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Emotional support for people in debt

People in debt often feel isolated. People who have got themselves out of debt wish they could support others who are in that situation.

Co-op has always stood for solidarity and self-help - helping people to help themselves in times of trouble. Could we bring these people together in a way that benefits all?

Talking about money is awkward, even when things are going well

When things aren’t going well, it’s even harder to broach the subject of debt. Read the comments on forums such as Debt Free Wannabe on and you’ll hear the same story. Loneliness and shame, not being able to talk to friends and family, and an inability to see past the here and now.

Giving financial advice is a tightly regulated industry. If Co-op was to help people who have experienced debt support each other, we’d have to stop them from giving financial advice - something best left to the professionals.

People who help people

In previous research, we’d met two people who had got out of debt and then offered emotional and practical support to friends currently in debt. They were proud of the help they’d been able to give, and had found it a positive experience. Could Co-op do something to scale up this willingness to help?

We came up with Co-op Letters, a service for people who are in debt to receive letters from people who have previously been in debt.

We started with a hypothesis: We believe that connecting people who can emotionally support people in debt with those who want help will result in them feeling less ashamed and alone. We will know we’ve succeeded when we see a positive emotional change in those receiving the letters.

In the context of our current business activities, Co-op Letters is an unusual thing for Co-op to be doing. We wanted to learn how Co-op members would receive it and to learn what they would be happy to do to help each other when facilitated by a trusted mediator.

A handwritten letter

It’s a rare thing to get a handwritten letter. Personal communication happens electronically, via text, email or through social media. What lands on our doormats is almost always official correspondence, and for people in debt, a source of stress.

We were inspired by Jodi Ann Bickley and her Million Lovely Letters project. Since 2013, Jodi Ann has written over 4,000 letters of support to people around the world. We were also influenced by Postcrossing, a pen pal service that connects people by sending postcards.

Scaling self help

We posted an ad with a link to a brochure site on the Co-op members landing page.

The advert we posted on the Co-op Members landing page.
The advert on the Co-op members landing page

28 people got in touch to share the story of their debt and explain why they wanted to help someone else. Although these numbers were small, they gave us confidence that Co-op could connect people and help them them to support each other directly.

I want to write because...

What we found in our interviews with people who had been in debt and had used that experience to help others was borne out by the responses to our ad.

I wasn’t the one in debt, my parents were. I want to give parents who are in debt the reassurance that they aren’t bad parents and they’re not letting their children down. I remember my mum being so upset when we had to sell our house to a company we now rent it off, thinking she’d let us kids down but we weren’t bothered as long as we were all together under the same roof.

I want to write to someone because I know how desperately isolating and terrifying it is to not have any money at all and to feel so desperate. You feel as if people will think badly of you even though the circumstances are sometimes beyond your control.

[I want to write because]... All my family and friends turned their back on me, my partner and our baby when it all happened and just to give someone that bit of hope that there are people out there who have been through it and come out the other side...

Making awkward things OK

We found that people who had been in debt were happy to talk about it when it was in the past or under control. But when the debt is current and out of control, it is hard to acknowledge the problem and seek help, either practical or emotional. How could we encourage people in debt to overcome their feelings of embarrassment and sign up to receive a letter?

We posted another ad on the Co-op members landing page, and 35 people got in touch saying they were interested in receiving a letter. Thinking that people in debt would be harder to reach, we designed the ad so that participation would seem appealing and worth the effort.

Inspired by a talk on Hacking Shyness by Sebastian Deterding, we followed these principles for encouraging participation:

  • set clear rules for the interaction
  • explain what it is and what it isn’t
  • associate the interaction with a higher purpose so that there’s an excuse or reason to take part
  • give a starting point so that it’s easy to start the interaction

We also knew that for people to take part, they would need to trust the other participants, despite not knowing them. We took inspiration from the way Airbnb design for trust, by Joe Gebbia. In our ad we showed an example of a letter from someone who had experienced debt where they talk about themselves and tell their own debt story.

What are the risks of a service like this?

We had to reduce the risks that could arise from the connections we facilitated between members. But we also wanted to take a platform-thinking approach to this service. A traditional approach would be to intercept every letter and check its quality. But the point of this experiment was to see what we could empower members to do for each other — at scale. Checking every letter would not be workable with more than a handful of participants.

We spoke to a contact from the Samaritans on how to reduce risk when working with vulnerable people. What we learned from this conversation helped us preempt some things that might go wrong and put policies in place to mitigate against risk.

Letter writers might give financial advice

Our biggest worry was that the people who had been in debt themselves might, with the best of intentions, give financial advice. We wanted to avoid anyone recommending a specific course of action. Instead we wanted them to focus on giving emotional support by telling their own story.

As well as providing guidance for letter writers, we tackled this risk through a simple training quiz. We designed the training so that it was not possible to move on without passing the test.

The service might have a negative impact on people’s emotional state

Being in debt means lots of chasing letters and emails and phonecalls. We agreed that we would limit our communications to the letter recipients to the minimum.

We agreed on another principle that every person in debt who signed up to receive a letter should receive one. We used our emails to the letter writers to make sure they understood that someone who was feeling vulnerable was expecting to get a letter from them. We designed the service with a reminders and nudges to letter writers to make sure they put pen to paper.

Mindful of our participants’ emotional wellbeing, we want to make sure the experience of leaving the service was a good one. On leaving the service we wanted every participant to understand that:

  • their investment of time and emotional energy is acknowledged and valued
  • the service is coming to an end
  • we will not hold onto their data (and that their Co-op membership is not affected)
  • expert help about debt is available (Step Change, Citizen’s Advice et al)

Letter writers might feel overwhelmed

There were a few options for facilitating the match between letter writer and the person receiving a letter. We decided to let the person receiving a letter read the profiles and then pick up to three letter writers.

This meant we could make sure that the responsibility for writing letters was spread evenly, and that there was a back up letter writer if the first one dropped out.

We might expose more sensitive data than is necessary

We worried about sharing people’s addresses. At first we assumed all letters should be forwarded via Co-op. In the end we decided to let participants decide for themselves. We asked them for their address, and whether they’d like to receive letters directly or forwarded via Co-op. Most people opted not to share their address — but not everyone.

We were also concerned about holding personally identifiable information. We got around this by building the service on Django on an AWS box. This allowed us to get quickly build a service without storing personal information. Anything identifiable was held in a spreadsheet held in a secure location. Within the service, the participants were only identified by a unique reference number.

People who have been in debt want to support people who are in debt

In our initial interviews with people thinking about retirement and what we learned from people who signed up to write letters, we found that people who had been in debt themselves were keen to help others facing a similar situation.

We used the Co-op members landing page to recruit participants, so everyone involved was a Co-op member. It’s unclear whether Co-op membership was a factor in wanting to help, people were more motivated by the shared experience of debt.

People like the idea of writing a letter, but it’s hard to get round to it

Out of the people who expressed an interest in writing a letter and receiving a letter, we managed to match seven readers and writers. However, none of the people who said they would write managed to send one (as far as we know).

Although this result was disappointing, it told us that Co-op members were willing to emotionally support other members in debt, but that the commitment of writing a letter and posting it was too great.

Talking about talking about debt seems to be helpful

One unexpected result from this experiment was a response from one participant — a reader — who got in touch with us to let us know that he no longer wanted to take part.

This was because seeing our ad and signing up to take part had been a prompt for him to review his financial situation and work out a budget and a plan for getting his debt under control within a few months.

Collective switching for good

Around half of us have never switched energy company. Most non-switchers are with one of the ‘big six’ energy companies, paying more for power from oil, coal or fracked gas. Could we motivate non-switchers to switch to do good instead of profit?

Switchers and non-switchers

Why do people switch? And why do so many people not switch? For people who do switch, it’s about price, which you’d expect.

People who haven’t switched are much more interesting - knowing that they’re overpaying doesn’t make them switch.

Non-switchers don’t see much benefit of switching, and they perceive that researching, understanding and switching takes a lot of effort. True, the mechanics of switching is easy, but they’re right that it requires a level of commitment to learn to understand energy companies well enough to make a decent comparison.

15% of people switch often - every year - but the rest don’t. Small, green energy companies have used this insight: most people just don’t want to bother switching regularly - so these companies give them a good tariff that stays good, and don’t hike the price after a year.

Non-switchers come from all backgrounds - your income or status won’t affect how likely you are to switch or not switch

A community-benefit approach to switching

With that in mind - price doesn’t appear to influence non-switchers, they don’t see the benefit, and they expect it to be really difficult - we tried out a different approach.

