Use it or lose it

NlightN’s driving theory test website (www.passyourtheory.co.uk) recently celebrated its first anniversary – it’s a success, moving into profit from January this year and helping tens of thousands of learners pass their theory test. It’s also undergoing a redesign that will probably radically change or remove at least 80% of the site content. This probably sounds nonsensical: the site works, it makes money and users like it, so why change a winning formula?

Use it or lose it

Nothing would make me happier than to leave this site alone and watch the cash flow in, but as in all businesses, standing still means falling behind – better to be proactive rather than wait for subscriptions to tail off. The great danger area for any web application lies in its design – a great idea implemented by a poor design is doomed, whereas a great idea with an average design (or even an average idea with a great design) will probably succeed. Design isn’t about being cool, it’s about being fit for purpose. Passyourtheory currently falls into the second category: a great idea with an average design. It’s time for change, because we now know the limitations of the current design; because we’ve learned a lot in the past year about what makes for an effective web application; and because we’ve collected lots of data about how visitors use the site.

Many people assume that design refers only to aesthetics, the look and feel of a site, but my view is that while a professional appearance is important, the key to a commercially successful web application design is usability rather than looks. This was driven home while I was trying to find a particular audio book on the website of one of the UK’s leading suppliers. The book was about dealing with difficult people, and I was about to drive to a meeting on this very topic, so I was absolutely determined to hear it. It was a good job I was, too, because the series of problems that confronted me from beginning to the end eventually forced me to the site’s support pages! How many people would have just given up during that convoluted process? That turned my thoughts to our own site -sure, people are signing up, but how many do we lose between their arrival at the site and the completion of registration and payment? The best way to discover this was to implement a new design and compare its performance with the old one. Web application design is a continually evolving subject, but there’s a set of accepted fundamental principles that you should apply to all commercial sites. Even so, the internet is crammed with examples of web applications that make the most elementary usability mistakes, and that includes the present design of passyourtheory, hence the redesign.

Like most web applications, passyourtheory is basically a heap of protected content integrated with a membership database. There’s also a payment-processing element and, of course, the separate components used to present the information to the member – in a sense, it’s several web applications bundled together. The choice of technologies is also common enough: PHP and MySQL for the nuts and bolts, with Flash layered on top where appropriate. We use a well-specified Linux server with firewall that makes daily backups, the only change to which has been a doubling of its memory, which greatly improved performance. This infrastructure works nicely and, while there’s always room for improvement, I’m satisfied that the underlying architecture is robust. However, it’s the bodywork built around this engine that determines whether the site is a success or not, which includes an appropriate marketing strategy to drive people to the site – money wasted if, on arrival, too few actually sign up. I’m not going to divulge our actual sales-conversion rate here, but any improvement in the rate means we’re making more money for the same advertising spend.

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