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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 (137)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Chris Heyes says:

    Great Effort Rob, i’m sure it will pay it’s way, after all that’s what its all about
    By the way keep Rhys looks like he’s turning into your biggest asset lol

  • AndyGWP says:

    Thanks for the article Rob – I like to read about perspective of technology clients… found it very interesting 🙂

  • AJA says:

    No I also find myself accidentally opening a reply text box on my mobile. I too scroll with my left hand thumb. At least you can now scroll up and see the comment you are replying to, the old design didn’t do that. I use a Samsung Galaxy S7 on Android so must be one of the 10% who are individual and not slaves to Apple. 🙂

    I also am ok with this site only being for a select group. If everyone cottoned on to the benefits this site reveals then Avios and rewards programs in general would suffer even faster devaluations. These schemes are designed to incentivise us to stay loyal to the brand. There is a cost to doing this and the rewards are as much about increasing revenue for the business offering the loyalty scheme as it is for the customer.

  • John says:

    I realised yesterday it’s been about 10 days since I looked at HFP site. I raced to the comments to make sure I hadn’t missed something that was going on, some trick etc, but alas, nothing of note.

    I don’t think this is anything to do with the layout. I still glance at the emails, and open if the title is interesting. I’m sure it’s just a symptom of the present travel situation that nothing is actually happening.

    • Genghis says:

      I’m going to put this out there: comments aren’t as interesting as they used to be. I engage much less now. Very few tips (where’s Harry?) and not as much lively debate.

      • Pid says:

        Come back Harry – we miss you your tips and advice!

        • TGLoyalty says:

          +1 the debate was good.

          • Rob says:

            -1 for sexism, racism, homophobia and threats towards other posters and HfP staff (most of which was quickly deleted so most of you never saw it).

          • Genghis says:

            Completely agree with what you say but for tips, he was the best poster on the site.

          • TGLoyalty says:

            I saw some of it and if it was always him it was terrible (you’ll know ofcourse)

            But I felt like it escalated as he reacted to some of the personal hate sent his way.

          • Secret Squirrel says:

            Was that really Shoestring Harry making those comments?
            I remember around that time people were cloning usernames and posting all sorts of weird comments.

          • Rob says:

            Yes. We see the underlying email and IP addresses.

      • marcw says:

        Totally agree. Current comment section is just BA 2×1 and some Curve/Revolut – not real travel hacking/miles…

      • joe flight says:

        I would also say the move of general comments from the bits page to its own chat page has had a negative effect on sharing. Cant really say why but just feels a bit forced having to go to a separate section and it ends up being people asking very basic questions. It may also be that by creating a separate chat section its has become less spontaneous and therefore less fun to read.

        • Rob says:

          Possibly. We only had 8 days in August with a ‘Bits’ section though – there simply isn’t that much news on some days.

      • Secret Squirrel says:

        Agree Genghis, something happened around the time of relaunch.

      • ChrisC says:

        On many days the good comments get hidden by the endless posts asking the same questions about curve etc

        I’d like @Rob to consider having a separate section of the site for those sorts of comments / queries / cards etc

        And people need to stop with the cryptic comments as well.

        They are offputting to irregular readers who could become regular ones but for the fact they get the impression the site isn’t for them.

      • John says:

        The glory days of Flyertalk go back 10 years. Which naturally coincides with the best time for miles and points redemption as well. BD was still around and 7 nights in a beautiful Hilton was 175k!

        As we head more and more to a point or mile having a fixed value, the tricks are few and far between especially in the EU. Here we are churning HH for 2 per £ while the yanks get up-to 14 per $! It’s all going into the same pot.

      • Alan says:

        Yeah must say I’ve found the same – I used to get emails re all comments and interacted a lot. I then found volume of comments massively increased but quality reduced and have engaged less as a result. Now I don’t get emails re every comment I also find it very difficult to follow when there have been replies.