We tested working with schools to try and encourage non-switching (grand)parents to switch to green energy - not to save money, but to raise money for their school.

  • school raise funds from the commission on every switch
  • families help the school
  • Co-op takes part of the commission

Our two big assumptions

1. There’s value for the schools to recruit parents. We emailed 50 schools and 25 parent teacher associations inviting them to raise money with us. We tracked the emails and could see around half the emails being opened, but didn’t hear back from any. Granted, it was nearing the end of term, and many of the email addresses where generic, but it didn’t look promising.

2. Helping a school is compelling enough to make people switch. We also spoke to five parents of school children about their attitudes towards their energy providers. It was a chance to learn about them and what’s stopped them switching in the past.

Everyone thought switching would be a hassle

And rightly so. Some companies can be slow to pay out if you leave in credit.

I’ve just got it in me head that it would be a bit of a faff.

Obviously you could be in debit, having to owe British Gas, before you even with go with a new supplier.

- S, male, 51, never switched from British Gas

It just gives me shudders. I just think it would be a nightmare.

- S, female, 41, never switched from Scottish Power and British Gas

You remember the old days when you moved phone, you ended up on hold for ages, it was a faff.

- D, male, 35, never switched from Scottish Power

‘Much of a muchness’

There was little differentiation between the various energy suppliers, and less hatred of the big six than our previous research suggested. Generally if people were with one of the big six, and they hadn’t had a problem with them, they trusted them.

I think it’s easier just to go with British Gas and negotiate. That’s what I’ve always done.

- S, male, 51, never switched from British Gas

I’ll go with Eon. We have been with British Gas. This is just because it’s familiar rather than actually being…

- N, female, 37, switched to Eon 8 years ago

People were content to be overpaying

It reminded us that we’re not all rational economic actors. Despite knowing there was cash to be had, these individuals were not motivated to take action.

Scottish Power were the providers when we got there. I seem to remember I had a look at the time and I couldn’t be bothered to look any further.

- D, male, 35, never switched from Scottish Power

It is yeah but it’s the reward ratio, how much I’d have do. I’m lazy.

- D, male, 35, never switched from Scottish Power

I’ve no doubt we could get it cheaper.

- N, female, 37, switched to Eon 8 years ago
Photo of an interview in a user research lab
We spoke to five parents who had never switched energy company

Switching for a school was more appealing to the individuals

Take this with a pinch of salt, we’d paid them an incentive for the research. The real test would be to get a fundraising campaign up and running. That said, all the participants thought this idea sounded good.

I’d probably be a bit more inclined to do that then take the £25 myself.

- D, male, 35, never switched from Scottish Power

I think it’s telling you, change and we’ll help raise money for your school.

- N, female, 37, switched to Eon 8 years ago

One participant told us how their school raises money in a similar way. For every online purchase a family makes, the school gets a bit of cash. Interesting.

It’s a really good idea. We do something similar at the moment. If you shop online, you go through a certain platform and the school gets money. It’s heavily used.

I reckon half of the 90 sets of parents used it. It was a success.

- N, female, 37, switched to Eon 8 years ago

Good first impressions of Ecotricity and Good Energy

While no one had heard of a green energy supplier, when they had a look at their websites, everyone was impressed. One person loved the idea of the energy coming from 100% renewables. Given they were currently all on standard variable tariffs, switching would also save them money.

Ecotricity: I like the name. It makes me think it’s not all coal fuelled.

- D, male, 35, never switched from Scottish Power

They wanted someone to do it for them

It was clear the perceived nightmare of switching was the biggest blocker.

If someone physically put it in front of me and said we’d do it for you.

I would be happy to switch providers if someone could do everything for me. Literally take it all for me.

…it needs to be like, do it for me.

- N, female, 37, switched to Eon 8 years ago

I want you to say - [S], I know who your energy provider is now, it’s just going to change, nothing else will change.

I worry that I’d have to spend 10 hours on the phone to sort it out.

I just think my time is precious. It’s just going to be a ball ache.

Like will they ask for things like how many kilowatts… units of energy… how many… how much you pay exactly.

- S, female, 41, never switched from Scottish Power and British Gas

Subscription to light

Community energy groups have a track record for raising investment from their members to install solar farms or wind turbines in their communities.

Since the drop in the feed-in tariff (the government incentive for generating renewable power), these sorts of schemes are no longer financially viable.

We think that they could raise investment for different sorts of energy services, potentially at a better rate than institutional capital.

A new business model for community energy?

We modelled Light House: a way for community energy groups to raise money to help households living in fuel poverty to swap their bulbs for light emitting diode (LED) lightbulbs.

Light House: an LED lightbulb subscription service

LED light bulbs use a 10th of the energy of old fashioned ones. Switching all the bulbs in your house could save you over £100 a year.

That said, LED bulbs are relatively expensive. Refitting out a whole house costs somewhere in the region of £100 and so many households living in fuel poverty haven’t switched. In other words, those that could benefit the most, haven’t got the money.

For £1 a week, Light House could offer these homes 20 LED light bulbs. After 3 years, they would own the bulbs.

The capital to fund the programme would be raised by community energy companies, with no banks involved. The money would be lent by the community and stay where it belonged: in the community.

We created this model in collaboration with the community energy group Sheffield Renewables. We tested our early assumptions by talking to people working in and attending food banks. We then developed a proposition for Light House, and went door to door in a housing estate owned by Bromford Housing Association in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

Hyper-awareness of short-term saving

From talking to people at a food bank, we found that some people in fuel poverty were highly conscious of their energy use and had developed tactics to reduce it (such as only having one light on at a time). We also found that most people had heard of energy saving (compact fluorescent lamp or CFL) bulbs and were using them at home. In contrast, not many people had heard of LED bulbs.

Small properties don’t have many fittings

When we spoke to housing association tenents, we didn't find anyone who would need the 20 bulbs that was on offer in our proposition.

Not much awareness of LED bulbs

People had heard of LED bulbs in other contexts, such as car lights. When people had heard of LEDs for use in the home, they thought they were only available for ceiling spot lights.

People thought mostly about the cost of the bulb rather than the cost of the energy to run it

We found that people’s tactics for saving money were focused on the present, not the future. Many people spoke about light fittings that blew regularly, so they used incandescent bulbs for those fittings as they were cheap to replace. Others talked about buying incandescent bulbs for the low cost - despite the fact that this type of bulb is much more expensive in the long run.

Bulbs are already very confusing

Everyone we spoke to struggled to identify what types of bulbs they had. Most confused old-style incandescent bulbs with the newer, but similar looking, halogen bulbs.

Sending safer emails

At many times in our lives we’re required to share personal information with organisations to prove our identity, income or otherwise. As the world turned digital, that increasingly moved from paper-based copies to scans over email. At the same time, email inboxes have grown, allowing us to archive, not delete.

Sometimes organisations aren’t as careful with our data as we’d like them to be. Often people just need to get the job done, and that can mean good security practices fall by the wayside.

Suppose a mortgage advisor’s inbox was hacked: how many people’s identifying information would be sitting in their archive, waiting to be misused? How much personal information is lying around in your sent items, long forgotten, but rich pickings for an identity thief?

At the sharper end, we met a Venezuelan human rights worker at the Internet Freedom Festival who told us about lawyers sending sensitive personal information about clients using Hotmail. In a regime where human rights lawyers are routinely targeted, and that information would put the client’s life at risk, the stakes are high.

Can we build tools that are safe enough for high-risk individuals and useable enough for the mainstream?

By designing for the hardest case, if we were able to build something that gave value to others too, we felt we would have built something quite unusual.

We built Atbash, a “secure attachment” browser extension

We started with the case where a Gmail user is asked to send over a scan of their passport. The person is in their inbox, and the simplest thing is to hit “reply”, attach the file and hit send.

We thought this was a good point to intervene in the user’s behaviour - what if we replaced their “attach a file” button with an alternative?

We built Atbash (a curious word referring to an ancient cipher) as an extension for the Chrome browser which modifies the Gmail web interface to do just that.

We learned from organisations trusted by human rights groups

It’s not good enough for products to say “we won’t look at your stuff, honest” - that claim needs to be verifiable

Human rights groups have stricter requirements for trust than most people and organisations due to the nature of their work. When an NGO is working against abuses by their own government, it’s unlikely they’ll trust a company that could be forced by that government to act against them.

This community is suspicious of services that they can’t assess and understand. It’s not good enough for products to say “we won’t look at your stuff, honest” - that claim needs to be verifiable.

