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Lessons worth sharing from the HfP redesign process

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When we relaunched Head for Points a couple of weeks ago, I said that I would do a piece on how we approached the project. I had a few emails from readers chasing it up, so here we go. This is really a ‘thank you’ article dressed up as a ‘how to’ piece.

There is absolutely nothing about travel, miles or points in this article – be warned!

This is the first version of HfP from 2011

What software powers a site like HfP?

This site, and almost all others like it, is built on a piece of free software called WordPress. Think of a WordPress ‘theme’ as the equivalent of a PowerPoint template. A Google search for WordPress themes will bring up hundreds of ‘off the shelf’ designs you can buy, but our requirements have become complex and we needed to commission something bespoke.

The old HfP was built on a non-responsive off-the-shelf theme written about 13 years ago, which is a lifetime in tech. I think I paid $50 for a licence and then £250 or so to someone to adjust it to our requirements.

‘Non-responsive’ means that the layout did not change depending on screen width or device. This had some advantages – we could always line things up nicely because the text never moved around – but many downsides. As screens got bigger and higher res, HfP would often look marooned in the middle with huge amounts of blue space down the sides! For mobile, we had to run a totally separate theme which was extra work.

Good design cannot make up for bad content

Let’s be clear about one thing. Good design does not, in itself, make a successful website. There are MANY sites which look substantially better than HfP but are less successful. HfP has prospered because people seem to like the content and didn’t care about (or were prepared to ignore) the look.

You need to face reality though. We clearly lost some potential readers because they never got far enough to realise how suitable the content was. I know for certain, because Sinead is in the front line, that we were losing commercial revenue.

About three years ago I made an aborted attempt to update HfP. I commissioned a layout from someone I knew, on a low budget, based on my own design ideas. The end result didn’t work as I wanted it to, mainly because I was taking ideas from 3-4 year old sites. The new look felt dated before it launched, and so it never was launched.

When Rhys joined full-time last year, he pushed me to look again at a redesign. He offered to run the project, and it turns out he has secret tech skills which we never knew about!

Head for Points old site screenshot
The 2012-2020 home page

Nine months ago ….

Unbelievably, we started the project back in November. We did what we thought you were meant to do – used Google to find design agencies who specialised in WordPress (the software which runs HfP) and then drew up a random shortlist based on how much we liked the look of their websites.

Pre corona, we wanted a London-based agency so we could be hands on. This was always going to add to the cost but was a trade-off we were happy with.

Rhys, Sinead and myself went on a tour of design agencies after Christmas. In general, we were not happy. We had supplied a brief of our requirements but few seemed to have read it or fully understood what we wanted.

(What we wanted was a simple, ‘clean’ site which was clearly derived from the original, but also clearly modern. ‘Simple’ is not easy. Apple aside, few companies can crack it. Why are TV remote controls so awful, for example?)

The agencies we met had expensive offices in expensive parts of London with lots of receptionists and other support staff. It was clear who would end up paying for all this. One told us that eight people, at a minimum, would be assigned to our project at all times. (Hint: that’s at least six too many.)

The quotes, when they arrived, were +/- £40,000 + VAT for design and IT development. We might have gone for it if any agency had blown us away, but none did.

We needed a Plan B.

We turned to the most stylish man I know ….

In the search for a modern, clean site, I went to the most stylish man I know – Simon Crompton, who runs the Permanent Style website. If you like tailoring, you should be reading it. We don’t know each other well but I enjoy his site and we’d met a few times over the years.

Simon pointed me to Birch London, run by James Allen.

Birch is a small practice (no receptionists!) with a modest office in Borough. The small team and owner-led approach was a natural fit for us.

Birch London works for people like the St John restaurant (they did the St John website), Conde Nast Traveller, Ettinger, Glenmorangie and the like. They also have a niche in designing branding and packaging for expensive ground coffee companies! These are, in general, design projects driven by typography.

The words on HfP have always been more important than the images, and we felt they understood that. We knew we had to have bigger pictures, but not at the expense of what we wanted to say.

It also helped that the price Birch quoted was a lot less than £40,000 ….

Workshop Coffee Birch London
Workshop Coffee is a Birch London client

Welcome Zoom ….

It was now March. We had just received the contract when lockdown struck. The upside was that we had a lot of time on our hands to focus on the project. The downside was that we were going to do it all via Zoom, which was the one thing I had wanted to avoid.

My plan was to do the logo last. Birch insisted we do it first, and that the rest would then flow naturally. I was personally unsure but we ran with it. They delivered four initial designs, and we took one unanimously. We liked the subtle way that aircraft imagery was worked in.

(There is actually a second variant of the logo which Rhys originally fought for and I resisted. We agreed to settle it on the day before launch. In the end, I softened towards his choice but he had also softened towards mine, so we kept the one which was on the dummy site.)

We then got into a cycle. The site was broken down into chunks – home page, article page, the hotel promos page, the credit cards page etc.

