IF were asked to be involved right at the outset. We were there to inform the kind of approach the Co-op could take to personal data – and find out whether it even should.

Before Ian and Georgina unpick some of the development process, I wanted to write about how we started with an open question and got to Paperfree.

Finding the right question

A few months ago Tom Loosemore, Co-op’s Group Director of Digital Services, came to me with a hypothesis.

He thought that, when it came to personal data, there was something interesting about the fact that the Co-op is member-owned. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he was sure there was something, so we started exploring ideas together.

IF’s work is really about making better, more empowering products that respect people’s privacy and their data. So first we had to ask the question “Can the Co-op be trusted with personal data?”

I had a hunch that there were parts of the Co-op’s business that would allow it to do something unique when it comes to security. After interviewing several security experts, we started to pin down three qualities that make the Co-op an interesting organisation in this space:

1. They’re member-owned – they have to answer to the people who use their services, which means they can try different governance processes and can afford to offer fully encrypted services

A Co-op membership card (Image: Georgina Bourke / IF)

2. They have physical locations – that allows us to think about different methods of verification, and different ways of securing services for users

A Co-op shop in London (Image: Georgina Bourke / IF)

3. They have a distinct heritage – because they’re more than 170 years old, they’re a trusted brand with longstanding relationships with many members stretching back generations

The Dalton in Furness Co-op store (Image: Co-op)

The research didn’t just confirm Tom Loosemore’s hypothesis; it gave us avenues for thinking about products. The next step was to work out what we could build to answer those questions.

Exploring the products we could build

The team was small – Georgie, Ian and myself with Tom Taylor, Paul Furley and Jude Rattle from Co-op Digital. Our goal was to make a working prototype that demonstrated the kind of service the Co-op could build.

First of all we went really, really big. We spent a couple of days thinking very broadly about how the Co-op could be trusted with personal data, sketching a load of things we thought could be interesting to make, no matter how silly.

Paperwork management of some kind was an opportunity we saw emerge early on, in part because the digital team were already working closely with the wills and funeral teams. We started mapping a person’s life through paper, things like marriage certificates, divorce papers, getting a house… the kind kind of general documents a person might get throughout their life. The wall we made went from left to right, birth til death.

We took a cue from Richard Pope and started thinking about what a fast paced digital product might look like. To test our hunch about how the Co-op could handle the data we needed something you might touch regularly. That’s how we got to bills.

Everyday objects are extremely interesting

Bills contain really sensitive information, enough for someone to carry out identity theft very easily. Some bills you keep for a set period of time, other bills don’t need to be kept. As a result, people generally don’t know what to do with them. They keep coming, and they keep getting shuffled somewhere.

Choosing bills helped us explore questions raised by our initial research. Would the brand’s heritage make people more likely to trust it? Could we model different approaches to auditing? Would features like key retrieval or secure transition be possible using the Co-op’s physical locations?

We’re also experiencing an interesting moment right now where bills arrive via post, via email, and through locked accounts that no one actually looks at. The latter solves the paperwork problem, but it’s in the interests of some companies that you don’t regularly log in and check your account in case you realise you could be on a better tariff.

All of this is really interesting for the Co-op. It’s an organisation that can provide services at scale for a relatively low-cost, giving members access to things they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. If a service that handled bills also helped people with financial planning it could be really valuable to members.

We gave the Co-op a new lens for what they could build

The question this product had to answer at the outset was “Can the Co-op be trusted with personal data?” While we got to “yes” pretty quickly, the interesting question soon became “How?”

To that end, we didn’t just build a prototype. We helped the Co-op Digital prove they can build really valuable services for members, products that help the Co-op leverage their business model, their history and their assets in brand new ways.