We looked at organisations like Open Whisper Systems who make the Signal messaging app for inspiration. Signal is developed entirely in the open, allowing anyone to see all the thinking, discussion and code that makes up the app. That’s important as it makes it practically difficult for the Signal developers to write malicious code without leaving traces. It also helps people understand the personal motivations and thought patterns of those developers, which also builds trust.

Furthermore, if you’ve got the skills, you can download and modify Signal and make it work the way you’d like it to. That’s an important freedom that helps build trust: if Signal were to turn bad in the future, the community could “fork” it and continue developing it under a new guise.

We are a community and we can change things.

- P, male, 50s, sends files using email and SSH file transfer protocol

We built Atbash, a Chrome browser extension, along the same principles. Even though it was a small prototype, we started it as a public GitHub repository. Anyone who wants to understand it better is able to look back through the repository and see a complete history of every line of code.

We designed for end-to-end encryption

There’s a big difference between “we can’t look at your stuff” and “we won’t look at your stuff”

Atbash was a prototype service for sending sensitive personal information to another person. There was no need for the service to be able to access that information, so we designed Atbash in a way that prevents that.

There’s a big difference between “we can’t look at your stuff” and “we won’t look at your stuff”. Services like Google Drive and Dropbox take the “won’t” approach, and you have to trust them to keep that promise.

End-to-end encrypted services are designed so they “can’t” see your stuff - at least not without sneakily altering the way the service works, which may be detected.

We designed Atbash so the server would hold encrypted files, but that the key would only ever be transmitted between the user and their contact. In that way, the server never holds both the encrypted file and the key at the same time.

People felt uncomfortable

We all sent pictures of our passports over Facebook Messenger. I looked back and thought “why have I sent it like that?”.

- F, female, 20s, has sent files by email and Facebook Messenger

People took guidance from their own networks

A common theme was that people used those around them to guide decisions about what services to use.

I ask other people I trust, do you trust this?

I would ask other people to have a look and ask my white hat to try to hack it.

- P, male, 50s, sends files using email and SSH file transfer protocol

I’ve left computer stuff to other people and let them tell me what to do.

- M, male, 40s, sends files using email and WeTransfer

It’s one of the world’s most used browsers, everyone I know uses Chrome.

- F, female, 20s, has sent files by email and Facebook Messenger

There was a mixed understanding of “open source”

One participant strongly believed that open source software was more reliable due to the community nature of the development.

Every line is crawled over by many people. If anyone tries to sneak bad code in it will be spotted.

[having lots of security bugs is] absolutely linked to them being closed.

- P, male, 50s, sends files using email and SSH file transfer protocol

Other participants were unfamiliar with the concept of open source.

It’s not a phrase that I’ve come across before.

- F, female, 20s, has sent files by email and Facebook Messenger

Co-op members trusted the Co-op to build strong services

I don’t think Atbash is a good name because it doesn’t say Co-op and people trust Co-op. In that respect you’re doing it a disservice.

- P, male, 50s, sends files using email and SSH file transfer protocol

I trust Co-op because they seem a very fair company, they have a good reputation.

- M, male, 40s, sends files using email and WeTransfer

Brand and reputation was strongly related to trust

I don’t think I’ve used Firefox before but I’ve heard of it. What brand is it from? Because I’ve heard of the others and used them that’s why [I don’t trust them as much].

…I’d say Apple Mail is the most secure because it’s all they kind of do really if they got hacked it would be their entire business.

- I, male, 20s, sends files using email, social media and Google Drive

Microsoft have still to produce a piece of code that isn’t vulnerable.

- P, male, 50s, sends files using email and SSH file transfer protocol

Cheaper, greener energy through smart behaviour

People install solar panels and wind turbines on their homes and community buildings, but renewable energy generation is variable. Often the installations make more energy than the people who own them can use or the energy is made at a time when it’s not needed on-site.

A waste of energy

There is no cheap way to store this energy so people sell it back to the grid at a low price. Meanwhile their neighbours are paying 2 to 3 times more to buy it back off the grid again when they use electricity at the same time.

We got people together to talk about community energy

We prototyped Power Pack, an energy sharing club that brings local renewable energy producers and consumers together, and showed it to 13 people in the Sheffield area. We also published it nationally by advertising in Google search results to encourage people to visit.

A group of people talking in a farmhouse kitchen
The group talking about Power Pack

How might we design a scalable proposition that encourages people to switch energy provider for the benefit of their community?

By keeping it local

Inspired by successful local energy trading pilots in Bethesda and Shrivenham, we came up with Power Pack. Power Pack lets people set up an energy sharing club in their area to buy and sell energy with their neighbours. It offers a better price for everyone. Generators earn more for exporting and buyers pay less than the standard tariff.

To help us gauge interest we built a website to explain Power Pack and make it feel as though there are Power Packs around the UK.

By making it feel real

We set up some Google ads to direct people to the Power Pack website, where a postcode search delivers a page which shows the user that a Power Pack in their area is a real possibility.

We’ve given people the opportunity to sign up (pledge) to join Power Pack, we also installed customer support software that allows us to chat to people as they are on the website.

Knocking on doors

We had doorstep conversations with nine people in a street in Sheffield. We gave them the opportunity to sign up to Power Pack and spoke to them about community renewable energy.

Minimum viable community

We also brought a group of producers and consumers of local renewable energy together. We wanted to learn whether people would join and if they’d be happy to take on some responsibility. We didn’t try to simulate the platform technology. Instead we recruited our group and spent time with them on a field trip.

Finding a renewable producer

We needed to find someone who was producing renewable energy in Sheffield and selling their excess back to the grid to host our field trip. We found a few different types of business with solar panels and wind turbines; utilities companies, sports stadiums, warehouses, bus stations and farms. Eventually we found a farmer who was happy to show us around his installation and host our field trip.

A trip to the farm

Povey Farm is a pig farm on the outskirts of Sheffield in the Moss Valley. The farmer, Stephen Thompson has installed two wind turbines, PV solar panels and a straw burner. Stephen was happy to show a group of people around his farm, talk about his renewable energy production, and host a follow-up group discussion in his kitchen.

Moving image of a group of people standing in a field by a wind turbine
People finding out about wind turbines

We recruited our group by promoting the trip to relevant groups and individuals in the Sheffield area. We ran two trips, one mid week which eight people came to and one at the weekend which five attended; a good turn-out, given that we publicised them at fairly short notice.

…people were enthusiastic and interested to find out more

Amazing to see the project in action and find out real world stories from Stephen the farmer regarding ups and downs.

- S, board member of a local creative arts charity, thinking of installing solar panels

Everyone who came along was already interested in renewable energy. There were lots of detailed questions about the technology and finances. After the tour the group discussed similar projects, attendees’ own renewable energy technology and the role of the Co-op in such a scheme.

After the events we surveyed the attendees to see if they’d be willing to join Power Pack in Sheffield. Four out of eight people completed the survey. Two attendees saying they would be willing to join, and two were interested if they had more information about the costs involved.

It’s a good story for a business

People and organisations generating renewable energy are generally open and happy to talk about it. They are proud of what they are doing. However, the larger the organisation the harder it is to navigate through customer service channels to find the right person to talk to.

It feels believable

We spoke to people in Sheffield on their doorsteps and found them enthusiastic. 6 out of 9 people signed up to Power Pack. They weren’t too bothered about understanding the technicalities, and were satisfied we knew what we were doing. Similarly, the people who attended our field trip to Povey Farm were happy to sign up and take part in a discussion - even with minimal information before the event.

Previous trials prove it could work

Once we had explained the idea behind Power Pack in more detail, no-one had any concerns. We discussed challenges but no-one dismissed the idea. Successful trials in Shrivenham and Bethesda validated the idea of a local energy trading club. Some attendees were interested in making solar installations financially viable, others liked the idea of supporting people in their community.

Interesting to see the energy set up and mix of solutions they’re using and also really valuable to chat to all the people and get a bit better informed.

- L, member of a local community renewable energy group

No-one mentioned climate change

Many people in the group were interested in the technology and engineering challenges without making any explicit references to environmental issues such as climate change. The challenge of setting up renewable energy schemes, and the rewards in terms of the money saved seemed to be motivation enough for some of the attendees.

Where we want to go next

If this is going to become a real scheme we need to understand more about the barriers between where we are and where we want to be.

We are going to keep in touch with the people who’ve signed up. We would like them to become the founding members of Power Packs in their areas.

