The football season is well and truly under way and very happy am I.

If you're a football fan or a fantasy football obsessive, you'll be more than familiar with Premier League and football club websites, and how some have improved immeasurably over the past couple of seasons.

I've been speaking to Hayden Evans, creative director at Reading Room, the agency that has recently redesigned and relaunched the websites of Stoke City, Swansea City and Middlesbrough. Let's find out what is changing for the better and how these redesigns were made possible.

For more on digital in the Premier League, check out these other posts:

Legacy technology was a pain in the metatarsal

Anyone familiar with football club websites will know that historically many have been tied in to a Football League Interactive contract, which meant they had their websites provided for them by the league, each of which was based on the same back-end system.

Evans tells me that "The problem with [the Football League Interactive system] was that each club had very restrictive designs and publishing capability. The clubs all went into the same publishing queue, so you can imagine what that meant at 4.45pm on a Saturday. Some clubs wouldn’t get their content published for 20-25 minutes whilst it waited in the queue."

That system meant that a Premier League club could be beholden to the content strategy of another club altogether - not ideal when you're trying to build a global football brand.

Clubs need to be able to create a visual brand

Each club that Reading Room worked with was very clear, according to Evans, about "being able to customise the design" of their website. They "don’t necessarily mind being on the same platform if it works well," he continued, "but what they don't want is a website on which their only design choice is to change the colours."

The visual brand of big football clubs is increasingly important, with Evans pointing to when clubs change their crest as an example - such changes invariably provoke plenty of debate and feedback on social media.

It's no different when it comes to the club's website design, as well as the content and the user experience. Fans are not slow in coming forward with their thoughts.

So, with the goal (no pun intended) of providing Stoke, Swansea and Middlesbrough with much improved publishing capability and a customiseable design, Reading Room created Playmaker.

swansea city fc 

Swansea City FC website

Playmaker - a Drupal8 platform specifically for sports teams

Reading Room's Playmaker platform is based on a Drupal8 open-source backend.

The agency worked with the three clubs to determine their workflows and build back-end systems that suit their needs (for live match centres, for example), but the platform does have some consistent functionality. There is integration with stream AMG, the stream partner that brings through live and on-demand content, for example. There is also integration with Opta, pulling in player and league stats.

Evans gave the impression that Playmaker has been built to deliver the best of both worlds - customisable open-source infrastructure and best-practice functionality that will work for any club.

stoke website

Stoke City FC website

Designing both fan and club UX

Part of scoping out each website build was working with both club and fans to determine what great UX meant to each.

For the clubs, as touched on earlier, Evans said this could mean "sitting down with content teams to understand their experiences watching a live match and updating the website." This might mean being able to "quickly update a system when someone scores, add in some commentary, maybe pull in and embed a Tweet or Instagram post. And be able to do that quickly."

swansea live commentary 

The Swansea City FC website's live match commentary

Similarly, the agency worked with each club to improve how the systems works when the club needs to announce a season ticket campaign or unveil a new signing, for example.

Alongside this club-side UX, various fan groups were consulted - what social media do younger fans appreciate (can we incorporate player posts?), what stats do the fans want from the website, and so on.

The presentation of stats is one area where, by working across multiple football club websites, Reading Room was able to zero in on an optimised UX that can be shared across clubs, meeting with fan approval and also providing the consistency that great data visualisations rely on. That means fans can sort through league tables and rich stats (who has the most assists from midfield, for example) using a throughly tested design.

The agency, Evan says, was "upfront with the clubs, saying we’re going to keep this stats layout and style for all three of you because this is working and we’ve tested it, across devices. It's the same with upcoming fixtures, which will show form from last season's corresponding fixtures."

player stats 

Player stats on the Middlesbrough website (Ben Gibson, if you're curious)

Designing for mobile and desktop

"We’re not prioritising mobile," said Evans, "the sites work on mobile and on desktop." 

"We didn’t want to go down that worn out path of ‘mobile first’ - we’re very aware of sites in both the football sector and others too where they have almost gone mobile only, it’s overly basic at the desktop level i.e. the same mobile view just expanded for the desktop."

It's easy to understand what Evans is getting at here - the website with a simplistic homepage or a feed homepage, with a hidden navigation. This mobile-first design can sometimes feel limited on desktop. Fans want to check scores on their mobiles, but also dig into match reports and stats on desktop, or watch video here in the evening.

You can see the advantages of this multi-device approach by looking at Swansea's site, which includes a mega-menu.

Swansea mega menu

Swansea City mega-menu

Evans tells me it’s only Swansea that have gone for the mega-menu, with each club trialling their own navigation methods - an example of the flexibility of the backend system.

The platform also works in partnership with the various app providers that the three clubs use. Clubs can "enter the content once," says Evans, "and that same content gets pushed out to both the website and the app.

Early metrics point to a much improved experience

The early results are positive for the three websites, with lots of positive sentiment on social media and increased visits and browsing.

Stoke City's website saw views up 118% year-on-year in the month after launch, with visit duration up 108% and page view per visit up 58%.

The roadmap to single sign-on

So what's next for football clubs who have succeeeded in creating visually appealling, functional and usable websites for publisher and fan?

Well, for the three named clubs, single sign-on is the next goal, allowing fans to sign in once and be able to buy tickets, view content and add items to their basket in the shop. Currently, website, match tickets and the club shop necessitate separate accounts, and that doesn't represent a great customer experience.

Reading Room has been working with all three clubs to ensure that single sign-on is implemented.

Accessiblity

A last word on accessibility, an oft-overlooked part of UX when writing articles like this, but a vital aspect for football clubs.

Reading Room has been working with a blind fan of Middlesbrough FC to ensure that new features on the site work well with a screen reader. When a new website launches, it can be a disconcerting experience for visually impaired users and so Reading Room's development roadmap includes work to make sure they take this into account.

We'll hopefully do a more detailed study on this accessbility work on the Econsultancy blog. Watch this space.

boro website

Middlesbrough FC website

In summary

Football clubs are finally undertaking work that is long overdue, providing the information fans want in an easy-to-use format. For a while now, fans have bemoaned the state of their club websites, but it looks like most are catching and delivering experiences that are not far behind what big media players can deliver.

The leagues are evolving, too, with the Premier League rebranding and dropping its title sponsor, and the EFL putting its digital platform (Interactive) out to tender last year and also creating a consumer-facing video streaming product for the 2017-18 season.

The first stage of digital transformation looks to be gently underway - the next is about offering the kind of seemless experience that can generate greater revenue through fan loyalty, ecommerce and media. Top players are getting in on the act, too, with their own digital ventures.

It's clear there's much to look forward to, with platforms like Playmaker a great start.

Interested in learning more about usability and user training? Book now for Econsultancy's upcoming training course.

Ben Davis

Published 1 September, 2017 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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