Rhys, Sinead, Anika and myself would brainstorm ideas for each chunk and put together a document of examples we liked or disliked. We would then have a long Zoom call where we would bounce these ideas around with Birch. James, the founder of Birch, was on 90% of the design calls which was important.

As we used to joke, Birch would essentially ditch most of our suggestions – whilst understanding the underlying points we wanted to make – and come back with something better.

The day I knew it would work was when we got the first draft of the home page, which hasn’t changed much between the first cut and the final version. I breathed a sigh of relief, because I knew then that it would be OK in the end.

The original designs are not coded – they are mocked up using standard design software. However, there are tools (apparently) which do much of the donkey work in terms of converting the design into WordPress code. This meant that the IT stage was quicker and cheaper than I expected. Once it got into coding, I stepped back and let Rhys manage the project, because he actually understood what was going on.

The launch

Nine months from when we emailed out our first enquiries to potential design teams, we finally launched. The launch, oddly, was a bit of an anti climax, because by then we’d lived and breathed the new site for so long.

In the three weeks since the launch, we’ve been working hard to squish bugs and tweak things. It is an on-going process and we are not yet fully there so bear with us.

Some things you have requested are in hand, such as a revamp of the way comments are laid out and the ability to re-order comments ‘date first’. The ‘Recent Comments’ list may also reappear. There will be no ‘big bang’ change – new features will just appear as we work down the list.

All in all, we are happy. The feedback from the people who pay the bills – our advertisers and commercial partners – has also been very positive. Our hope is that incremental ad revenue will quickly cover the costs of the project.

Anglo-Italian is another (typography driven) Birch London client

Thank you to ….

At the end of all this, I really need to thank:

Sinead, Anika and Rhys for all their contributions to the design process, and especially to Rhys for managing the final few weeks

James Allen and Jack Pearson at Birch London, plus their IT contractors, who did everything they promised and only overshot the original quote by 4%!

Simon Crompton of Permanent Style for the original introduction

Neil Barrett at Enbecom, our long-term IT partner

Lessons learned

If I have to say what I have learned from all this, it would be:

Look for a partner with a similar ethos, size and style to your own company. If you’re an ‘owner managed’ business like HfP, find partners who operate in the same way.

Don’t get too hung up over what sort of work your agency does. We ended up using an agency which was more of a brand developer than a website design agency. It didn’t matter. In fact, I think their broader view of branding and design helped.

Treat the cost of the project as money that you will earn back through additional commercial revenue. This makes it less worrying.

Expect the designers to respect your underlying beliefs about what you want but don’t expect them to slavishly follow your ideas (and why are you paying them anyway?). Do make your red lines very clear – for example we insisted on keeping the chronological home page – so they can work around it. A committed designer will, if they really believe you are wrong, produce a Plan B anyway so you can see what you may be missing.

Don’t expect hundreds of design options. You’ll receive a handful of variants at best, but hopefully all are on the right track.

Accept the fact that a functioning, clickable, site is never going to be exactly how the original design looked, and that a lot of issues will emerge during the coding stage.

In a couple of weeks we’ll do a final article on the redesign where we will explain what we have changed in response to your initial feedback.

Comments (138)

  • Andrew (@andrewseftel) says:

    I’d also be interested in a follow-up article on the results. Assuming there’s a measurable business goal beyond advertiser sentiment, how well is the site working? I don’t know publishing well enough to know what matters, but some sort of review on how things like ‘page views per session’, ‘ad clicks per page view’, ‘comments per article per user’ etc. have moved would be interesting.

  • Rob says:

    £40,000+VAT?????

    Wow.

    The new design and content migration would be a £5,000 project for an agency. Freelancers would do it for £1,000-£2,000.

    • Rob says:

      And it would be rubbish.

      • Qrfan says:

        As is this site. Have you guys even seen the rest of the internet? The headline text isn’t visible on a galaxy S10 because the mobile layout is so poor…

        • Rob says:

          Email me a screenshot please – [email protected]. We had some niggling issues on small mobile screens (I still use an iPhone 8) but I thought we’d fixed those.

          The nature of the HfP readership means it is probably 90% Apple which is why it might have slipped through with no-one mentioning it.

          • ThePrince says:

            Surprised you don’t have web analytics that tells you this figure Rob?!

            I’d also be very shocked if it was as high as 90% – the fact you have this perception is a remarkable triumph of Apple’s marketing and fan base!

          • Rob says:

            I just looked it up for you! Last week 87% of visits to HfP on a mobile device were made on an Apple device. For new users, it was 91%.

            We know our market.

            (Overall, merging mobile and desktop, Safari is the most popular browser for reading HfP, even ahead of Chrome.)

          • Alan says:

            Very interesting stats – looking round colleagues at work I’d say much more of a 50/50 spread iOS/Android with the latter esp those of a more technical nature or looking for a cheaper phone. I guess that fits with your target demographic being city finance folks who won’t really fall into either of those camps.

