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How Auto Trader improved web design to support digital business

Digitisation requires an agile methodology and the ability to enhance products quickly. We look at how Auto Trader optimised traditional web design

Auto Trader UK has used the InVision design tool to help it prototype website designs without having to spend time and effort developing wireframe models.

Efficient development of new features for its e-commerce website is core to the company’s digital business, as the company shifted from a traditional classified car magazine to an online platform for buying and selling vehicles.

In June 2017, CEO Trevor Mather outlined in the company’s annual report how digital initiatives would play a key role in growing the business.

“As part of the group’s digital culture, incorporating an agile and lean working ethos, we have continued to find ways of operating more efficiently while ensuring that teams are truly data-oriented,” said Mather in the report. “We therefore took the decision to assign every team their own dedicated data analyst, embedding data practices fully across the organisation.”

The company’s overall strategy is to be the UK and Ireland’s leading digital automotive marketplace and help improve the processes of buying and selling vehicles for consumers, retailers and manufacturers.

Among the major initiatives it has worked on is taking advantage of the network effect model – where the largest and most engaged audience is needed to drive the most advert views and sales of retailers’ stock. “Offering useful services that help consumers to buy and sell easily, like the valuation tool, is essential to keep our marketplace relevant,” says Mather.

Auto Trader offers two main services: classified adverts for consumers wanting to sell their vehicles, and a service that caters for car retailers.

Explaining the business-to-business retail automobile sales part of the business, Mather describes the strategy as “leveraging our core business to meet the wider needs of retailers, helping them to remove inefficiencies and become more profitable, while providing Auto Trader with a material source of future revenue growth and a closer relationship with its customers”.

He adds: “Making our processes and procedures more intuitive and streamlined while harnessing the data from our marketplace will benefit both our customers and employees. Creating a high-performing, continuously developing business will unlock opportunities and provide a truly digital experience for all.”

Agile and rapid prototyping

It is this need to streamline internal processes and continuously develop the digital business that has led Auto Trader to move its web development from a waterfall approach to agile and rapid prototyping.

InVision, which provides a digital design platform that competes with Adobe, is being used to streamline prototyping, speed up the development of mobile sites and support collaboration across the firm’s London and Manchester sites.

Before using InVision, the company undertook long technical implementations. InVision has helped make this process much more agile.

Speaking to Computer Weekly about how the company’s web design process has changed, Anthony Collins, head of UX&D, Auto Trader UK, says: “Eight years ago, digital was becoming more important, print was becoming less significant. We needed to transform to digital.”

This has led to a shift that has seen the classified car advertising magazine invest in an internal design team, first for the web, then for mobile apps. These were previously outsourced to design agencies.

External agencies are still used, says Collins, who adds: “The internal team focuses on product design, while external agencies help to provide specialist skills, such as for brand design or to give a different perspective.”

Collins heads a team of 15 designers working across two locations. One team focuses on business-to-business, supporting the car retail trade, while the other is consumer-facing.

“Retailers can manage stock,” he says. “We have the tech to help you build great ads, and metrics on how much audience interaction your adverts get. We are getting to a place where we have half a million cars on the site. We understand speed of sale, valuation and pricing cars correctly and can provide quite sophisticated metrics.”

Waterfall-based design process

Auto Trader began using InVision six years ago as part of a waterfall-based design process. “I could quite quickly articulate journeys to stakeholders,” says Collins. With InVision, stakeholders thought I was demo-ing the finished the product. It’s been a very useful tool.”

Today, all the designers at Auto Trader are product designers aligned to individual product teams. “We use a lot of lean methodology coupled with agile and design thinking,” says Collins. This enables Auto Trader to discover potential problems up front, while prototyping new user interfaces, which, according to Collins, provides another dimension to the design process.

“We are much more efficient. Don’t have to wait six months before consumers see something,” he says. All of this prototyping can be done before anyone writes production code, he adds.

Using the Craft Prototype plug-in library within InVision enables designers to use the Sketch design tool to develop components, which can be used like Lego bricks to construct a new website user interface quickly. This avoids the company having to spend a lot of time developing a wireframe model of the web user interface.

Collins explains: “There is talk in the design community that wireframes are dead. I think they still have their place. But we are moving into prototyping using Sketch and Craft. If we see a problem with the user, or the wording on the site is wrong, we can change the prototype within the same day, explore new things and find what fits with users faster than before.”

Testing is done at Auto Trader’s development site in Manchester, where the company runs formal lab tests. “We don’t have to write laborious interaction spec docs for people to understand what is wrong,” says Collins. “Instead, we can quickly build a prototype and people can then comment on it.”

Auto Trader also runs informal “gorilla testing” with random people on the high street. “We ask five people in a Starbucks what they think and feed this into our design,” says Collins.

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