User Research at CoopDigital

Hello, my name’s Simon and I’ve just joined the team at CoopDigital as a user researcher.  I’m really excited to be here and help the team build some world class digital services.

Picture of Simon Hurst - user researcher
Simon Hurst – user researcher

What does a user researcher do?

User researchers fulfil several roles for a team, we’re there to help them understand:

1) Who the users of our services are and understand what they need from the service. To build great services you need to truly empathise with your users.

2) What’s the problem the user is trying to solve, what goal are they trying to achieve? How can we support them to achieve their goal?

3) Whether the solution we’re looking to provide works well and how can it be better?

Meeting real people

We do this by getting out of the building and meeting real people, talking to them and trying to understand their lives, watching them trying to complete their goals or use things we’re building.

We work with a huge variety of people, this includes those who are just learning the ropes, people who have maybe been bought a tablet by their children, or people who use a screenreader to interact with their device because of a visual impairment.

Bringing the team along

It’s even better when you bring members of the team with you, getting people who are building the service and writing the code to see users actually using the thing they’ve built and to see them struggling can have a tremendous impact on how they tackle problems. The result is a team who care about what they’re building and are absolutely committed to making it the best it can be.

User researchers are interested in if people can use things to complete a task, user research isn’t about asking people if they ‘like’ what we’ve built, or what they think of the colours.

It can be frustrating for people to see something they’ve designed and built not working, to see people struggling to understand the words they’ve used, or to interact with the clever little interface they’ve made. However, the sooner we can recognise the issues, the sooner we can fix them, it’s better to find this out before you release the thing.

It’s even more important to understand why we are building something in the first place, is it needed by people? Is it helping them to achieve a goal or to solve a problem? If it isn’t we end up building something that could be the most beautiful designed and usable product or service, but if it’s not needed then no one will ever use it.

We’ll be looking at how we get involved with users more and more in the near future and we’ll be sure to blog about how we’re doing it and what we’re learning along the way. We’ll also be working hard to try and understand how user research applies in an organisation as diverse and varied as Co-op. There’ll be plenty more blogs to come from us on that.

Simon Hurst
User Researcher

Finding our way with a Co-op design system

Last week I received a tweet from some lovely folk out there who had questions on how we design and build things at Co-op.

I realised that a huge proportion of my working year has been devoted to helping create a new design language for the Co-op and I had quite a lot to say on the subject. This therefore, will be the start of series of posts charting how we are tackling prototyping and (more widely) design at the Co-op.

Background

A while ago the focus in the design community shifted from designing pages to designing systems. Using modular, reusable components that together fit any shape or size while retaining usability and brand aesthetic. We weren’t selling paintings anymore. We were creating living systems that must fit a variety of user needs and contexts.

I became aware of this way of thinking from Nicole Sullivan’s much cited article about the ‘Media Object’. She noted that the same design pattern was built many times over using the same code. Repeated many times, by many different developers. The idea that a design pattern could save thousands of lines of code I found interesting. Most noticeably, it turned me into a pattern hunter. Constantly looking for ways to save time, code and create more and more consistency in my designs.

Cut to the present day, and many large companies have adopted (and many open sourced) their design systems. Experts within the design community have evangelised their usage at many industry events. Designers and developers have adopted these practices. And the benefits of this approach have filtered down to our stakeholders. In fact at Co-op, we were doing it a long time before the logo changed.

Reasons why designing this way is good:

  • Every project starts from the same well researched baseline
  • It promotes a few (researched ways) of doing things that are documented
  • All components are shared and can be improved by anyone
  • Designing and building services is faster, cheaper and more consistent for users. As the library of components grows so does our knowledge about their usage
  • It is agile. By being subject to constant testing and iteration (things can and will change over time)
  • Things are allowed to be just functional, in testing or even a bit wrong. As long as they serve a user well at that moment. Things don’t always have to be pretty straight away
  • Because of the above, it allows the flexibility to launch services when we need to and test them in the wild

Challenges we face as a large organisation at the beginning of this journey:

