Making the move to user research

User research helps make products and services that work for the people who use them. It takes loads of different forms including lab sessions and interviews, onsite visits and analysing data but, regardless of its form, it must be present throughout the design process. And even after the thing is live.  

Moving into a user research role

I’ve worked at the Co-op for just under 2 years. I originally joined the Analytics and Optimisation team, but for the last 10 months I’ve been a user researcher at Co-op Digital.

User research really appealed to me because it’s about listening to users as well as looking at data. My old role was heavy on the quantitative side of things: I evaluated data collected from user journeys and improved the experience for users. Good user researchers consider both quantitative and qualitative research so I’ve been working on my qualitative research skills. Now I feel even better equipped to help teams design the right thing.

User research at Co-op Digital

I applied for a user research role after seeing the work that our now Head of User Research James Boardwell and the team were doing with wills. The multidisciplinary team was working in an agile way to build a digital service to make it simpler and quicker for Co-op customers to get a will.

I saw how both data and qualitative research fed into the design process. User research formed the basis for discussions and the team could test ideas, put them in front of people and iterate them quickly. The whole team came to user research sessions so that everyone saw first-hand how users behaved when we put prototypes in front of them and asked questions. The team analysed the themes that came out of the sessions together which meant that everyone had a similar idea about where the design was heading.

Everything moved so quickly and decisions were based on things that the team had seen or heard. At each show and tell the team knew so much more than the week before – they’d added another piece to the jigsaw. They’d started small and built the right thing, quickly. I loved watching their progress.

My first taste of user research

Supporting James was my first experience as a user researcher. I joined the Wills team during a sprint focused on increasing the number of people making it to the confirmation page. I already had good experience in this from my previous role but here I also got to see James talking to people, showing them the prototype and doing qualitative research in lab sessions.

The data I’d collected told us what was happening with real people using the website, and James’ conversations with people told us why it was happening. The data showed that the exit rate from the ‘Your details’ page was disproportionately high. Qualitative research told us that people felt uncomfortable giving their personal details before knowing exactly what the service offered. Changing the order of the pages, so, giving the user more upfront information, resulted in more people completing the form.

The 2 kinds of insight complemented each other. You can read more about this in James’ post, User research and sample sizes.

Learning how user research works in a product team

I spent 6 months working with the Membership team too. User research gives us the chance to test things to make sure we’re doing the right thing for users. This way, any decisions we make are better informed.

Working on Membership opened my eyes to other ways of doing research too. It’s not just about interviews. We:

  • used qualitative website feedback and quantitative analytics to compare what users told us with what they actually do
  • visited stores to find out what our members and customers talk to colleagues about
  • spoke directly to members

It’s about analysing all available resources.

Leading my first project

Photograph of a user research session. Shows 10 members of the Electrical discovery team talking about and analysing what they've seen in the user research lab.

For the last 2 months I’ve been leading the user research on a discovery in our Electrical business. This project has helped me learn a lot about how user research informs service design through techniques like customer journey mapping and service blueprints. Service design is a fairly new way of thinking at Co-op Digital so leading this project was sometimes challenging, but we’ve got a strong user research community at Co-op Digital and support and advice was always available if I needed it.

Hard work, but worth it

I think the biggest challenge for a user researcher is using all of their observations and data to find the need, and working with the team to translate these into things we can work on.

User research encourages teams to take a more balanced approach to design. It changes the way teams work and brings the business and digital sides of things together. It’s a way to stop people jumping to conclusions about what’s ‘right’ because we’re using evidence to make decisions. And ultimately, that’s going to work better.

If learning about how people behave and why sounds interesting and you want to help teams build the right thing, quickly and cost-effectively, get in touch with James Boardwell or leave a comment on the blog.

Vicki Riley
User researcher

Warning! Your MVP may cause discomfort (but it’s worth it)

We recently posted about how Co-op Digital and the Co-op Legal Service (CLS) combined their digital and legal expertise to build a service that makes it simpler to get a Co-op will. Together, we built something that’s both legally robust and easy to understand. In other words, it meets the needs of our customers.