    • Rob says:


      Now that Virgin is saved (for now) and BA has done its redundancies (for now) and everyone else is bailed out (for now) it could be a bit quiet. We’re working on some cool stuff though.

      • Alex Sm says:

        You never run out of great ideas! Hotel reviews and plane layouts article are good examples. Maybe more on travel in the time of covid would be useful too. Anika’s 2-part one was great. I know now from Rob that these do not generate much money but you can always have a good balance

  • Alex says:

    I must say that you’re right, the design is much less important than the content. I think you’ve done a good job here.

    If there’s one functionality where you missed out, it’d be the ability to flick between comments pages without refreshing the whole page. That is very 2011 still. There has to be a quick jquery way of flicking through the comments without reloading the rest of the content.

    • Declan Yates says:

      Yep, should be easy enough with an Ajax call. That will also reduce server load and costs.

  • Flightsy says:

    I note that the article mentions a new logo, but I don’t see it. It looks like the same font as the site is used for the ‘Head for Points’ title copy at the top of the page which when you scroll down the page moved to the left a notch and abbreviates to HfP. Is that the new logo???

    • AJA says:

      I was going to write a similar comment. I don’t see any difference to the logo except the f now resembles that dreadful Zuckerberg site. Any resemblance to aircraft imagery is far too subtle for me. Still I like the redesign although on desktop there is an awful lot of blank white space to the left and right of comments, it works better on mobile. I do hope the “recent comments” feature does return as I find it useful to see what others are reading and it is especially helpful if someone comments on a previous article.

      • Rob says:

        It clearly can’t return on the home page because there is no sidebar space. It can go back onto article pages where the sidebar runs top to bottom. The only thing stopping us is that the IT people didn’t give us the flexibility to add widgets to the sidebar. We are fixing this.

        The same ‘fix’ will allow us to tighten up some of the white space as you scroll top to bottom down the home page.

      • Secret Squirrel says:

        I think the H in the logo is supposed to be an aircraft wing across but its so small its hardly recognisable.

        • Matt says:

          The font of the ‘f’ was the first thing which struck me, but I hope the “subtle way that aircraft imagery was worked in” grows on me. Maybe the same way that you can’t ignore the arrow in the FedEx logo… once it’s pointed out to you.

          • Peter K says:

            Never noticed that in Fedex before! Had to Google it.

          • Alan says:

            Ditto – couldn’t see if even when looking for it until I Googled and saw an explanatory image!

          • Doug says:

            I always think that’s something they stumbled on rather than designed.

        • Dubious says:

          Rob – what if:
          > the ‘wing’ in the H was a slightly different shade?
          > an additional ‘wing’ pointing to the right was added to ‘t’ in Points?

          Not sure if it would help or make it tacky though.

          • Rob says:

            Tacky. We tried it with more ‘obvious’ variants, including some of these, and it didn’t really work.

            You’re not really meant to think about it. If people are spending time looking at the logo then we have failed.

    • Rob says:

      What I call ‘logo’ is what sits at the top of the page – the designers call it a ‘wordmark’.

  • Sapiens says:

    Expect Permanent Style has a lot of first time visitors today – overlapping target market!

  • the_real_a says:

    Is there anyway to hide the header (Menu-search-subscribe) when scrolling down – it takes about 20% of the available real estate of the screen. Other themes hide the header when scrolling down and make it reappear when you hit the top of the screen. Im using Firefox/Chrome when zoomed in. If you select another page of comments (1,2,3,4 etc) the header disappears for 2 seconds but then re-appears.

    • Rob says:

      What size screen are you on? I’d say it takes up under 10% on a 15 incher.

      • the_real_a says:

        Its worse when you zoom the text in the browser (same for 10″ tablet, phone or my 13″ laptop), the header seems to zoom at the same time as the text dynamically. Its a common problem actually, for example Flyertalk forum stylesheet hides the header when you scroll down to maximise the real estate for content. Users will also typically have other clutter such as tabs, taskbars, menus from windows/browser at the top and the bottom of the page so the available real estate is already compressed.

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

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