  • Creating an active community with an open dialogue
  • Engagement from graphic design through to (at least) front-end developers
  • Input and iteration based on user testing (and keeping that pipeline flowing)
  • It not feeling like extra work but part of everyone’s day
  • Everyone taking ownership
  • Not having opinion based discussions
  • Designing ‘marketing’ patterns where needs are less clear cut
  • Agreeing on naming conventions
  • Keeping track of everything that gets designed, built and ensuring it is of a high enough quality

Let me tell you where we are now (and answer those questions)

Firstly, we do prototype. We prototype a lot. Very early on we began to translate our colours, logo and typography into HTML and CSS. This was so we could build Co-op branded prototypes quickly and easily. This was the beginning of a Co-op design system. We’ve had a few goes at it, trying this and that. Building things, then rebuilding them in another way to find what worked for us.

Currently, we have a SASS framework. This is the basic code that creates a Co-op look and feel. It can be used as the base for all our projects. We also have a prototyping kit (that imports the above) built on Jekyll. It allows someone with a small amount of basic HTML knowledge to build a simple prototype. It also means we can keep our snippets of HTML and SCSS organised by design pattern. In the world of the web this is all very basic, but the simplicity lowers the bar for entry and will allow us to introduce more and more colleagues to code. Some of our teams will need to prototype by injecting real data, or perhaps build a native app. Whatever they do they can do it from something that is built on standard web technology that will work for everyone.

Screenshot of the current Co-op front end toolkit

The Co-op design system is still growing and maturing. Most recently starting to need to contain other wider guidance on content (writing for the web) and user research. We are starting to understand that as a team creates more and more good design this needs to be worked back in to our base system. When a team feels it is ready, it is up to them to set up a review where we can decide whether it’s time to include their new patterns and code. We’re looking for researched, best practice design patterns that work well for real people. I make the comparison in this article to the way we would code these patterns as it helps me understand the methodology, but really these patterns are about great design. We want to create a Co-op design library that promotes best practice usability throughout all our services.

Secondly, yes. We are on Github. For those who do not know, Git is a technology that allows us to store many versions of an application’s code safely and securely. We’ve been on it for a few years in fact. However, in the last few months I have never seen so many exciting new code repositories popping up. When our products owners are ready to talk about their service, you can bet they will. Right here.

We’ve started on our journey to creating a design system that we are proud of, will never stop changing and, in the future will be open source.

A style guide is an artefact of design process. A design system is a living, funded product with a roadmap & backlog, serving an ecosystem. Nathan Curtis

That’s the dream.

Questions, comments, help or jobs at CoopDigital –  I’m happy to say hello and have a brew.

Matt Tyas

Testing Co-op Membership

To continue in the spirit of the changes being made to membership and with our renewed focus on better meeting our users needs, it’s been another exciting week for us. We’ve just given 800 colleagues in our support centre at 1 Angel Square , Manchester access to the new Co-op Membership service.

Richard Pennycook (Group Chief Executive) announced the changes at the 2016 Co-op AGM (Annual General Meeting). I’m part of the team ensuring membership is focussed on the needs of its users and we’re testing our updated service with colleagues first to make sure it’s right for when we release to all of our members.

Picture of the new Co-op Membership landing page.
The new Co-op Membership site

The service aims to make it easy for members to:

  • Choose a local charity to support
  • Make the most of their rewards
  • Manage their details
  • Register transactions
  • Order a replacement card
  • Get involved with the Co-op

By only asking for the necessary information to create a membership share account, we’ve also reduced the amount of data a user has to enter to become a Co-op member. This is one step towards Mike Bracken’s (Chief Digital Officer) goal of making Co-op trusted with data.

We found during our research that users are becoming more reluctant to share their data with companies and question how their data is being used. We aim to be completely transparent at Co-op and by listening to and acting on our users feedback this demonstrates that commitment.

User research drives continuous improvement

We’ve been designing the new service with our members, customers and colleagues, holding regular research sessions to gain feedback and insight on early prototypes and ideas. This combined with data from our existing websites enables us to better understand our users, helping to prioritise the next round of development and continue to improve the service.

