Racing Post: Project Janus

The Racing Post’s B2C products – the website, the iOS and Android apps had been limping along on a very complex technical platform that was slowing down new feature development to a glacial pace, editorial content was creaking through an antiquated CMS, and the user experience had been design without many “users” involved. The overall effect was declining revenue as Racing Post couldn’t keep competitive, the editorial team getting increasingly frustrated by how limited their CMS was to handle new types of content, and new users bouncing at a high rate because they could not understand what was in front of them. Something had to given. The company finally bit the bullet and invested. On came Project Janus…  

THE CONTEXT & OBJECTIVES

Project Janus got it’s name from the god of ending and new beginnings; this project would try to retain Racing Post’s long earned respect in the racing world, while throwing out the old ways of thinking and doing that were holding them back.

Racing Post aim was to create a B2C product that is the aggregator of all Horse Racing & Sports Better needs which would drive growth across 5 customer and 2 technology goals. The first customer facing product to be released as it is the top revenue generator and the best platform to reach a larger swathe of audience was to be the app. 

On top of the overall objectives, we in the product team, also agreed we needed to make the new product meet some basic levels of accessibility, especially since our current core audience skewed older. And that we needed to consider growth audience on top of core, which brought some “uncomfortable” thinking into a company that assumed most of their monetisable audience was similar to themselves.

THE SET UP

  • My role: Director of Product Design and User Research
  • Company: Spotlight Sports Group, Racing Post brand
  • Main Team: B2C product designers, user researchers, B2C product management, delivery, development, 3 P&L owners, CPO, CTO, & the Editor in Chief

Myself and the Head of B2C Product were responsible for shaping and delivering the overall experience and for running the process between the business owners through design and research to hand-off with our off-shore dev team. We needed to ensure the crucial, pragmatic balance of addressing user needs with commerical objectives.

I was charged with overhauling how the business interacted with design and research, specifically how to consider user feedback along with subject matter and discipline expertise. I also had to work with my designers on how to create and update a design system on the fly without slowing development down (too much), and help research get a jump on user insights for the next feature while they were still synthesising insights from the last one.

THE PROCESS

Starting involved getting agreement on strategy, outcomes, and larger processes. This was the main part of my role on this initiative. My team was still growing, and I was still working with the business at large to change their views on the importance of design and qualitative research; to realise the importance of user input. Trust was still being built on all sides, and at that point the team was still working in an adhoc manner (a hybrid mix of kanban and agile with mixed results). My role was working with the project owners (the Director of Racing, the CTO, CPO and the Editor in Chief) to agree on what good user metrics looked like alongside business metrics and budgets / timelines. This also included getting agreement on that processes would have to change and if they didn’t want to project held up, each of them would have to agree to ways to be involved that honoured all of the objectives, not just their domain.

I worked closely with the Head of B2C Product and the CTO to map out how to approach breaking up the work for such a huge project. We worked with the business owners to help solidify and define overall project objectives and success measures (KPIs) and worked with our Data Intelligence Unit (analytics team) to review current metrics to meet or beat in pursuit of those KPIs. From a design POV, dev was building this platform in REACT, which meant we only had to design the app experience once and we had to consider at a feature and design level which elements would crossover on the common layer with web. As we (product and design) agreed to work in design sprints, we started mapping out the year, the ceremonies and how to brief the sprints.

Then the design sprint workshops… Where post-its went to die. We were dealing with massive features or journeys in every design sprint (definitely not ideal, but the only way to get through the work with such an under resourced product and design team). But, as part of the sprint process, I worked with the research team on how to get customer insights prior to a feature being briefed, and how to run moderated validation testing that anyone in the company could watch, especially key stakeholders. This research layer fundamentally changed how the business worked with design and research, truly hammering home we possessed a ridiculous amount of knowledge about our users.

For the beta release, because we were building the apps on a new tech platform, we could not do a phased release of features – we had to do one big-bang release. As the Android platform had the least revenue impact of our platforms, we started with a “blind” release to 500, 1000, 10,000 users in a forced app update and set up in-app surveys to gage what was working, what was not OK with users and then followed up with qualitative interviews with users about the more egregious issues they were finding with the app. This went on for 4 months as we added more features, corrected journeys and mined the analytics for how the app usage was delivering on the KPIs vs the current app. This process allowed us to be more confident with the iOS beta launch, our money maker platform.

