later life planning’ team, looking at how we can help people plan for the future.

We wanted to have conversations with people around:

  • what planning for the future means in practice
  • their hopes for the future
  • any plans they have in place

But talking about wills, funerals, loss and what might happen to us in the future can be scary and emotional – so much so that it’s a conversation lots of people avoid having. I quickly realised that our research approach needed to be carefully and sensitively planned.

We use research labs regularly and they can be brilliant. They help the whole team witness the research first-hand and the controlled environment allows the researcher to focus on the interview rather than on logistics.

But labs can be quite clinical.

The white walls and huge two-way mirror don’t foster a comfortable, relaxed environment. I wanted the people we spoke to to be comfortable. This is something that needed to be more on their terms.

Researching in context

Photograph of hands cupping a mug at a dining table. Glasses in shot as well as a plate of chocolate biscuits.Apart from putting them at ease, the decision to visit people in their homes came from the desire to understand a wider context. What environment are people in when they have these conversations and make these decisions?

And home visits were great. Talking to someone surrounded by photos of their grandchildren, or with their pets bouncing around, helped us to understand what’s really important to them. By allowing us to see a little bit of how they live, our research participants gave us insights that we might not have got if we’d spoken over the phone or they’d talked to us in a lab.

For example, we saw:

  1. People struggling to find certain documents, despite them telling us that everything was in one place. This indicates that they might not have their plans as organised as they’d made out. We’re less likely to have found this out over the phone or in a lab.
  2. People’s expressions and body language while they had candid conversations with loved ones. One valuable insight was seeing the sense of urgency on a wife’s face when she spoke about needing to replace her husband’s expired life assurance plan. Her expression gave us an idea of what an important and worrying issue this was for her. Their body language show us how much importance each of them placed on different parts of their existing plan.  

Seeing things first-hand was a good reminder that people’s lives are messy. Anything we design or build needs to consider this.

Challenges with timing and practicalities

It took a long time to plan and prepare for the home visits. The logistics of travelling, getting lost, finding somewhere to park and finding the right spot to put the GoPro so we could record the interview was sometimes tricky. And by the time we’d introduced ourselves, talked through consent, set up the GoPro, things felt quite rushed. Next time, I’ll allocate time for these things or chat over the phone before the interview to establish a relationship and cover the basics in advance.

It’s tricky to involve the whole team

I’ve found it’s easier to get the whole team involved when we’re speaking to people in the lab – it’s one place, one day. But we carried out home visits over 2 weeks making it more difficult to pin everyone down.

We discussed who we wanted to speak to and what we’d like to find out as a team beforehand. This then fed into the plan and discussion guide. Product manager Sophia Ridge and designer Matt Tyas were able to come to the various interviews but making sure the whole team heard the voice of the interviewee and got the same insight was difficult.

We all came together to watch the home visit videos and I asked everyone to take notes as they would in a lab setting. I’d hoped we’d sort the findings and uncover themes and insights together. But 2 videos in, people were pulled onto other work. Next time, I’ll take the team out of our working space and ask them to leave their laptops behind.

Research community, how do you do it?

We’d be interested to hear how and why you’ve chosen to step outside the lab for different projects, and whether you think you got more useful insight from it. Leave a comment below.

Vicki Riley
User researcher

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

A new website: 12 months of digital product research

The Digital Product Research team builds things to think with. Over the last year we’ve researched a number of areas, and we’ve brought what we’ve learned from that work together in a new website: coop.uk/dpr.

Building and testing quickly

Starting from an idea about how we think the world works, or how we’d like it to work, we carry out experiments to find out if we were right, or why we were wrong. We quickly test and validate our ideas in a wide range of ways including making physical gadgets, building web apps, giving out flyers, knocking on doors, even experimenting on ourselves.

Stuff that matters

Whatever we do, we always start from one of our core beliefs:

  • people should understand and have control over the technology they use
  • technology should work for people and communities, not against them

And we’re always looking for new places where co-operation is a competitive advantage. Over the last year we’ve explored a few areas including insurance, financial freedom and community energy. And we’ve talked about some of it – we’ve blogged about some of our work on paperless billing, terms and conditions and security.

A place for our learnings to live

We’ve amassed a collection of learnings, ideas, prototypes and insights which we’ve brought together into one archive: coop.uk/dpr. Some of what we’ve learned along the way seems quite obvious (young people find it hard to visualise the long term future – who knew!).

Some are more surprising (an interest in renewable energy ≠ an interest in climate change). But we think we have some interesting stories to tell – not just about what we’ve learned, but also about how we’ve learned.

So please take a look, and let us know what you think. Specifically we’d like to know if the site is accessible – we’ve carried out some automated tests, but that’s no substitute for getting it in front of people.

And, of course, we’d like to know if you think it’s interesting.

If you’d have any questions about our work, let us know in the comments.

Sophy Colbert
Content designer