We are not our users: we should not tell them how to feel

When we create new products and services it’s easy to become emotionally invested in them. We’re understandably proud of what we’re creating and often attach adjectives like ‘simple’, ‘quick’ or ‘exciting’ to our descriptions of them. But the way we talk about our work in a team is not always how we should talk about it to others. To create respectful and inclusive services we must put our feelings aside, be humble and focus persistently on the experience of our users.

Why organisations use subjective language

Organisations often proclaim that a service is ‘good’ or ‘convenient’, that a task is ‘quick’ or ‘easy’ to do, that an update to a service is ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’. This might be to:

  • get people to feel the same way about the service as the organisation does
  • encourage more people to use the service
  • create perceptions about an organisation, brand or service

The use of these terms reminds me of a quote by author Laura Amy Schlitz:

‘Good’ is an approximate term. A second-grader once asked me for ‘a really, really good book’ and I asked him what he considered a good book. He eyed me with thinly veiled impatience and replied, ‘Medium-long with poisonous snakes’.

Just as the definition of good may differ depending on who you ask, so too will people’s experience of a Co-op service or process.

Circumstance dictates experience

When we created the Co-op Wills digital service, we did what we could to make a traditionally complex process, less complex. Through regular research we made the service as easy as we could for people to use – clean and clear design with plain English explanations of legal terminology. But users did not always find it easy.

Some people needed to talk to their partners before completing the form, others were reminded of frustrating events in their past, others found it distressing. Different parts of the process had different emotional triggers for people and each user’s experience was unique to their circumstance. It would not have been appropriate for us to talk about our ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ service because, although we’d removed what complexity we could, the process was not always an easy thing for people to get through.

This is true of all services, not just those services that deal with sensitive subject matters. Personal circumstances will dictate how people feel about them. People may not experience them as we intend if they:

  • have a poor internet connection
  • are in a busy environment
  • are stressed
  • have a disability or condition
  • have English as a second language
  • are recently bereaved
  • are in crisis

What’s easy for some may be hard for others. The service we’re offering, or the changes we’ve made to a service, may unintentionally make things harder, more complicated or slower for some people. So, conveying the organisation’s internal excitement, pride or thoughts, can not only be inappropriate it can be also be arrogant, disrespectful and offensive.  

We are not our users

Our perception of terms like ‘simple’ or ‘exciting’ are inherently biased. Our job as designers is to create things that we believe to be simple to use, easy to understand, and that people enjoy (or at the very least, don’t dread) using. To do this we build a comprehensive and thorough understanding of the service we’re working on. We can end up being so knowledgeable about the service that we’re unable to fully appreciate the difficulties our users may experience. When talking about mental models, research-based user experience group Neilson Norman say:

Users’ mental models of the UI (user interface) are likely to be somewhat more deficient [than designer’s mental models], making it more likely for users to make mistakes and find the design much more difficult to use.

Being so absorbed in the work can make it hard for us to stay objective. The level of knowledge we gain, and our emotional attachment to a service, becomes disproportionate to that of our users.

To maintain perspective we must keep the user in mind, always.

What we can do instead

The internet has raised expectations. People expect online services to be easy and straightforward. Having to declare that that’s what they are can raise suspicion and cause mistrust. As customer experience speaker Gerry McGovern says in his post If Google wanted to get found in Google:

If you ever have to say you’re simple, you’re not. Because if you were truly simple you wouldn’t have to waste time telling people you are. You’d just be simple…

The most effective way to give services the impression of ease, speed or convenience is to make them so. We cannot do this without considering the concerns of our users, and being sensitive to their emotional, physical and cognitive states.

The most effective content appreciates that people may be coming to it with their own apprehensions, insecurities and struggles. It makes no assumptions. It’s objective and neutral.

To create services that people want to use, we must make a deliberate effort to remove our emotional attachment to the things we’re creating and let our users decide how to experience them. By appreciating that we are not our users, and being considerate of their circumstances, we create services that are tactful, inclusive and respectful.