And, of course, the design system and development process.

Racing Post had been through a rebrand the year before, but the full execution of the rebranded assets and design direction was put on hold for this project. Also, the relationship between design and the devs was very siloed – the devs were based in Bulgaria and Racing Post had lost their in-house tech leads, which created a tough atmosphere for the devs to be involved in the early stages of briefing and design development (this was pre-lockdown to start). Through this project, the designers got to start from scratch with the look-and-feel and the design system. And through this work and how the project was being run, it organically created the opportunity to collaborate closely with development yielding better ways working, doing design handover and documentation (thanks, Figma!), and ultimately, through some pain, get the coded assets and designed assets naming conventions aligned.

The result a new, cleaner, more consistent, better branded interface and more speed efficiency for the devs with the new design kit, along with more collaborative involvement earlier on in the feature design cycle. 

BEYOND PRODUCT: WORKING WITH EDITORIAL

The Racing Post B2C product included automated data pages and content blocks, a form of “checkout” through an integrated betslip, and a fully fleshed out news organisation’s worth of daily content. The news side of the business was finally, after many long years, upgrading their extremely restrictive CMS. Transforming how news content would work in the Janus products meant editorial wanted, needed, demanded more flexibility and features for how content could be presented. This led to changes in content taxonomy and the design of many variations of content presentation including:

    • Highlighting breaking news, video and audio content
    • Visually indicating which content needed a subscription
    • Dynamic data modules integrated into related articles
    • Differentiation between editorial feature content vs tipping and analysis
    • Highlighting racing festivals and related events
    • Live commentary feeds and social media integrations
    • Sponsored editorial and affiliate partner promotion
    • And all the states of each: bylines, date/time of publication, sharing, popularity, etc.

    A massive project all in itself, crammed into the same timeline. It only worked due to the good working relationships built between product management, design, research and Editorial, and the trust built between the teams.

    KEY HIGHLIGHTS AND FEATURES

    • Racing Post insights and proprietary information more up front (e.g. RP Verdict and Spotlights), helping to showcase Racing Post’s specific content and expertise
    • More flexibility for News & Editorial: Switching to a new CMS system helped streamline processes, new designs from the Product Design Team added a new layer of flexibity in how they showcased content.
    • Accessibility basics: All fonts meet a minimum size and a AA colour contrast setting – as Racing Post’s audience skews older than average, this was also a win
    • Helping users new to racing: More descriptive labels and access to info and data definitions to helping a larger audience to understand our content and convert with us

    THE ORGANISATIONAL IMPACT

    Trust and understanding between the business, editorial and product were established: At the start, the UX maturity of the business was extremely low – qual research was not trusted, designers were treated as order takers. Though my implementation of the design sprint process eventually burned out the team (due to budget, timelines and organisational pressures out of my control), it helped all of the teams and stakeholders build trust and knowledge about each department’s roles and the value they provide the company. Towards the last third of the project, we were able to refine processes and schedules to be more manageable for everyone, especially the designers and researchers!

    Proper understanding of our users: At the start, most stakeholders assumed users were just like them – just as knowledgeable of horse racing, with similar betting, data reviewing and news consumption habits. Through our pre-project user research and validation user testing sessions throughout the project, our stakeholders and subject matter experts gained a more broad, yet nuanced view of who used our products, when, how and why.

    Broader collaboration across departments within and outside of the product production track: Once trust and understanding were established through the design sprints, the design and research team started to be the first port of call for other departments looking for different or more creative way to solve their day-to-day issues – from how to run workshops better, to consultations about how to encourage constructive challenging and giving actionable feedback.

    RESULTS

    The iOS app released in Oct 2022, the Android app in Nov 2022, some revised web areas in Jan 2023

    Commercial impact

    • In app conversion increased over 10%
    • News pages consumed up by 2.6 pages per session
    • Customer satisfaction scores increased from 3.1 to 4.5 (out of five) within 3 months; scores were always high with new and younger app users, long time customer ratings steadily rose
    • Increased customer set diversification, picking up more growth market and midlevel users

    Organisational impact

    • More formalised and accountable processes for agreeing on business and user needs, briefing teams, gaining user insight, and handover between departments
    • Design and research became seen as crucial problem solvers and strategic partners for iniatives across the business
    • New structures and opportunities for advancement and leadership resulted from the length and depth of this project

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