Financial freedom through early planning

The future is bleak for people in their 20s. High rents, low wages and a shrinking job market make the things this generation’s parents took for granted an impossibility; owning your own home, saving for a rainy day, taking early retirement.

What will life after work in the year 2057 be like?

When we spoke to recent retirees, we heard that the (unpaid) work they did now meant a lot to them. They weren’t working out of financial need - volunteering gave their lives meaning, and a final salary pension allowed them to live the life they want.

It’s a different story for people entering the workplace today. There’s no guarantee of a state pension, and people in their 20s are at the beginning of a very long working life. In 2057, 60- and 70-somethings won’t be working because it makes them happy, they’ll be working because they have to.

Conventional approaches to money will fail

There’s a lot of received wisdom about what to do with your money. When people follow the advice of their parents and peers, they’re likely to lose out. Reducing your spending by cutting out life’s little luxuries is a good start, but it’s only half the story, especially for this cash-strapped generation. And leaving your money in a savings account loses you money in the long term.

Start investing in your 20s - you’ll be grateful in your 60s

If you save small amounts by reducing your spending when you are young, and (crucially) invest that money in an investment account that pays a good rate of interest (4-7%), then the compound interest you accrue over 40 years will give you a passive income when you are ready to stop working. But most of us don’t get involved with investments - we think it’s too complicated, too risky.

Post-it note with text saying “turns a pot into an income”
It’s not just about savings, it’s about turning your savings into an income

Could we balance instant gratification and long term pay off?

Our goal is to give people a happier old age by getting them to rethink their approach to money at the point in their lives when they can take full advantage of compound interest.

To test this, we created a prototype of Level Up, a service to connect people who wanted to reduce their spending and increase their passive income with mentors who had successfully done this. We showed our prototype to four people in their early 20s. All were early career, renting or living with parents, earning more than £20,000 a year and degree educated.

Most people displayed ‘poor dad’ thinking

Through talking and trying out our product, we found that people in this group took a short-term view of their finances, and had little understanding of how banking and investments worked.

They would go about saving for a short term goal (such as holidays) and a mid-term goal (such as a deposit for a flat) in the same way; by diverting money from their paycheck into a savings account on payday.

They didn’t understand the concept of compound interest (as many don’t), and the explanation in our product did not help them. The idea of getting a passive income from interest earned on investments did make sense to our group, but was not something they felt they could get involved with.

People don’t know what state their finances are in

Our group tended to think of themselves as being in a good position with their money, but acknowledged that they did not know much about how money works or how to get the most from their salary.

I just think people kind of don’t get any financial education. Really I’ve never had anything you could do. My dad said you could put it in an ISA. I didn’t know anything, but I thought that on the basis that I could access that money, I thought I’d put it in this thing.

- F, female, 23

Um, so I don’t really have a comparison I suppose so I don’t whether to say they’re good or not. I’d say for me I’m pretty happy with it. I still live at home, I pay a bit of rent to my parents but don’t have to pay loads. I manage to save a bit every month. I’d say I’m pretty laid back about it and pretty happy.

- A, female, 23

To me, a salary is basically something to live off, make enough to get through the month. But further ahead I don’t think my salary really covers enough.

- F, male, 24

I wouldn’t say I’m particularly good at finances and that sort of thing. I just kind of. I do watch what’s coming in and out, but yeah I don’t have a really good strategy, I just move some across because I feel like I should.

- A, female, 23

People had an awareness of where they could make sacrifices

…no-one talked about doing anything further with the money they saved through reducing their spending

The people we spoke to were making, or knew they could make many small cuts in their expenditure, and most were doing so. However, this activity seemed to be an end in itself, and no-one talked about doing anything further with the money they saved through reducing their spending.

I do normally try and save a bit of money as well by making packed lunch.

- A, female, 23

I generally eat vegan or veggie when I cook for myself. It’s cheaper.

- F, male, 24

I don’t want a lifestyle that uses up my paycheck every month.

I don’t go for big nights out and spend a lot. The majority of my friends do that, buy big rounds at the bar, you could get up to a couple of hundred quid really quickly.

- F, female, 23

Meals out… buy cheaper clothes… there are definitely lots of areas where I could save money if I wanted to.

- A, female, 23

Don’t use the tube to get to work, it’s a 25 minute walk, good for you, healthy. Saving of £100 a month.

- F, male, 24

Nobody trusted themselves to not spend all the money in their current account

Immediately transferring money on payday out of a current account (where it is at risk of being spent) and into a savings account (where it can be held for short- and mid-term needs) was seen as a sensible tactic for managing finances.

I have my current account (graduate), interest free overdraft. I have a savings account. Usually when I get paid I dump it into my savings account then transfer back in. It’s really easy on the app.

- F, female, 23

Erm, hmm. Comes into my wages, I’ve got an app. I just transfer from my current account to my savings account. But I’m not very militant about it, I mean last month I just forgot.

- A, female, 23

Conventional savings accounts are understood

Most of the people we spoke to had, or were thinking about opening a savings account. Some had opened cash ISAs.

So I’ve just got two accounts, but they’re with the same bank. Actually I’ve got three, because I’ve got another one with another bank that my parents set up for me when I was a baby.

- A, female, 23

I’ve been thinking about opening a savings account for my interest and potentially make some interest.

I’ll probably go on Martin Lewis, the money saving expert man, and look at what’s the best one. I’ll see what I can do from there.

- S, female, 23

Everyone was saving, but not for the long term

They didn’t like savings products where you couldn’t withdraw your money

As well as using their savings account as a means to control their spending, most of the people we spoke to were saving for specific short-term goals, such as holidays. To them, a savings account is where you put money to keep it safe, but where it is also accessible when needed. They didn’t like savings products where you couldn’t withdraw your money.

I think we’ve got £180 for flights and accommodation plus food and drink when there. I’ll probably put away another £150.

- S, female, 23

I have thought about opening up an ISA with a higher level of interest that I can’t touch. But I don’t know if I’ll do that because I like the idea of being able to do something with it.

- F, female, 23

Even though I try to generally save that a month, whenever I book my holiday then in that month I won’t save that much. So some of it I’ll spend probably this year, it won’t all be saved super long term.

- A, female, 23

‘Rainy day’ saving is less common

Only one of our participants had a good appreciation of their mid- to long-term future, and was putting aside in a savings account for an unforeseen circumstance, and not for anything specific.

I don’t really think in my mind I’m saving it for a car or a flat than the idea that I might want to be more flexible in the future.

I want to be able to… if I want to quit my job because I hate it, I want to be able to do that.

If there’s a rainy day is there no way I can access [money tied up in investments]?

- F, female, 23

Everyone struggled to think about their future

Although the people we spoke to had, or were considering short- to mid-term saving goals, the future was something they found hard to visualise.

But I think now it feels so far away, I feel like I’d be nowhere near at the moment. So it’s the sort of thing that I haven’t really thought about a target, because the target is so far away. I’ll think about it more in a while when it’s maybe more achievable.

- A, female, 23

As I say I’m kind of aware that I should be saving in the long term sense. But it seems almost quite out of reach. I’m not going to have a car, for example. The money needed makes it something not particularly appealing.

- F, male, 24

I really don’t know. I’ve become less and less sure. I used to be quite confident, it was more like money. That’s partly why I want to maintain a lifestyle which is a bit separate from my income.

- F, female, 23

Investment is seen as risky, like betting on a horse race

When we introduced the topic of investment, everyone we spoke to felt it was risky…

When we introduced the topic of investment, everyone we spoke to felt it was risky in comparison to putting money in a savings account. Putting money into a savings account was seen as something that made them feel good about themselves, and investing was an activity that conflicted with the pride they took in their sensible choices.

I wouldn’t think about investing, I’d think about putting it in a savings account. Which is probably a fairly short sighted view. … like investment options.

I’m proud of my ability to save. I don’t want to put my money into something where I might not get it back.

Like investments are risky that might have big returns but might not.

- F, female, 23

There was skepticism and confusion around the numbers

We realised we needed to explain in much more detail how compound interest works. Even though our examples were based on real numbers, our group did not believe them. We learned that this concept was very hard for our group to understand, despite their high level of academic attainment.

I don’t know the mechanics of that, but it feels like a lot, from just earning interest from a savings account. That feels quite a long way away from being achievable.

I’d like more info on that. I’m not convinced by this passive income thing. It sounds too good to be true.