But bringing together 2 contrasting ways of working so we could deliver this was tricky. The challenge was wider than combining the 2 disciplines. It involved building trust in the agile way of working with the wider Co-op business.

We start small

The digital team works in an agile way. Part of being agile is about getting value to your user as soon as you can through a minimum viable product (MVP). This means building the smallest usable thing that might be useful to them. Then, you watch how real users interact with it, listen to what they say about it and iterate and improve quickly based on what we learn from research.

Being perfect’s not the point

Releasing an MVP helps us build something useful at each stage of delivery and it’ll help us build the right thing. The point of working in this way is to avoid building and overspending on something that doesn’t meet user needs. So, releasing an MVP actually makes sound business sense.

But it takes time to learn about the needs of your users which means it takes time to build the best solution. This is a daunting process for anyone who isn’t used to working in this way, because an MVP is very rarely pretty.

In fact as Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn says:

“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

A reputation to uphold

When we released our MVP, real Co-op customers were going to be using it to give details about their situation and to book in a call with one of our will writers. It’s understandable that anyone who’s unfamiliar with this way of working would be nervous about releasing a product with known problems. We’re operating in a competitive environment and what if potential customers were put off by a poor user experience? What if they went to a competitor instead? Would releasing an MVP put the Co-op’s wills services’ reputation on the line?

Reaching a compromise

The biggest sticking point was that the digital team wanted to release a very stripped back version that didn’t cater for a whole customer segment. CLS had an assumption that launching such a minimal service without the option to make a ‘mirror will’ (something often used by spouses) would put potential customers off.

As David Bland says in his post Spruce, the corporate minimum viable product:

“The challenge with a minimum viable product is that you decide what’s minimum, but the customer determines if it’s viable.”

The digital team had to trust CLS’s judgement on their customers and release something more developed than we might usually expect an MVP to be. We were happy to do this because we knew we could learn lots from doing things this way.  

Understanding each other better

The more the 2 teams worked together, the more the trust grew. CLS came round to the idea of releasing an MVP (or something close to one) after we explained:

  • it’s possible to iterate to fix any customer concerns in a matter of days
  • we could ‘turn off’ the beta instantly and we could also control the traffic to the online version and only allow access to a small percentage
  • the phone call part of the journey could act as a backup and we could help customers over the phone if they had any problems online part of the service

Data-driven decision making

Once we’d launched there was a mindset shift in the team and the wider business. Together we looked at data and tied that to user research instead of relying on assumptions.

Tracking user behaviour with analytics tools really helped confirm that releasing as early as possible was the right thing to do. It was like having a window to view a customer’s behaviour and we used the data to help make decisions about the product development.

We could see at which points customers were stopping their journey and this helped us prioritise work. For example, we knew that an automatic postcode lookup feature would be useful here. It was coming up in user research regularly as something that would help smooth the user experience. However, when we looked at the data in our analytics we found that the vast majority of people were filling in the address fields manually just fine. So we decided to de-prioritise building postcode lookup. There were other areas that needed attention before this.

Taking a leap of faith was worth it

The metrics tools helped us show stakeholders and the Co-op Legal Service the connection between our product improvements and the bookings and sales. We could also show that the online business is generating a new set of customers that’s not cannibalising the original service. We knew we could potentially scale this up which is really positive from a business point of view.

In the next few weeks the digital part of the team will start transitioning over to Co-op Legal Services who will continue to iterate the product.

Find out more about Co-op wills.

Ben Aldred
Product engineer

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.

download

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

Making a will can be daunting. We’re trying to change that.

How changing where we give content has made our digital service easier for users.

I’m Joanne, a content designer working on the wills digital service. We’re building a new way for people to tell us what they want in their will.

Content design is finding out why people come to a web page – what they came to find out, order, apply for  –  and giving them this information:

  • in a way they understand
  • through the most appropriate channel
  • at the time they need it

How and when we give users information is critical for our service.