          • AJA says:

            I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 on Android and the headline text is perfectly visible to me. I like being in an exclusive club of 10% who are not fans of the pome fruit brand.

          • Mikeact says:

            Exactly!

      • Peter K says:

        I concur with this. Having seen how a very large company (3rd biggest in uk in its sector) had information ported across from a rival it bought out in the same field, a real mess can me made. Half the *essential* information required was not ported because the team doing it didn’t understand the business needs.

        In the end they had to create a new program to overcome the problems from the initial (no doubt cheap) port.

    • Lady London says:

      That was the approach taken before, and it had reached its limits.

      Good that the team avoided the fancy-offices one – a danger in so many industries whose products are services.(finance is one). A really good point made by Rob to select companies of similar size and style to work with.

      • Bagoly says:

        Agree about the similar style of supplier if you are small.

        Although one of the challenges in recent years is that larger businesses now often require suppliers to be on a Preferred Supplier List.
        That’s good for preventing middle managers giving work to their cousin/friend/neighbour with no relevant expertise (senior ones often still do so!), but does tend to shut out competent small businesses who do not have the marketing/administration budget and salesmanship to get on PSLs.

  • Alex Sm says:

    It’s a great article and a great insight behind the scenes of HfP work and decision-making!

    Two key issues remained unresolved though and one extra one emerged:

    1) ability for users to edit and delete their own comments (at least for a short time after posting)

    2) email notifications of replies to comments – currently it’s impossible to track at all

    3) avatars have gone! Users became virtually indistinguishable

    Can you please consider fixing these at some point?

    • Doug says:

      I like these ideas too. But I am aware that the commenters may not be those that drive the economic viability of the site.

    • Nick says:

      LOL instead of being able to immediately edit your comment, do you realise you could maybe, you know, proof-read it before clicking ‘submit’?

      • Alex Sm says:

        Various things can happen – you press enter accidentally or realise something is wrong when you’ve posted or decided to add smth or paraphrase. Or decided to delete your comment for any reason – there should be a possibility to do that

  • Doug says:

    Scratch number 2. Lots of emails are just annoying. Browser notifications would be nice.

    • TGLoyalty says:

      Or possibly just an easy way to link to the comment itself? The issue for me is usually finding what page your original query was on and then where in the page it actually is (less of an issue on laptop as can use find far quicker than on phone)

      • TGLoyalty says:

        If every main comment went 1-2-3 and each reply was 1-1/1-2 then 1-1-1/1-1-2 for example surely a standard anchor link could be created

        Also with the indentation now being so confusing with this sort of simple numbering system you’d be able to work out whose actually replying to who.

        • Zesty Lemon says:

          If you’re wanting to have a link to a particular comment, it’s already there… attached to the comment date & time. So you can right click the link then choose ‘copy URL’.

      • Alex Sm says:

        Yes. Another way to avoid multiple emails is to go FB-style or get comments notifications into your personal account space when you log in as many forums do

  • Andrew says:

    Great write up and good tips / lessons learned.

    One I’d add (I work with clients to design and develop new digital products / strategies) consider getting the same organisation on the hook for delivery the design and build. It’s all too easy to make something beautiful looking in the design tool which is a nightmare to recreate in a real product… if one organisation is on the hook or you’re using partners who have worked together before then they will have worked through this before and will be thinking end to end, rather than just on a making a pretty picture!

    • Rob says:

      Very true, and we did that.

      Learned that lesson a bathroom refurbishment a long time ago!

  • BP says:

    Just had a look at the Permanent Style website. Wow that’s expensive clothing. Completely out of my price range.

  • Brighton Belle says:

    Over the years I have pushed many friends to HFP. Not one of them has followed up. They’re all still cash payers at list prices for their travel. No miles, no Hotels.com discounts. No 241 on BA.The best site with the most amazing layout wont attract these passive disinterested passengers. Let’s face it the desire to maximise your travel experience with stunning locations at knockout prices needs focused attention and many travellers just can’t be bothered. My last trip my fellow traveller liked his BA club seat and 5 star hotel but moaned the Internet “wasn’t like home”.

    This is an open but exclusive self selecting club.

    • Matt says:

      This is an open but exclusive self selecting club.

      So true. And a big reason why I have little interest in what HfP looks like. It’s still one of the very few sites I visit every day.

      BTW am I the only one now accidentally activating the “reply” button loads more now? (Right hander using left thumb to scroll on mobile… does that make me word?!). Was the button indented before?

    • Optimus Prime says:

      Yeah, my family & friends can’t be bothered to follow HfP and other travel blogs. On one hand, I miss on the chance to give them an Amex referral link. On the other, more reward seats & rooms available for me…

  • Phil W says:

    This makes for an excellent case study in Marketing Procurement. It is possible to save money and get great results.

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