- F, female, 23

The idea of a finance mentor did not go down well

Our group identified with the content of our (fictional) mentor profiles, but did not respond well to the idea of being contacted by a mentor and checked up on. Everyone entered their emails and clicked the ‘Connect with’ button, but their goal was to get more information, and not to make contact with a mentor.

I’m not sure Marie’s giving me a tremendous amount of value. I get Marie might have been there and done that, but I want more info about how she’s done that.

- F, female, 23

I think it’s one thing having your mum hammering you about how much you’re saving. I’m not sure how I feel about having an actual person seeing whether I’m sticking to my goals. I think I’d prefer an automatic robot or something.

- S, female, 23

People wanted to know more about investment after trying the prototype

Level Up did not do a good job of explaining how compound interest works. However, despite not grasping the central concept, our group were still interested and wanted more information about making investments.

It’s not telling me where to invest that, or how. I have lots of questions now, where these numbers are coming from. What that is. How I do it, what’s the minimum that I have to do. If there’s a rainy day is there no way I can access it.

- F, female, 23

I think it’s a great idea because a lot of my friends are confused about bonds, isas, where to put your money initially, so I think this would be really handy. It’s a great plan.

- S, female, 23
Photo of a sketch about visualising the future and progressing towards a goal
Interesting ways to measure progress towards a goal, and giving people only the information they need to make something relevant to them

Life after work

Aging well is as much about happiness and relationships as it is about being financially secure.

The way we live now

Younger people face the prospect of aging in much reduced financial circumstances in comparison to their parents and grandparents. And the way we live now makes it harder to maintain friendship and family bonds - which we now know are so vital for physical and mental health.

Facing the future

Is there something the Co-op can do to help our members and others face their later years with a degree of confidence that their social, emotional and financial needs will be taken care of? We carried out some early discovery research as a starting point for a more targeted experiment.

We spoke to 5 people in their 50s and 60s who had recently stopped working. We also spoke to a number of people who work or volunteer with older people: a GP, a travel agent and representatives from the WI, U3A and Age UK.

We asked people about their perceptions of retirement and how people can make plans for their lives after they finish working.

What are the needs of people planning for and living through older age?

Having someone looking out for you

Retired people worry about being forgotten. They appreciate the friends, family and volunteers who advise them on their emotional, physical and financial welfare. And they want their needs to be understood and anticipated by the people around them.

Contact with friends, family, volunteers and professionals is important. People like the WI groups that check up on members who miss meetings. Family who encourage exercise and activity. Peers who can relate and advise. Church groups that organise tea parties in people’s houses; support that starts in the home makes trying new things less daunting.

I talked to members of my family when I was planning retirement, I trust their judgement more than anybody.

- M, female, 55, stopped work in January 2017

The thing that has the most impact from [older people’s] sense of wellbeing was how they interacted with the community around them. It could be as basic as having a conversation with somebody.

- Jessica, CEO Brighton & Hove Age UK

Stuff to give me an identity and purpose

Who the hell am I? Our working lives define us, whether we enjoy them or not. As work ends, it’s harder to define ourselves and understand our value. Making a contribution to society; having a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Finding a post-work identity can mean re-inventing yourself, which takes courage and effort. It’s a two-way process too. We need signals back from the outside world to confirm we are useful and relevant.

Doing new stuff helps. Taking on projects, learning a new skill, spending time with family and volunteering gives meaning to post-work lives. People who were new to post-work life told us that extra time with grandchildren, tackling ambitious home renovations and doing courses gave them joy and purpose. For people who are used to joining clubs it comes easier, for others it’s harder to get off your backside.

It seems a bit odd not going to work - I’ve worked full time since I was 16 - is very odd not having to work. But I can rationalise - I’ve saved, I won’t starve - but it takes time to get your head around it.

- L, female, 64, stopped work in December 2016

We have one lady who is 92 and she runs a Tai Chi class ... she talks about her ‘old ladies’ ... she’s talking about older people as if that’s not her ... people don’t define themselves by their ages, it’s their purpose and how active they are.

- Jessica, CEO Brighton & Hove Age UK

Changing working practices

Being able to make changes to the way you work as you get older is important. Politics at work and stress can mar the later years of working life. Retirees talked about having to adapt to changing working practices and falling out with colleagues, prompting their decision to stop working.

Working less and working differently enables a gentler transition into post-work life. Taking on a less physical or less stressful role within the same company, or for a new company. A few retirees told us they enjoyed reducing their hours as they got older, and one person in a senior management role told us they planned to work as a delivery driver - a low-stress job that finished at the end of the working day.

I would have gone on another 6 months but there were changes at work I didn’t like, and didn’t want to learn new ways of working, so I decided to stop.

- L, female, 64, stopped work in December 2016

There was lots of politics at work and I’m not interested in that sort of thing.

- M, female, 55, stopped work in January 2017

Conscious decision making

Retirement requires compromising between living in the present and planning for the future

Years of financial diligence and awareness of the choices available at the time of retirement both make a big difference to people feeling secure and ready to retire. ‘Owning’ the decision to retire lessens the shock of the lifestyle change. Making decisions with a partner is common; many delayed or brought forward their own retirement in order to retire at the same time as their partner.

If you have a long term workplace pension, the financial safety net enables shrugging off workplace political tensions by deciding to leave work. One woman in less secure employment struggled with feeling that her time at work had ended prematurely. Age is less of a barrier to staying in work than attitude: If you’re not ready to retire, then don’t!.

Some reported having chased higher paid management positions in the years running up to retirement, in order to boost their pensions - even if they didn’t enjoy the work. Retirement requires compromising between living in the present and planning for the future.

[in the last five years] we had both been promoted into higher management jobs - it was quite stressful - we were starting to think about retiring and appreciating this time as we are still quite young and wanting to appreciate it. We were starting the countdown.

- A, male, 54, stopped work in 2015

Help with financial planning

Paying off the mortgage is the primary trigger to begin thinking about retirement. Without that monthly obligation, a lower monthly income becomes a feasible option.

Everyone acknowledged the drop in income that comes in retirement. That can make a discernable difference to daily life, but tended not to cause extreme anxiety. One retiree told us about how much more careful she is when food shopping. Another told us that I always worry about how we’ll manage, but I think we’ll be OK.

Retirees talked about checking out their options to find out how much they’d receive in retirement before deciding what to do. Those with final salary pensions knew that they were lucky: they received a good monthly income, and they had never had to worry about how much they were saving.

Financial advice came from family members, friends, ex-colleagues, and from company pension schemes. One man meets up with ex-colleagues (he didn’t call them friends) to discuss financial tips and tricks, like receiving National Insurance credits for looking after grandchildren. He trusted peer advice over the financial advisor who turned up for an appointment in a Porsche.

The realisation that I can actually survive on this amount of money if I’m careful - I don’t buy anything if it’s not on my shopping list. I bought a bottle of Tia Maria recently, but I wouldn’t do that every week, that’ll probably last me for a year.

- M, female, 55, stopped work in January 2017

We’ve spent a bit of the lump sum and our savings on extension and holidays - we know we’ll need to cut back a bit in the future but we’re OK for now.

- A, male, 54, stopped work in 2015

I had a pension from my employer - I didn’t have to worry - I know I’m very fortunate.

- L, female, 64, stopped work in December 2016

Being active

Staying inside on your own might be the easiest option, but…

Those having a happy retirement know that they need to keep themselves busy, even if their natural instincts to sit on my bum, listen to the radio or read a book. Staying inside on your own might be the easiest option, but your life will be shortened considerably if you don’t [go out].

For some, they are as busy retired as they were when they were working. One retiree told us of a friend who practically works full time with voluntary work. Looking after grandchildren, housework, photography courses, lunch with friends and generally pottering about make some retirees wonder how they could ever have fit in full time work.

We saw a loose correlation between income levels during working lives and happiness in retirement. Retirees with income above the state pension have more options available to them, and make plans accordingly. Those without extra income have fewer options. A GP in Sheffield told us about patients living on the state pension struggling to stay active without work filling their days, and booking GP appointments just for a chat. This lack of activity and social interaction leads to feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Whoever you are, though, days can be long. A motivated morning spent renovating the house can slip into an afternoon watching quiz shows. For retirees without a partner, evenings can drag on. We heard a lot about social lunches and coffees - and not very much about dinner.

Meeting new and existing friends

When you retire your world shrinks. I was working with people all over the world. We all have our own friends, but your world suddenly shrinks. You need to make new friends.

- Marlene, CEO of Salford University of the Third Age

Retiring means that people no longer see their colleagues day in day out. If people’s social networks were predominantly work based, this can come as quite a shock.

