When the National Trust launched its new website at the end of 2015, the minimum viable product (MVP) attracted some criticism from users.
But go-live for the new site was only the beginning of the journey for the National Trust – since then, monthly releases have been pretty much standard.
The digital and IT teams have been finessing their Agile Scrum development methodology and are moving along a five-year roadmap to completely transform the National Trust’s digital presence.
In July this year, the National Trust launched a revamped holidays website, and I took the opportunity to talk to Head of Digital Tom Barker about the specifics of the organisation’s transformation.
The importance of the MVP
The redesign of NationalTrust.org.uk was somewhat of a turning point for the organisation and kickstarted an Agile culture.
With the previous website weighing in at some 50,000 pages and having a bounce rate of well over 60% (thanks to a non-responsive design), Barker and his team had to decide whether to launch an MVP or to take the hit on bounce rate for a further nine months while they created something more complete and with greater functionality.
In the end, they chose the MVP, a “considered choice,” as Barker puts it, “given the state of the website at the time.”
“Given that most people who come to our website are looking for days-out information,” Barker continued, “you can imagine what the knock-on effect of that [bounce rate] is. If people bounce, they’re potentially not going to pay for entry, they’re not going to join when they get there, they’re potentially not going to go to the tea room or the shop, they might not donate or volunteer.”
When the MVP launched, there were grumbles from some users, particularly about the lack of mapping on the site. Armed with user feedback and an extensive content audit, Barker and his team continued to improve the site, recreating content that worked for the new design. The MVP has since been beefed up from 9,000 pages of content to 15,000.
Mapping functionality on the National Trust website
Eighteen months on, the results of this iterative development are impressive. Since the start of 2017, Barker says there has been a “huge increase – and not just a spike – in the total number of unique visits to the site. Well over 20% up on the same period in 2016.”
Over this period, the National Trust has added functionality to the MVP such as being able to update membership details, renew memberships and donate online. Barker posits this new functionality and the richer content has played a part is driving more web traffic.
Now that the website is responsive, bounce rate is half that of its predecessor, too. In 2016, on average two-thirds of all visits to the website came from a mobile device, showing just how important was a responsive MVP.
The result of all this work is a shift to Agile, with Barker acknowledging that “we didn’t know how important [the MVP decision] would be at the time and just how much it would affect the way we built things in the future.”
New ways of working
Apart from the move from Waterfall to Agile Scrum, Barker highlights two changes that were keys to success.
The first was hiring an overflow facility, a space about a mile down the road from the National Trust’s Swindon HQ where space was lacking because of all the people working on the new website. “Putting all the digital and IT people together (BAs, developers, designers, UX professionals etc.) in a single room, increased efficiency enormously,” says Barker.
He continues, “It wasn’t just about communication, they also had a conducive environment to work in, rather than rows of desks, giving these people space to do what they need, standup meetings, Scrum discussions etc.”
This space was vital given the National Trust increased capability around design, build and UX, to be able to do the work in-house. The digital team still had core agency partners, but Barker says that they “worked with [us] very closely”, with Manifesto, the main build agency, often on site “a couple of days a week.”
Tom Barker, Head of Digital, National Trust
The digital roadmap
The National Trust’s roadmap will be one that is familiar to many organisations in the leisure, heritage and charity sectors. In short, the roadmap represents a move from a “build it and walk away” mentality, characterised by deteriorating and disparate infrastructure, to a single destination for National Trust supporters.
Barker points out that “when you looked at our web presence [a few years ago], there was a website for the National Trust and a different one for the shop, another for holidays, yet another for the picture library, and a different library for collections.”
This carried with it “all sorts of inefficiencies, around stability, data, production, brand,” Barker continued.
The five-year roadmap leads to a point where “from an outsider’s perspective, it just has to appear like they go to the National Trust website and then book a holiday, plan a day out, look at collections and so on.” Though, Barker says, “the reality is they are all driven by different engines and platforms, they appear to the user’s eye as a single domain identity or naming convention.”
On the back end too, the digital team also need to run these platforms with better shared UX, shared data, and with the same analytics tools across each of them.
The new holidays website – enabling customer journeys
The new National Trust holidays website has seen the Agile methodology and roadmap strategy continue. The old holidays site, in Barker’s words, “wasn’t fit for purpose, it wasn’t responsive, it wasn’t stable enough, and it lacked some core functionality in terms of how people search for available dates.”
Again, the team took an MVP approach to quickly address business need and get the site up and running, before doing new releases. Within two weeks of site launch, map search and search by special offers were introduced.
Looking at the site, it’s clear that care was taken to make it part of the wider National Trust website, but also to cater for more focused customer journeys (booking holidays). Barker goes as far as to say that keeping a consistent top navigation, but also introducing an anchored secondary nav, is one of the features of which he is most proud (see GIF below).
Barker says it “marries the need for it to be part of the National Trust site, but then offers a very focused conversion journey once you’re in and looking for somewhere to stay.”
‘Holidays’ is part of a consistent top nav, then as you scroll down the holidays homepage, a secondary nav is anchored (try it yourself here)
Again, the improvements have seen a significant uptick in key metrics. Holidays website traffic increased in August by 32% year-on-year, with bookings also up 32% year-on-year (with August traditionally the second busiest month of the year for holiday bookings).
Changing org culture
I asked Barker about what it’s like working in digital in an organisation that seems to be changing and modernising very quickly. He told me that the digital roadmap has “required a lot of internal comms.”
However, a digital team that works productively with IT seems to have been a massive asset. This is a relationship that Barker rightly points out is challenging in some organisations, and that the National Trust has worked hard to forge.
Barker also highlights the way in which the Trust’s seven countries and regions, each with their own marketing operations and digital lead, have been brought fully on board. Keeping regional teams updated as to “what’s new, why we’re doing it and what the future holds” has been really important. “Ultimately,” Barker says, “there’s a lot of acceptance of what we have to do.”
This internal collaboration and the Agile development of the website means the Trust is now in a position to better prioritise work that is requested internally. Though there is a lot to be done, they can look at projects which show potential for high commercial worth, and for improving the current digital presence. One example Barker gives is work “on a long form content solution that will allow people to drill down into certain aspects of either curatorial content or a collection and get more detail on projects and richer content. These will be additional templates in the site that allow people to have a deeper experience.”
The National Trust certainly seems on a path to creating these rich and relevant experiences across each of it platforms.
With visitor numbers up, membership numbers up, revenue up, and with 10% of all 22m annual visits to properties being prompted by the website, the next three years should make for a fascinating case study in iterative development.
“We’re in a period of constant transition as any forward thinking org needs to be,” says Barker. Heads of digital, take note, Agile is more than a buzzword.
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