Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The increasing importance of UX in sport website design

Having now notched up over ten sport website designs/builds across two major football codes, I'd like to think I have learnt a thing or two. It's not really rocket science, but there are a number of key differences from typical corporate websites or e-commerce based websites.

One of the interesting things I have found is that not all sport properties create their website's the same way. One of the key reasons for this is that it depends what department within the organisation is in charge of the website. Sometime's marketing takes the lead, or alternatively marketing/public relations, and in other scenarios I have seen commercial operations or IT take the lead on developing the site. On top of that there are typically external organisations involved that influence the site design and objectives. This can include; design agencies, rights holders, sponsors, media agencies, and miscellaneous consultants (always a favourite option in sport).

This can often cause interesting conversations in the design workshops. If it's marketing let then the brand is often thrust forward as the main site objective. If it's commercially led, then membership sales, ticketing, merchandising, or promotion of sponsors often take precedence. It it's media or PR driven then news, media releases, and communication with stakeholders is a priority. And if it's IT lead then the inevitable happens and it's all about the technology.

Of course the reality is that all of these objectives and all of these areas of expertise are critical to the design of a sports website. The crunch point comes in designing the home page - it doesn't matter how important the key messages are - there is only so much space above the fold on the home page. Rather than one of the areas taking precedence, user experience design (or UX) can help sport organisations achieve their key website design objectives with minimal compromises.

The typical way sites have been designed is for key staff of the organisation to be interviewed on; the objective of the site, the key types of content (or information architecture) on the site, and branding requirements. Web or graphic designers then go away and prepare wireframes of the main pages, and then move onto pixel perfect Photoshop designs of key pages and components. Once approved the design is then thrown over the wall to the web developers.

One of the key issues with this approach is that it is not iterative, and by the time staff from the respective departments finally sees the site (and invariably it "isn't what we thought it was going to be like) the whole project is too far down the track to go back and make major changes. This is especially true with sport websites as they are often required to be launched for the start of a new season or campaign, the dates for which are locked in stone.

One of the techniques being espoused in UX circles to fix this problem is to allow designers and developers to work in tandem to develop the site, rather than as a sequential process. By combining an iterative design process, agile development processes, and some of the newer UX tools and techniques, it is possible to have a process that works in conjunction with the stakeholders at every step of the process, starting simply and growing into increased levels of fidelity, and all whilst the development process is ongoing - so that season launch date can still be met.

One tool that I have been playing around recently to do this is Microsoft's Expression Blend 3 with Sketchflow. The tool allows you to literally start prototyping screens by sketching them, and whilst the designers and UX folk are working with the stakeholders, developers can actually start plugging some of the backend plumbing and sample data.

Matt Morphett did a great demo of Sketchflow at ReMIX in June this year, including how the tool can be used with a waeco tablet. Check out the video of Matt's demo here.

Now no tool or process by itself is magically going to produce a great sport property website. But getting stakeholders working closer with the site designers and developers, in an iterative process, with tools that support such a process, has to be heading in the right direction!

It's early days but will let you know how my travels with Sketchflow go ....


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