Some of the participants that were enjoying retirement described how they put effort into meeting up with old friends and colleagues at lunch socials, or monthly meals out. Others talked about how they joined clubs or took up volunteering opportunities as a way to meet new people and make new friends.

The Chair of the University of the Third Age described how she thought that joining groups and making friends was particularly harder for men of her generation and observed that two thirds of their group were women. This is common across the organisation.

It’s about the social side - I’d work for free and made tea and do admin - just to stay busy.

- Marlene, CEO of Salford University of the Third Age

Don’t stop dreaming

Some participants told us how the move into retirement offered them the opportunity to redefine themselves. Every participant suggested that you should plan for this shift, not only financially but also by reflecting on what you enjoy doing and what makes you happy.

Leaving work, as we’ve heard, on the one hand can take away a sense of purpose for the day, however presents plenty of time for fulfilling activities.

One participant described his dreams of flying around South Africa or Australia once he retires. He recognises this will take money, but is also in the privileged position where he can take a cash lump sum from his pension when he hits 60.

Those participants that were enjoying retirement weren’t afraid to have big dreams.

We go touring - did 6 weeks in California - next one will be Italy.

- A, male, 54, stopped work in 2015

Empathy with others

On a personal level you need to be able to voice those fears to somebody, with people who can understand. Some sort of support network is really important.

- Marlene, CEO of Salford University of the Third Age

Going through retirement is clearly an emotional time. Retirees really appreciated being able to share their experiences with others going through the same thing. This might be ex-colleagues, friends or a partner.

It felt more challenging for people when they themselves had retired but their partner hadn’t yet. Some participants felt like they were waiting, in limbo, and one lady described herself as spending a lot of time on my own. While one person had thrown herself into helping revive a Church in London she recognised that most of the other volunteers there were in their 20s or 30s and she missed being able to talk about how she was feeling going into later life.

Introducing structure after work

I find it a very stark transition. A speech in the office, a piss up on Friday night, and the following Monday you’ve got nothing to do. You could go off the rails with that. It could take a long time to adjust.

- Robert, Pensions expert

The work routine can be a bit of a crutch, in that you don’t have to think about it. You get up, you get out there, you come home and you have a glass of wine to relax. Losing that routine can be challenging. Retirees who fared best found new ways of introducing routines into their lives: grandchildren on certain days, weekly classes, monthly lunches.

One man described how he was thinking of driving a courier van for two days a week. He wanted to fill his time with a combination of part time work and voluntary work. It was important to him that is was an undemanding role that he could walk away from at the end of the day.

If you’re going to do anything - like work on the house - you start at 10, take 1 hour for lunch and finish by 4pm.

- A, male, stopped work in 2015

The difficulty comes when you’re doing the Monday to Friday, 9-5, full working week, and then suddenly that drops off completely. That’s where there’s a feeling of disjointed and disconnected, because you were this person and now you’ve got to find who this new person is.

- Jessica, CEO, Brighton & Hove Age UK

Protecting your stuff

A lack of trust has broken insurance

People make fraudulent claims, which means insurers create policies that make it harder to claim, which means bona fide customers can’t make a claim when they need to.

Insurers don’t trust customers. Customers don’t trust insurers. Insurers collude to raise prices and don’t trust each another... And the regulators don’t trust the insurers.

There’s space for Co-op to take a radically new approach to insurance: local, mutual, community focused and owned by members.

In collaboration with colleagues in Co-op insurance, we explored this alternative model built on trust. If people with similar risks could form groups and insure each other, they might be more likely to trust one another.

How might we create an insurance model where people trust each other, and where members feel confident making claims?

Small groups with something in common

We created a prototype of Protect Together. Small groups of people with something in common (living in the same area in the same type of accommodation) could form a group and insure each other. Members would pay a regular contribution to a fund, and claims under a certain amount would come out of that fund. The group would decide what to do with any money left over (split between members or invest in their community to reduce the group’s risk), or what action to take if the fund ran low. We showed the prototype to six people who fit the requirements for our example group.

A woman tests out the Protct Together prototype on a laptop guided by one of our team
Testing Protect Together with a research participant

Could we explain the concept?

A new model of insurance needs a new way to explain it

The Protect Together home page did a poor job of explaining what the service was at a glance. While all respondents recognised it was something to do with insurance, none were entirely clear how it worked.

I don’t know if it’s insurance for a group or if you’re putting money aside in case you need it - it’s a bit ambiguous.

- R, female, 26-35 year old, owns a laptop, tablet, phone, jewellery, TV

Having started to sign up and clicked through a few of the screens, respondents then understood more clearly what Protect Together was. They all felt it aligned with the Co-op’s overall values.

I think it’s a lot cheaper, it’s nice that your neighbours are going to be involved, and I’d trust it more being Co-op.

- A, female, 26-35 year old, owns a phone

Respondents saw the difference from traditional insurance.

It’s along the lines of a group insurance scheme. But the money you’re investing you can get back which is completely different to any other kind of insurance scheme.

- P, male, 36-45 year old, owns a phone

Could we create trust? How do we define communities and groups?

Living close to someone isn’t a strong enough reason to trust them

Despite living in the same area, none of the respondents felt a particular affinity with our example group

Despite living in the same area, none of the respondents felt a particular affinity with our example group (people renting flats in the Green Quarter, Manchester). They either felt that they didn’t know their neighbours, or that the age group wasn’t right for them.

I wouldn’t trust my neighbours because I don’t know them.

- R, female, 26-35 year old, owns a laptop, tablet, phone, jewellery, TV

I’m too old - my son is 21! If there was an age group 33+ I’d have much more in common. Some 21 year olds are very focused, but some are not!

- C, female, 36-45 year old, owns a laptop, tablet, bike, jewellery, TV

Is there a need for this type of insurance?

Renters don’t feel that they have a lot that’s worth insuring

We focussed on people renting property for the test because of the complexities involved with building insurance claims but we learnt that several of the people we interviewed did not see a need to insure their contents in a furnished flat.

TVs, laptops, I don’t insure anything like that, I’ve no contents insurance either.

- A, female, 26-35 year old, owns a phone

Should members of the group be visible to each other? Is transparency better than anonymity?

People felt they’d need to talk to the group

When presented with the emails explaining a vote or action was required, four respondents weren’t comfortable with voting. They indicated they’d want to sound out the group in advance, or talk to people before making a decision. They seemed to assume the group was about 10 - 15 people strong.

You’d almost want to get the email and then have a group meeting, everyone could vote independently but before that have a discussion.

- C, female, 36-45 year old, owns a laptop, tablet, bike, jewellery, TV

The perceived effort of participating in a group can be off putting

One participant was concerned that there might be a significant overhead in managing a group…

One participant was concerned that there might be a significant overhead in managing a group, and that it might involve meeting up or other commitments.

For me to receive a report, it sounds like you’re committing to something you don’t have time to do. This seems like a community or a steering group for your own bills, not something I’ve seen before. It feels like you might have to meet up, that’s a time commitment.

- C, female, 18-25 year old, owns a phone, TV

Things we’d like to try next

Experiment with other ways of communicating the concept. A short 1 minute animation explaining Protect Together might be more effective at communicating the various parts to it. For a good example, see

Explore different types of groups that people might associate with. We should experiment with whether individuals associate and trust other people based on age, salary, job, interests. We could also look at whether it makes a difference if the group already know each other in another context or come together specifically to take part in the scheme.

Explore different sizes of groups that people might join. We didn’t explicitly show the size of the Green Quarter group. A future design sprint might present respondents with different size groups to better understand how they feel about this and how they might communicate.

Terms and reviewers

‘Smart’ or safe?

More of the things we buy for our homes connect to the internet. Part of the installation of these devices involves agreeing to terms and conditions - and the sneaky clauses that allow our privacy to be compromised.

Deciding which TV to buy is hard enough

People don’t take data security into account when buying connected devices. Product reviews and press coverage about new products focus on features and specifications, not privacy and invasive, confusing terms and conditions.

Influencing consumers by influencing journalists

We wanted to find out if we could encourage the journalists who write product reviews to focus on security by showing them the dodgy clauses in manufacturers’ terms and conditions.

We showed five journalists and reviewers a prototype of Legalease, a community-driven terms and conditions analysis site where contributors annotate legal terms and leave questions for manufacturers to answer.

How do journalists write stories?

Somewhere on the scale between objectivity and subjectivity

Different publications have different approaches. One of the journalists we spoke to carried out repeatable, objective experiments to decide which product was best. Another wrote for a site where personal and political opinions are encouraged, and was able to bring his own views into his reviews.