Joanne Schofield
Content designer

Improving accessibility in Co-op wills

Everyone needs a will and everyone deserves to fully understand such an important document. That’s why making a digital service accessible to everyone matters.

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A good service is one that everyone can use regardless of access need or the type of technology they use. Making things accessible isn’t just about catering for those who are blind, Deaf or hard of hearing. Service teams should consider things like cognitive impairments and motor impairments too. Thinking about colour contrast and writing in plain English also make services more accessible – it’s all about breaking down barriers.

Right from the beginning of the wills alpha, this is what we’ve been doing with wills.coop.co.uk

Accessibility is everyone’s responsibility

I think accessibility issues can be overlooked by digital service teams. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s more that sometimes they’re not aware of different accessibility needs. When I started working on this project I made it my business to flag these issues from the start. Soon afterwards, the rest of the digital wills team began considering access needs automatically.

To help people on the wider team (our subject matter experts from Co-op Legal Services) understand the importance of designing in an accessible way, we invited them to user research sessions so they could see how people with accessibility needs use the service.

We started with clear content

Wills are traditionally written using complex language that many people find hard to understand. Lots of will-related terms are unfriendly, sometimes unfathomable – for example a grandchild is referred to as an ‘issue’.

Terms like this make the service restrictive for everyone, not just for people with certain cognitive conditions, and those with low literacy (16% of adults in England are ‘functionally illiterate’ which means they wouldn’t pass an English GCSE).

So, every time we use a will-specific term, we explain it in plain English. We cut the jargon and replaced it with clear, simple language so people can understand the decisions they were making more easily, and without having to involve a solicitor.

By making things understandable, we’re making them accessible. Our content designer Jo Schofield explains how we designed the wills content so it would lessen the effort needed to read and understand it in her post Making a will can be daunting. We’re trying to change that.

Totally on form

We thought about and tested how we could reduce the cognitive load throughout the user journey. The idea was to break down the content so that users got the information they needed, when they needed it.

We used ‘nesting’ to reduce the amount of information on the page when the user first reaches it. When the user chooses an option, we ask for any other details at that point rather than having all the questions on the page at once.

Screenshot from the current wills service showing an example of the 'nesting' described in the copy.

We’ve tested extensively with screen readers and had a number of people test with their own devices and assistive technology. We’ve found that nesting makes things less overwhelming. Here’s an example of an earlier iteration of the same page that didn’t test as well.

Screenshot of an earlier iteration of the service. Instead of 'nesting', the user sees all the questions at the same time including details about options that aren't relevant to them.

The new form elements will be included in the Co-op Design Manual and used across the Co-op businesses.

Test. Iterate. Test again

The only way to know if we were improving the service for people with accessibility needs was to test it with them.

Testing needn’t be expensive. We tested the service with people at the Co-op by asking them if we could watch them use the service on our iPad. We also put a call out for testers in the internal newsletter and got lots of responses including one from a colleague with a visual impairment.

We also tested with people from a wide range of backgrounds in a user testing lab. We asked them to bring their own personal devices to test the app to help us understand how it can be used with VoiceOver (Apple’s screenreading software) and a high contrast colour scheme on an iPad, as well as quite possibly the oldest Android tablet I’ve ever come across. We have a device library at Co-op but nothing compares to the insight you get when you see your service working on the actual devices people use everyday.

Testing the service with a cross section of people on all sorts of devices (including their own personal setups) made us both aware of accessibility restrictions and helped us solve them.

We also asked accessibility specialist Léonie Watson to test our service. She gave us some excellent feedback and of course some small changes to make – none of us are experts.

#winning (almost)

If we’d had more time we know there’s more we could have done to improve accessibility even further. At the moment, anyone who’d like a Co-op will has to speak to a will writer on the phone. This is a legal requirement to make sure people are alone when they write their will but this interaction is obviously problematic for anyone who is Deaf or hard of hearing.

The Co-op Digital team will soon hand over the service to the Co-op Legal Services team so their wills writers can use it. However, we think that we’ve documented the service well enough so that this issue could be picked up again in the future. We have ideas about how it could be fixed, including by using video to verify identity.

Becky Arrowsmith
Software engineer

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