Why we need to make wills easy to understand

A lot of people find wills intimidating because of the complex terminology used. When you make a will you’re asked to make decisions about your:

  • ‘estate’ (the things you own when you die)
  • ‘executors’ (the people who manage your will when you’ve died)
  • ‘beneficiaries’ (the people or charities you want to leave things to)

We’re asking people to learn new concepts and unfamiliar terminology. We then ask them to make important decisions based on what they understand of these concepts. We need to make this easy, so people can be certain they’re making the right decision.

How we started trying to make it easy

We started by breaking up definitions of complex concepts using short, simple sentences and paragraphs written in a clear way. We presented this content over a few web pages before showing a screen asking the user to fill in the related question.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

We know users tend to read very little on the web – studies show only 16% of people read web pages word-for-word . We thought that by forcing users through these pages of information, it’s more likely that they’d take the time to read them, and therefore more likely that they’d be able to make an informed decision.

Initially it seemed to work. People commented on how straight-forward it seemed – it felt easy, not complex.

But, people were impatient

The further people got through the form, the less they were reading. They were scanning the pages, clicking through them quickly, and missing a lot of the information.

When they were asked a question, they skipped back and forth between screens to remind themselves of the concepts they needed to understand to answer. One person took pictures of the pages before moving on.

People were finding it time-consuming and frustrating.

And, we knew it was likely that this frustration would increase if users:

  • were in a busy environment
  • had short-term memory problems
  • had English as a second language

We realised we couldn’t truly rely on users reading, understanding and remembering the earlier information, even if we knew they would have passed through it.

We needed to rethink where and when we gave users information.

Make it easier, make it successful

By asking users to read information on one page and remember it later, we were increasing the mental and physical effort we were asking them to go through (called the ‘interaction cost’).

Having to go back to be reminded of information – finding the back button, clicking it, waiting for pages to load – also increases the interaction cost.

Research shows that usage goes down as the interaction cost goes up. So, to give our service a better chance of success, we needed to lower the effort involved to use it.

Give information at the point it’s needed

So we moved the information to the same page as the question – to the point the user needs to refer to it to make a decision.

In places, this made the pages long.

Screen shot of part of the wills digital service

So, we:

  • kept the sentence and paragraphs clear and succinct
  • broke up lists into bullet points
  • interspersed the content with logical subheadings

This makes the text easier to scan – users can jump to the section they need without having to travel to a separate section or memorise information.

We’ve reduced the effort required to use our service and reduced frustration.

We’re giving users what they need, when they need it.

Joanne Schofield

Hello to Annette Joseph

I’m Annette and I recently joined the Digital Services team as a Delivery Manager.

A Picture of Annette Joseph
Annette Joseph

I’ve worked for Co-op for over 2 years as the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) Manager for our Food business. I was seconded to the Digital Services team earlier this year and spent a couple of months shadowing delivery managers to get up to speed with agile ways of working before being hired permanently.

We’ve got lots going on so there wasn’t any shortage of great things to learn.

The digital wills team helped me to get a hands-on understanding of the role and responsibilities of a digital delivery manager. Setting the team up for a successful delivery, removing blockers and obstacles and helping the team to become more self organising. I also worked with Vic Mitchell and the team as they established a robust, but light touch governance for the wills online service as it moved toward live testing.

Picture of the output from the wills risk session
Wills beta team – output from go live risk session

The team working with Funeralcare is helping the business rethink how we deliver at-need funeral services. In an agile team, the way the team works together is as important as the work they produce so it’s important that any issues are surfaced and dealt with as quickly as possible. Working with this group, I learned about the importance of facilitating a team through different stages of maturity and how the appropriate method of support can help the team produce magic.

Picture of the Funeralcare beta team
Funeralcare beta team

The recruitment pipeline was passed to me at the beginning of the secondment. I used it to demonstrate the techniques that I learned from the other teams. The big visible displays of information keep us on track, and help us to be transparent. Regular catch-ups ensure the flow is constantly progressing, user research loops and retrospectives continuously improve the process.  