I love the fact that I’m able to write about stories that I care about personally. That I’m able to use my own opinion.

I’m also able to occasionally put my political slant on it, I think Brexit is a terrible idea… I wrote a story about a story that the iPhone is going to cost 20% more because of Brexit.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

Using personal and professional relationships to understand complex issues

The journalists we spoke to used different sources for their stories: PR agencies, manufacturers, their own research, awareness of trends through personal contacts and online communities (Reddit). Some were happy to be contacted by PR companies and manufacturers. Others deliberately avoided them, only contacting them to give them a chance to respond to a negative story.

I’ve seen PR companies get better at what they do… Generally products and stories get pitched. Could be research, tip or physical product.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

If I was researching a story about this probably the first place I’d start is on Twitter I’d say “does anybody have a smart TV?” link to the privacy policy - “does it concern you?”.

One cultivates individuals in companies, contacts and one also sometimes you know very often you formally deal with a press team to get comment generally on stories which are adverse to them or where you’d be compromising into your contact to quote or whatever, to some extent you have to protect your sources … but again that’s just journalism.

- C, freelance technology journalist, writes for national newspapers

If there’s a particularly troubling part of the Ts and Cs, I would get in touch with the manufacturer, I’d ask them to clarify it.

Occasionally a great place to find breaking news is Twitter and Reddit, but you have to be extremely careful when using those sources. So you have to make the effort to corroborate it.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

How do journalists measure their impact?

They did not talk about seeing any kind of change in consumer behaviour based on what they had written

The journalists we spoke to talked about the impact of their articles in terms of metrics (page views), and reactions on social media. They did not talk about seeing any kind of change in consumer behaviour based on what they had written.

…I rely on [Twitter] most in terms of trying to gauge reaction… feedback and comments on articles is not necessarily a robust method of measuring… Commenters are in general are sort of 1% or less of readers… The average value in most of the comments made is absolutely zero.

- C, freelance technology journalist, writes for national newspapers

Obviously you’ve got statistics - you’ve got Google Analytics - that show how the page has done… and you’ve got other less data driven ways of telling how well a piece has done, comments, feedback, I quite often get emails from people saying, what a great piece that was or what a terrible piece that was.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

Did the journalists take to our product?

…they wanted to hear from experts and others with authority

They recognised it for what we intended it to be. The user comments highlighted ambiguity, but they didn’t find that useful. They were concerned about the validity of contributors; they wanted to hear from experts and others with authority.

I’m not a lawyer, and not qualified to independently offer analysis of a legal text.

Erm. I think, if there’s some sort of hover over JaneS’s profile and see that she was a lawyer or student lawyer or that she’s a security advocate. Verified profiles would be cool, like Twitter.

If someone’s going to be highlighting the most important parts of the Ts and Cs, the assumption is that they are qualified and they are competent to do that because they could get it wrong or miss something.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

Some of the people we spoke to felt that their audiences were not interested in data privacy unless it affected them in a tangible way, such as losing money or being annoyed by targeted ads.

People tend to approach tech products with blind faith, that they do what they say they do.

- M, technology journalist, writes for a technology news website

Could we encourage product reviewers to talk about privacy and security?

They wanted to see stronger expert opinions and summaries

No - not like this. It was clear what Legalease was for. However, participants’ reactions were mixed as to whether it was something they’d use during their writing process. They wanted to see stronger expert opinions and summaries (as opposed to commentary and questions) and worried about how qualified the contributors were.

Screenshot of Guardian headline: Children in England sign over digital rights regularly and unknowingly
Data privacy does make the headlines, but not often

The story isn’t the lack of privacy, it’s the manifestation of that lack of privacy

…being bombarded by targeted ads, concerns about being ‘ripped off’

Some of the journalists we spoke to perceived their audience as either not caring about privacy issues, or being resigned to a lack of privacy. What does motivate their readers however are the more obvious, less conceptual problems - being bombarded by targeted ads, concerns about being ‘ripped off’. Our goal should be to connect the more abstract issues around data protection and privacy to the real-world manifestations of those issues. Only then should we explain why these annoying things keep happening - and in plain, everyday language.

Tweet with photo of woman reading some terms and conditions
The Norwegian Consumer Council stage a live reading of terms and conditions

Everything is connected

Many of the things in our homes connect to the internet, allowing us to control them with our phones via an app, to be part of an online community or to access content online.

LG’s announcemnet at CES that all of their devices will now be connected to the internet
LG’s announcement at CES, photo by Karissa Bell

Everything’s sharing everything

Many of these devices have cameras and microphones, capturing highly personal information inside the home.

It’s not always clear that data is being captured, how that information is used, or who has access to it. This is often hidden inside complicated terms and conditions.

For some devices, the manufacturer’s business model is selling personal information on to others “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product”

Finally, many of these devices have security vulnerabilities, opening them up to attackers on the internet.

We showed people problems in their home

We prototyped Scout, a service that monitors devices connected to a home wifi network, and showed it to four people who use these kinds of devices in their homes.

A fridge magnet that we imagined could alert the homeowner to new vulnerabilities on their network
A fridge magnet could alert the homeowner to new vulnerabilities on their network

We showed them some potential vulnerabilities in a home network that was similar to their own. They saw how personal information was transferred to a third party company, allowed via a clause buried deep within a product’s terms and conditions.

How much do people understand about the risks of connected devices?

Most of our participants had not thought about how secure or private the connection between their devices and the internet was.

No I didn’t realise. It’s quite scary actually.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

Some knew there were risks, but not the specifics.

More things are becoming connected to the internet. You hear more stories of people hacking into things, the more secure you can be the better.

- D, male, 26-35 year old, owns LG Smart TV, Playstation 3, Hive 2
The digital product research team reviewing the research observations
The team reviewing the research findings

Can we make security exploits visible and understandable?

When we showed them the Scout prototype, our participants immediately understood the implications for their individual situation.

It sounds like, when you’re sitting in a room with a smart TV, it could potentially be sent to a third party.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

You could be buying something over the phone, doing your insurance, giving your credit card information to pay for your insurance. If someone has intercepted that, they could commit fraud on my account.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

Would people “downgrade” their devices to make them more private?

Despite our participants obvious discomfort at learning about the flaws in devices they had bought, they weighed up their options and broadly decided to take no action.

Cost was a factor; smart devices had been a significant outlay, and the idea of reducing their functionality was not appealling.

…they weighed up their options and broadly decided to take no action

But again, if I’ve spent a lot of money on it. I don’t know if I would. I don’t know. Just stick to it and take the risk, potentially.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

Once informed, people were very good at balancing the risks against the benefits they get from their devices.

I wouldn’t take it back for a refund because he likes it too much. It’s like big brother. He feels safer with it.

- W, female, 26-36 year old, owns Samsung smart TV, Playstation 4, Hikvision security camera

Can we help people work together to influence manufacturers?

People were interested in the idea of lobbying manufacturers to change their practices through the service. We thought this might be a good way to link in with membership and the wider Co-op campaigning work.

I would assume that the team behind Scout would contact British Gas that people aren’t happy about them sharing their data. I’d click on the join option.

- D, male, 26-35 year old, owns LG Smart TV, Playstation 3, Hive 2

I would join 3865 people asking Samsung to change this.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

There was a mistrust of companies

You don’t know who to believe. Samsung are saying they’re not breaking laws, this article is saying that it is.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

But deep down they would probably do that [share data with third parties] anyway without asking permission.

- D, male, 26-35 year old, owns LG Smart TV, Playstation 3, Hive 2

There was a clear difference between inside and outside the home

My sister doesn’t use it all, she doesn’t like the idea of having cameras in the house.

- M, male, 26-35 year old, owns Samsung smart tv, Tenvis security cameras, PlayStation

If it’s purely that they can look at what’s on the CCTV, that’s only outside the house so that’s OK.

- W, female, 26-36 year old, owns Samsung smart TV, Playstation 4, Hikvision security camera

People have a very individual view of what is private

If you read out credit card details it would be a problem but normal conversations, not that bothered.

- D, male, 26-35 year old, owns LG Smart TV, Playstation 3, Hive 2

I did hear about this, smart TVs recording private conversations. It’s a bit Orwellian.

In principle I don’t think this is OK, even if they don’t do anything with it.

It doesn’t matter that much if people can see my photos.

If the government wanted to use it for a purpose that might make me think it’s OK but not just corporates.

