Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Lessons from Marks and Spencer website changes

Marks and Spencer (M&S) announced an 8.1% drop in online sales which it has attributed to moving its website to a new platform. Users:

  • already registered on the site were forced to re-register
  • reported that the navigation was overly complicated and lacked clarity. 
So, whether you are transferring to a new content management system (CMS), hosting in a new environment, or going for a radical redesign, what lessons can be learnt from the M&S experience?

1. Let website users know that changes are coming, and the reasons for them

Nobody enjoys logging onto one of their favorite websites to find that it has a radical new redesign. It leaves them wondering what was wrong with the old site that they liked so much. Yet, a few weeks down the line we can hardly remember what the previous version looked like. Fact is, people are uncomfortable with change, especially if it is sudden and unexpected.

Chances are the changes you are planning will be based on user feedback and analysis of your site's analytics. Make sure you communicate the reason for the changes to users ahead of time, during, and after the transition. Give users a channel through which to express their opinions about the changes.

2. Prioritise the changes

If 80% of your business is conducted via 20% of your website, make sure you know which 20% that is, and ensure resources are focused on getting these sections right.

It might be that you can make the changes to your site incrementally, rather than going for a big bang approach. This will allow you to gather feedback along the way, and make adjustments if necessary, based on user feedback.

3. Have a backup skeleton site on standby

If you are making wholesale changes to the way your website operates, it is a good idea to have a very simple backup site on standby. This need be little more than a holding page with the contact details of customers services on it, for example. You probably have one of these as part of your business continuity plans anyway, that is hosted in a separate environment. All you need to do is point the DNS at this second site, but remember, DNS changes can take up to 48 hours to take effect.

4. Managing external suppliers

Make sure that any external suppliers you are working with have resource dedicated to your project throughout the change process. You will be reliant on them for some aspects of service continuity, so they need to function as an extension of your in-house team.

Research their experience in dealing with changes such as CMS transfers before you appoint them. A standard way of doing this is to contact some of their existing customers - ask what went well, and what pit-falls they experienced that you can avoid. A good supplier will let you choose which of their customers to speak to.

5. Future proof Content Management System 

We would all like a future proof CMS, and of course this is not completely possible, however, make sure your supplier has a clear road-map for product development. Upgrades and version releases should be scheduled at least a year into the future, and may or may not be included in your contract, so check this out.

Of course, nothing can mitigate against mergers and acquisitions which may result in the CMS you are using becoming obsolete or unsupported over time.

6. Buy in additional resource

Large scale changes to your website, which may be your biggest or only source of income, will be resource intensive. When planning for the changes, factor in additional (wo)manpower. This could be to help directly with the changes, or to take on some of the day to day business tasks that you won't have time for during the transition. 

7. Pilot sites

Ask yourself whether you can safely make changes to a small area of your website as a tester before site wide changes are implemented. It may be that parts of your website are hosted in different environments, and are not interdependent. If things do go belly up, you are in a better position than if you try to make all the changes at once.

8. Take time to get service level agreements (SLAs) with suppliers right

It can be tempting to sign paperwork with a supplier without making time consuming changes to the terms and conditions. However, working out the actual cost of a day's down-time will really clarify to the supplier the significance of the project to your business. Consider working financial penalties into the contract if failure to deliver the project is on the part of the supplier.

9. Test, test, test

Regardless of the changes you are making, ensure that there is a sandpit environment where changes can be previewed and tested before being sent live. Be open-minded about who can conduct the testing and consider not just user acceptance testing (UAT) but also employee feedback and consumer panel testing. Yes, this takes more time to complete, but it could mean you end up with a better product at the end of the process.

10. Reflect on lessons learnt

All large website changes will encounter problems. Manage risk, assign risk owners, and have clear processes for escalation. Take time at the end of your project to debrief with the team, reflect, and learn lessons for next time.

Personally, I can see a lots of positive changes to the M and S website that are getting lost in the current bad press around the downturn in sales. It's important for the team to remain motivated and focused which is sometimes easier said then done at such times!


- BBC - Marks and Spencer sales hot by website move 

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