Picture of Co-op team members carry out user research in Ewloe’s Co-op
Team members carry out user research in Ewloe’s Co-op

We test our designs as early as possible, sometimes we use interactive prototypes, other times we’re simply testing a sketch on a post-it note.

Sometimes, the medium you use to test a design doesn’t matter; the key thing is that you’re testing with real users, to understand what works.

In the lab or In-store

Most of our user research has taken place in controlled environments with pre-screened participants (lab user testing), which has been great for gaining qualitative insight and we continue to research in this way.

Sometimes though, we need instant insight into our designs, so we use guerrilla user testing methods as well. Guerrilla testing is a lean, low cost way of carrying out user research, almost anywhere, any time. We’ve tested our designs in-store, in coffee shops and even in the street, gaining new insight each time.

We’ll continue to test and learn with our colleagues over the next few months with the aim of releasing to all members in the autumn.

In the meantime you might just catch us in your local Co-op testing out some new designs. Or if you are a colleague or a council member and want to find out more you can join us at our regular show and tell which is every Thursday 9.30 – 10.00 on the 13th Floor of 1 Angel Square.
Jack Fletcher

Giving Co-op Members a Voice

You may remember that Mike talked at the AGM about how one element of being a member is having a Co-op voice. Having a say, as co-owner, in the way the business is run and the decisions it makes. We’ve been working with our members and Thoughtworks since January developing a new digital service that will improve how they can work together with their Co-op in the future.

A wide range of members and colleagues have been involved so far in our weekly user testing. At group game workshops we’ve asked members to buy features they value the most. Online catch-ups have explored what our new tool looks like in prototype and face to face discussions in our stores have helped us understand more about how we present our content.

So far we’ve worked with members from all across the UK – from Plymouth in the South to Stornaway in the North.

User feedback session
User Testing in 1 Angel Square

This feedback is proving to be incredibly valuable. Positive, negative and brutally honest, it helps us understand our users as we build, bringing their voice into the team and influencing everything we do.

After each session we review what we’ve heard and that’s then driven directly into evolving the project and the tool itself. The following week we check in again to see if our changes have hit the mark or need more work.

Listening to the aspirations and passions of our members and finding ways to meet their needs has always been at the heart of the Co-op. So perhaps that’s why this project feels like a natural way for us to work. Being Co-op is all about working co-operatively as a better way of doing business.

This new service will be a great example of that better way – created and evolved co-operatively with our members.

We always need more people to help give us their views – if you fancy giving it a go why not let us know. Just drop us a line member.services@co-operative.coop or message me on Twitter @Coopmarkrf. Or just keep an eye on the blog as we’ll be posting regularly to tell you what we’ve done.

Mark Robinson-Field

We’re looking for user researchers.

We’re recruiting user researchers to join our growing CoopDigital team in Manchester. These new, permanent roles are critical to our ability to deliver brand new digital services for The Co-op, its customers and members.

Our user researchers play a pivotal role in our multidisciplinary agile teams, working with product managers, designers, developers and more to develop and share our understanding of user needs; managing, facilitating and analysing continuous research throughout the phases of service delivery, from discovery to live. We do research the right way.

It’s a chance to join a team at the beginning of its journey, helping to shape CoopDigital as a team and research as a community of practice just as much as the services you’ll lead our research work on. It’s not just the opportunity to deliver services at scale across the UK, but to embed the value of research in The Co-op and bring it ever closer to the needs of its users.

We’re looking for people with a range of experience using qualitative and quantitative research skills; really strong communication skills; and – ideally – experience of an agile environment. An interest or past experience of user experience, design and content roles can help too. If that sounds like you, we’d love to talk.

The Co-op is a special organisation with distinctive values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. On equality, we want a team that is representative of the customers and members we serve and know that we’re not there yet. We believe in diversity and inclusion, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because we know it makes us better at what we do. We welcome applications from those traditionally under-represented in design, research, digital and technology roles. If that’s you, or someone you know, we’d really encourage you to think about joining us.

You can apply for our user researcher roles now. The closing date is 31st May 2016.

Andrew Travers
Head of Digital Design