- A, female, 26-35 year old, owns LG smart TV, Playstation 4 and XBox, BabyMoov wifi monitor

Keeping money local

Independents can’t compete with online shops and global chains. And when those businesses shut down, they leave gaps in the local economy as well as the high street.

High streets are changing

As family businesses and independent shops close down, they are often replaced by e-cigarette shops and tattoo parlours, which serve a narrow market. In richer areas, shops are replaced by cafes, bars and restaurants, which shifts the economy from day to night.

A shared loyalty scheme for independent retailers

We showed six independent retailers in Chorlton a prototype of Locally, a scheme that earns shoppers ‘perks’, redeemable in any participating business, when they shop with local independent retailers.

Close up of a person using the Locally app to enter an amount
Money spent in local shops earns perks that can be redeemed in any participating business

Could Co-op encourage shoppers to spend their money locally and support their local economy?

Only if the scheme is fair for everyone

…there were concerns about the practicalities of asking staff to use an app

Reaction to the core concept (earning points with one business and getting the perk from another) was mixed, and there were concerns about the practicalities of asking staff to use an app.

Some local retailers were open to the idea behind Locally, and were interested in seeing the concept develop. However, most did not like the idea of shoppers earning perks in other shops and redeeming them in theirs, and felt the system could disadvantage them.

We heard mixed opinions about local business associations, that they were old fashioned and not very effective. Local business associations as technological platforms would be an interesting area for the Co-op to explore next.

Would Locally benefit local retailers?

We have too many cards in our wallets already

Another card-based scheme was not the answer

Retailers we spoke to felt there are already a lot of similar schemes in place, which made it hard for their customers to keep up. Another card-based scheme was not the answer.

How many cards do you get these days? Do you always have it in your purse? I have about 15 different loyalty cards in my purse.

The card is nothing new - I don’t think it will make any difference.

- A, Jewellers

An app doesn’t suit everybody

Retailers were worried about how they and their staff would use the app. Some were worried about it being time consuming and fiddly, and others thought it would be wrong to ask staff to use their own data whilst using the app in the shop. We also heard that not all their customers had smartphones, and would therefore miss out.

We get a lot of older people who don’t know how to use their phones - why should only the tech savvy people get the discount?

- A, Jewellers

From a customer perspective, there might be a reluctance for a retailer to link to a phone. What details are they taking? I’d have security concerns as a customer.

- L, Delicatessen and wine shop

I’m slightly nervous about phone my phone as well, I tend to keep it in my phone or in my pocket, if I was using that, no, sorry… you’re constantly distracted, and I’d be nervous about using my own phone and putting it down somewhere.

- D, Craft shop

Retailers worry about losing out

The goal of Locally was to increase local shopping overall, by offering rewards to people who shop with any local retailer. However some of the people we spoke to were worried that they would lose out, that shoppers would earn their ‘perks’ in other shops and redeem them in theirs. They were not convinced that they would benefit from new people coming into their shops.

I have to give money to get people to come into our shop - which devalues all the hard work that we put in - it says that what we have isn’t enough. I don’t want to read any more. It instantly makes me go ugh.

- S, Clothes shop

If everyone goes for a haircut - and then they redeem the points at [my butchers] - I’d be fuming! I’d be unemployed! I’d have to work for Tesco!

- P, Butchers

I can’t compete with that. I think people would come here, not to earn their points, but to use them, but they’d tell their kids they could use them in [partipant’s] shop.

- D, Craft shop

Not everyone feels a sense of community with other retailers

…across the wider area there wasn’t a sense of community

Some retailers did talk about a community of shop keepers - but it wasn’t universal. Retailers who were on the same street tended to be involved in their local area, but across the wider area there wasn’t a sense of community.

We’re not close enough to Beech Road, they don’t want us on that one, we’re kind of left to our own devices.

- A, Pet shop

Local shops on their street work together - they put their own money into decorations.

- A, Jewellers

Other shops? I’m quite insular - I’m not massively involved in what other people are doing.

- S, Clothes shop

It’s like a community. We all knew each other and looked out for each other. Like an extended family.

- P, Butchers

Retailers had their own schemes in place

Everyone we spoke to had some way of rewarding loyalty to their own business.

We have a discount in the store. It’s a bit like Boots. They have an account in the store, and they acrue points. We didn’t go down the route of cards, we just wanted a pin, it just puts the points on their account. They love it, and it keeps them coming back.

- A, Pet shop

If a customer comes in and spends £500 - we’d offer a gift as a gesture - it’s an unexpected surprise - the cherry on the cake.

- S, Clothes shop

We already offer a 10% discount, anything that’s full price. I don’t want to confuse things. I’d probably stick with that, stay the same.

- L, Delicatessen and wine shop

Trading associations are not working for everybody

We heard very mixed views about the local Traders Association. Some saw value in it and were active members, but others were critical, seeing the organisation as being old fashioned and not worth the cost of membership.

I don’t participate in the Traders Association - it’s changed over the years - when I was having children they were trying to cover a bigger area - I was too tired and busy!

- S, Clothes shop

The only time they come knocking is money for Christmas lights. Trading Associations are not run properly. They’re not run properly. No one has time to turn up after work. There needs to be a portal, or an app, where businesses can come together and talk, more like social media, maybe password protected. And free.

- A, Pet shop

We’re an active part of the Traders Association. It was important to me [and partner], that we could build up a rapport, and use their business and reach to them first, see if there’s anything we can work together.

- L, Delicatessen and wine shop

Will retailers accept the Co-op’s involvement in this?

Yes, because of the strength of the brand

…the size and reputation of the Co-op would help a scheme like this to be successful

We showed the participants a version of the card and leaflet with the Co-op brand. Reactions to this were positive, and people felt that this was the right kind of area for the Co-op to move into, even if they didn’t like the way the scheme was operated. They also thought that the size and reputation of the Co-op would help a scheme like this to be successful.

I’d want to know it really would bring people to us. If it was run by the Co-op would you run a national advertisting campaign, that could be a good thing.

I don’t dislike the idea of the Co-op running a scheme that gets them to shop locally.

- D, Craft shop

I think, I feel comfortable seeing the Co-op logo, seeing the Co-operative being linked to… well anything really. It’s got such a good reputation. It’s a good thing. The only contradiction, is it doesn’t… well how can you have the Co-op linked to local businesses. … it might be that the Co-op shop is a bit of our competition. If it was Sainsbury’s or Tesco, that wouldn’t be good, but Co-op is different.

- L, Delicatessen and wine shop

If the Co-op are doing something like this, they are trying to keep money local and not give it to the big ones like Tesco and Morrisons. It’s all to do with money. Although I do notice that the Co-op have local charity on their notice board and different events - like at the moment a firework do in Beech road. They’re pretty good like that.

- P, Butchers
Leaflet explaining the Locally scheme with Co-op branding
People responded well to the Co-op version - because of our reputation

Washing as a service

Good washing machines are expensive, and cheaper ones aren’t always reliable and prove expensive in the long term.

Pay weekly on the high street

The alternative, especially for people on low incomes, is to buy a washing machine using finance, often at a high rate of interest.

Rent or buy

People’s attitudes to ownership are changing. We believe that renting will be more popular in the future. However domestic appliance rental companies have disappeared from the high street.

Would people sign up for a subscription service for their washing?

We promoted a washing subscription service to see how people responded

We prototyped Washify - a subscription washing machine service that included a 48hr repair or replace service and a regular delivery of laundry liquid. We tested the concept with 5 landlords and 12 potential customers.

One of our team testing our prototype with a landlord and another observing remotely
We set up a basic user testing lab

We thought there was something interesting in the often painful relationship between landlords and tenants. So we wondered how we might make that relationship better.

Would landlords use a service like this to provide a washing service for their tenants?

Landlords were not interested in renting

We learned that Washify was not attractive to landlords. They preferred to use local people to maintain their properties and saw our proposition as expensive. However tenants were interested in the subscription model, due to the low cost and ease of maintenance.

People with a job to be done

Through Google advertising we were able to reach people at the point where they were looking for a solution to a problem: they had a broken washing machine and a pile of dirty washing on the floor. This was the perfect time to talk to them about our offer and we learned that it compared very well against the alternative options available.

This way seems cheaper and more convenient than the laundrette even though the laundrette is only a 1 minute walk away.

- Tenant who wanted to rent a washing machine as their landlord would not replace a broken one

Where we want to go next

We think that understanding in more detail how tenants could use Washify would be a useful next step. The best way to do this might be a small scale pilot in a local area.

This is a work in progress: Give feedback