Picture of the output from the recruitment retrospective
Output from the recruitment retospective

The delivery managers’ community of practice ties it all together. We have a steady, supportive group meeting regularly. We share knowledge, resources helping us to continuously improve the standard of agile collaborative delivery across all teams.

We’re looking for more Delivery Managers right now, if you’re interesting or have any questions please get in touch.

Annette Joseph

Wills Alpha

A small multi-disciplinary team at the Co-op have been working to rethink Wills. Mike promised at the AGM that we would talk openly about what we’ve done. This is a post about our 10 weeks working on an ‘Alpha’ prototype and what we’ve learned.

Wills are interesting

I never thought I’d be writing those words but Wills are interesting.

Over half the population die without a Will and these people don’t get a say over what happens to their property, possessions and children when they die. No Will means a mess for family and friends to clear up at a time of stress. At best this leads to confusion and at worse family breakdown.

And even though people know a Will is worth doing and most people say they’ll get round to it, procrastination is normal. In other words, what people say they’ll do and what people actually do are completely different.

Why do people do that?

Part of the reason behind this apathy is that people don’t like to think about their own death – which is understandable, but there are other factors too.

Most people do not understand the language and concepts used in a Will.  Even those people that sit down and think “I’m going to do this” end up baffled by, and lost in legalese. They start the process, then stop when they come up against a barrier.

Then there’s the practicalities. Overwhelmingly people want to speak to someone to get advice and the reassurance that they’ve done it right. Usually that means trips to the local solicitor’s office, maybe some time off work, form filling, and a couple of hundred pounds for a document that gathers dust in the filing cabinet upstairs. That doesn’t feel like a good use of people’s time.

These make for some really interesting service design challenges and there’s a lot that can be improved about Wills. By applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the Internet-era we hope to do just that.

Wills Blog Image

10 people, 10 weeks to build an Alpha

For the last 10 weeks a small team of developers, designers, lawyers and user researchers were given space to explore Wills. We used agile ways of working to build an early prototype version (an Alpha) and test it with real people.

Mobile screen shot of Wills alpha

Mobile screen shot of Wills alpha

Mobile screen shot of Wills alpha

Mobile screen shot of Wills alpha

 

The purpose of creating an Alpha is to learn about the problem space, learn how to work together as a team, test our assumptions and to build confidence in delivery.

Designing for humans

Every two weeks we delivered working software and put it in front of six or seven people (in the market for a Will and not connected to the Co-op) to observe what they did with it. We asked them questions like “what do you think happens next?” and where we reached the edges of what we’d built we used paper prototypes or mocked-up service.

This helped us better understand people’s actual needs, fears and motivations – even when they were only using a partially developed service. Our user research taught us things that we would have missed had we specified a solution up-front. For example, we learned:

  • People want advice when they need it. They want a Will that is right for them, not just any Will. This may seem obvious, but it is visceral and trumps convenience. People want to talk it through and in this respect, conversations are reassuring and remove some of the fear of Wills.
  • Some people want a Will immediately, others want to go away and think about something or ask some questions. In other words the service needs to be designed to go at people’s own pace.
  • People’s expectations have changed. People no longer understand why they can’t update a Will when they want to, or why it is such a long winded process described in arcane terminology. People want the process to be robust but also more modern and accessible and for it to change as their lives change.

Onwards to Beta

Agile ways of working allow teams and businesses to experiment with new service ideas quickly and cheaply without needing to specify the problem and the solution up front (you can’t and you shouldn’t) or needing to commit to plans based on big, up-front assumptions. Our sponsors gave a small multi-disciplinary team a problem to solve and allowed us the space to work it out.  They empowered a team to learn and experiment. This means happier team and we think, better product.

We’ve now been given permission to develop a public Beta of the Co-op Wills service so you’ll hear more about this in the next few months.  We’ll share more about that as we go along.

Jamie Arnold