Changing Together Series: The Co-op

Helping transform the Co-op to help it meet its commitment to paying all colleagues the national living wage.

There’s a lot of theory out there about ‘digital transformation’. Nothing wrong with that. We’ve contributed to some of it ourselves. But, at heart we’re makers and doers so we love to get beyond theory as soon as we can and start telling some real world stories. That’s what we’re going to start doing here, client confidentiality allowing, and we’re going to start with a project from the Co-op that illustrates something close to our hearts – how user-centred techniques and integrated teams can really have an impact on people’s lives and business.

Improving efficiency across the business

Co-op Digital was founded in 2015. Their mission is to use digital techniques and capabilities to transform a large, vigorous business with a strong ethical base. We were taken on as a partner to explore how service design and digital could enable efficiency savings and help enable them to pay the national living wage to all colleagues. A vision we’ve been inspired by since day one.

One team

The first – best! – decision was to do this with a blended team of people from ustwo, Co-op Digital, Co-op Food and software developers EqualExperts. Effective change can never be entirely outsourced and an external team can never know everything it needs to. The exchange of cultures is as important as the exchange of code and that’s always done best by working together day to day. We loved working with the Co-op teams and learned as much as they did. We especially loved the teams’ commitment to openness – in fact you can read their own account of this process on the Co-op Digital blog.

We worked with the Co-op on a number of discovery and Alpha phase projects but, for this post, we’re going to focus on a project we ended up calling Shifts.


Discovering the best problem

At the start of our engagement with Co-op Digital, we began with a quick two week discovery phase looking for the best problem to solve. Something tractable with a business case behind it. We looked across the retail business from logistics to stock management, looking for places where we could save time and/or money. We quickly identified a problem that had been causing considerable pain in the business – scheduling and shift management. We validated that with Co-op colleagues via some quick paper prototypes and decided to move into the next phase by building an ‘Alpha’ of a digital scheduling and shifts organisation tool called ‘Shifts’. Internal polling told us 40% of Co-op colleagues phone colleagues in other stores about their shifts each month and that managers spent considerable amounts of time arranging emergency cover. It seemed like Shifts could make a difference to people’s lives and help us find process efficiencies.

NB: The process we followed was pretty similar to the GDS Discovery/Alpha/Beta/Live approach. We like this. It works well for projects inside large organisations.

Shifting to alpha

We worked on Shifts in the leanest way we could. We only wrote code to test the things we needed to learn. We assumed we’d throw all the code away at the end of that Alpha process. It’s important not to get too attached to it otherwise you’re baking in unvalidated assumptions. To get up and running quickly we built our Shifts tool on top of some legacy systems carrying information about shifts, holidays and pay.

That meant we were able to get a usable product into test stores in just four weeks. This was a very light version of a scheduling app that enabled colleagues to arrange their weekly shifts. We started with six stores of varying size, location and shift swapping practices. From there it grew by word of mouth to 120 stores and 660 users.


We used Intercom to gather real-time feedback from users and that, coupled with the 1.1m distinct interactions we observed, meant we were able to learn not just what users said they wanted but what they actually did. This revealed, for example, that despite store managers skepticism about a feature that allowed people to see the entire teams shifts, it was actually being used by 70% of the users. And this approach allowed us to prioritise and design content, listening to users requests – such as information about rules for taking breaks – whilst referring to data to decide where to place it in the application.

A better beta

After three months of testing and learning we were ready to start designing the beta version of the service – the version that would be iterated towards the final live release. So we started on the beta in parallel with the end of the alpha phase. This meant we had two months to focus on a great design for the beta and to spend a decent amount of time working with EqualExperts who Co-op Digital had brought in to build the final service. Paying proper attention to handover is vital. Transformation projects almost always involve multiple partners and making sure you’re communicating properly is crucial.

Throughout the project, we also supported Co-op’s overall mission to become a digital first business by expanding their internal capabilities, setting up teams and enabling individuals across their business who are savvy in agile ways of working. Here’s what Chris Ward, the Shifts team’s Product Owner from Co-op Food, said about the process: “I am a complete convert to agile ways of working, now that I’ve experienced how quickly we’ve got the product out while overcoming technical challenges I predicted would take much longer. The ustwo team have lead us expertly through the alpha process and had a big impact on our culture as they’ve done it.”

But, we have to confess, the most satisfying news is that Shifts is soon going to be implemented across all Co-op stores.

Two things we learned:

You can have an impact anywhere

‘Digital transformation’ is often equated with ‘leading-edge’ and ‘innovative’. That can be true but often it’s not. Often it has the most impact when you’re addressing fundamental process problems, non-sexy stuff, deep in the weeds of the business. Sometimes that’s where you can find real value and have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Make things open, it makes things better…

The Co-op’s commitment to an open process matched (and possibly exceeded) our own. This made a real difference on this project. The show and tells and the co-design sessions helped ease the acceptance of the project and the quality of the feedback we got.

We’ll be writing more about the value of this part of the process soon.