How people manage the gap between physical and digital

We’ve been working with Co-op Digital to explore ways the Co-op could build services their members trust with personal data. Sarah wrote about how we got to Paperfree, I wanted to explore how we went about understanding the ways people manage important documents.

Everyone has their own way of arranging things

As a member-owned organisation, the Co-op want to make tools that help as many people as possible. As Sarah wrote, lots of people handle bills and paperwork on a very regular basis. By looking at user needs and understanding the problem of managing paperwork we uncovered a whole host of needs that document storage services aren’t meeting today.

We worked with Jude Rattle, a user researcher at Co-op Digital, to understand how people currently store their documents.

Lots of the paperwork comes in the post, but lots of it also comes by email or is locked behind a portal. It means that important documents can become hidden or lost. Jude interviewed people and profiled how documents travel through the house from doormat to shredder, drawer, or box and how they get filed or stored.

A few insights struck me:

  • Organising post and filing it away are often two separate activities that happen at different times.

  • People have very different processes for storing or filing documents. These helped us create a lot of user journeys, but more importantly they gave us different contexts; one interviewee fostered a number of children and the amount of paperwork that she had to keep on top of was incredible.

  • Many people said they were organised and had “one touch” policies but in reality their filing systems told different stories. Often people weren’t sure which documents were OK to throw away or kept certain documents because they had sentimental value, like a first pay cheque.

    • We heard that life changing events like moving house or separating from a partner meant creating new filing systems. People have very different ideas of what “secure” means to them. A lot of the people we spoke to didn't keep important documents online, because they didn’t believe it was safe to do so, especially if it was ‘in the cloud’.
Img 1325
IF's filing system (Image: Georgina Bourke / IF)

Sharing isn't a single action; it has different depths

We quickly realised that there needed to be different sharing modes for different documents. That’s how we remain sensitive to the different and changing relationships people have with one another.

Permissions for instance. If you live in a flatshare and you have shared responsibility for a utility bill, your housemates need permission to see the utility bills too. Or, when someone else moves out you need to revoke their permission to see the bills. Paperfree should let you do that, and make it very clear to you who has access to what and why.

If you start a new job and need to share your Passport with your employer you would normally have to send a copy as an image. This means you lose track of who has your passport details as you don’t know if it’s been emailed to anyone else. We think services like Paperfree should allow you to share documents using a one-time-code, so your employer can only see your Passport for the time they need it. A bit like the DVLA’s ‘share my driving licence’ service.

And, if you suddenly lose capacity and can no longer manage your affairs, we wanted to give the ability for someone to manage your information for you. We felt this could link well into other services that the Co-op provide like wills.

We’re not done yet

Co-op Digital are working on the next phase of Paperfree. Meanwhile I think there's a lot more work to be done, both on how we trust online services with our data and how we organise things digitally. It’s an extremely complex field.

What we’ve learned though is that it’s as much about how we maintain relationships with each other as the data itself. That has a huge impact on the way people store and sort sensitive information. Making Paperfree was a continuous process of trying to simplify the service as we understood people’s needs and met them.