Interview: Sainsbury digital experience boss shuns silos

Charlotte Briscall, head of digital experience at Sainsbury's, explains why the supermarket chain has kept its digital experience department integrated with the rest of the business

Keeping its digital experience team at the heart of its technology remit has helped supermarket chain Sainsbury to innovate and stop silos forming, according to its head of digital experience Charlotte Briscall.

Briscall says many companies’ digital experience teams sit in the marketing department since that is one of the ways in which retailers interact with customers, but at Sainsbury digital experience is part of the technology department.

She explains: “Sitting within the tech team is absolutely the right place because the tech enabled us to deliver these fantastic digital experiences for our customers. For the people in my team, solving tech problems is the really interesting part of our jobs.”

Where digital experience is handled outside the technology function, companies often find it challenging to integrate it with core business functions, as the team needs an understanding of how software across the business can support and enable any proposed changes.

Common digital thread

“Sainsbury’s have been quite smart in putting our team where we are,” Briscall says. “Sainsbury’s deliberately made the decision not to spin us off as a separate digital team, but actually to create digital as a common function thread that runs through everything else within the digital and technology division.”

To create the right environment for the digital and technology department – and the digital experience team within it – to work in an agile way, Sainsbury opened its digital lab in 2015 to house its digital developers and designers working on its websites and mobile shopping platforms.

Creating an open space for collaboration where digital teams could work flexibly and display Kanban boards not only made agile working easier but also ensured the digital and technology teams were attracting fresh talent.

Catering for heritage

One of the challenges Briscall’s team faces is integrating its new user experience technologies with the business’s many legacy systems. It’s one of the reasons why integration with other teams in the business is so important.

“You can’t just be the team separately having fun, creating all the fantasies – you’ve also got to understand the challenges they face on core platforms,” Briscall says.

“In a business like Sainsbury’s you’ve got to be dealing with the core legacy tech to be able to innovate on top of it. You’ve got to understand it all the way through. You can’t be innovating without understanding how you’re going to take that innovation and benefit the core proposition.”

Many retailers have legacy systems that can stand in the way of modern tech innovations, such as implementing mobile applications or collecting and utilising customer data. In Sainsbury’s case Briscall cites the till system as an example – the technology that monitors till transactions is quite old, and the digital and technology team has to find a way to build its mobile shopping apps to integrate with it.

“The two have to work together rather than separately,” Briscall says.

Driving tech consistency

In her role as head of digital experience, Briscall also has to ensure the user experience is consistent for everyone using Sainsbury’s services, both within and outside the business.

As it was the first time the retailer has used user experience as a discipline or implemented front-end development to improve staff user experience, Briscall has helped implement a consistent approach across the business, including Sainsbury’s Bank and the new pay-at-pump POS system for its petrol stations.

But user experience can be heavily brand-focused. That, combined with the growth of customers interacting with brands across several different channels, makes it’s important to ensure that all interactions with the Sainsbury’s brand feel like they’re coming from the “Sainsbury’s family”.

Briscall put together some guidelines for the teams building Sainsbury digital products, originally in the form of a 200-page PDF.

Atomic library

Since then, to make these documents more easily accessible, Briscall’s team has built an “atomic library” full of precoded components that can be used by designers and developers to build digital products and services more easily.

Briscall has worked with the brand team and other teams across the company to provide an architecture that everyone can contribute to. The retailer has turned to open source to allow developers and designers to contribute to the component library when they develop something during a project.

Briscall hopes third-party collaborators will be able to access the library in the future.

“As a team, it’s inefficient for us to maintain all of that consistency,” Briscall explains. “We want to empower our development teams to create their own guidelines.

“Sainsbury’s is a hugely collaborative organisation, so it’s much better if we actually embed that collaboration in the way we work, and this is the ultimate way to collaborate that everybody can contribute to.”

Driving future experiences

Since the launch of its digital lab, Sainsbury has run hackathons and launched new digital initiatives across the UK to try and make digital and collaboration a core part of the business.

Anyone across the business can participate in the hack days, paired with members of the digital and technology teams, to test whether solutions can be integrated into the business. It ensures that innovation and digital are part of every business department.

Read more about Sainsbury

  • Sainsbury’s digital lab hackathon brings together the IT team and staff from the wider organisation to generate ideas for better customer services.
  • Argos has announced the opening of two of its upcoming 10 digital stores in Sainsbury supermarkets across the UK.

The digital experience team is also constantly working across the online groceries app as well as improving the online checkout process.

Briscall says: “We always work on these things though we’re continually enhancing them.”

The last year has been a challenge, and over the next few years the digital experience team will continue to work on providing unique Sainsbury experiences to customers and providing staff applications across the business, from HR through to the commercial team.

Read more on IT for retail and logistics

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