When I first arrived at Basketball Australia (BA) sixteen months ago, there were a number of digital tasks in desperate need of a review, tweak or a full-fledged makeover.

Thanks to their understanding and support, my previous employer had agreed to let me leave on short notice, allowing me to make the transition just in time for the start of the NBL and WNBL seasons; which BA still had dual-responsibility for at the time.

Most everything around that point in my life became a blur. Duties hit hard and fast. Of the wide range of projects that existed at the time, two stood out as the highest priorities for different, but equally important reasons;

1. The transition of the NBL’s entire digital network from Sporting Pulse to Perform, as part of a contractual agreement that BA had entered into with Perform that would act as the catalyst for the introduction of NBL.TV.

2. The revamp of the BA website, for a number of reasons that made sense to everyone who used the site on a regular basis.

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The biggest and most important process involved in building any website (but in particular, a sports website) is in carefully collaborating key consumer data, and allowing that to guide a blueprint that leads to a financially pleasing outcome – which, when you remove the fluffy spiel marketers give about “connectivity” and all that, represents the exact reason we do digital (or anything else) in business.

(Note: I often remind people that if any investment didn’t eventually turn a dollar, no smart non-charitable business would commit to it. Even as sporting organisations pull the heartstrings of everyone at home by posting photos of children having the time of their lives at a local junior game, they’re doing so in the hope that it influences everyone else with a child in that same age bracket – or indeed, the child him/herself – to become involved in the sport.)

Getting the research right is everything in web development. It is better to allow design and functionality to be influenced on a knowledge of consumer behaviour than it is to try and influence consumer behaviour on a knowledge of design and functionality.

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Part of the deal which saw the development of NBL.TV was to transfer the entire NBL network from Sporting Pulse to Perform. This network included the NBL website and each of the eight Club websites of teams participating in the League. It was a large scale project that fortuitously coincided with a general need to update the look and feel of the network anyways.

I maintained a healthy relationship with Perform throughout this transition. But what I felt key pieces of data indicated, and what Perform believed the same information signalled did not always marry up. Although we were never too far apart in our translation of the data – and even though we ultimately delivered a product that provided far more opportunities for growth and engagement than previously existed – I often wondered how the results would have differed had no concessions been required. As Dieter F. Utchdorf once explained, if a plane intending to circumnavigate the globe left an airport at the equator and fell off course by just one degree, it would eventually end up 500 miles (800km) off course by the time it was scheduled to return.

I was mindful of this as we began building the new BA website. Long before we opened discussions with Fox Sports Pulse (our website partner, formerly known as Sporting Pulse) the process of getting the research right had already commenced.

We dived into every piece of consumer and product analytics we could get our hands on. We invested time into understanding consumer behaviour prior to landing on our website, whilst on our website and upon exiting our website. We sought to understand exactly who we were talking to, where they were coming from and which devices they were using to access our site.

We wanted to be as innovative as possible, but needed to know that a majority share of users had internet speeds that could keep up with what we had in mind. We did a risk assessment of what would happen to those who still lived in a 56k-like world, because even if the end goal was to cater to the majority, it was important for us to understand what our proposals also meant for the minority.

Because we’re not a sport that has the money to reinvent its digital infrastructure every year like so many around us, we investigated emerging technologies that wouldn’t date before the next Olympics. Whatever we built needed to have a reasonable shelf life.

By the end of the exhaustive research phase, my brain was threatening to punch through my skull. We left no stone unturned, feeling comfortable that we had ascertained all the information necessary to move forward with our build. Of all the data that we gathered three pieces of information proved to be important building blocks for outcomes of the new website;

1. Outside of the landing page, the Australian Junior Championships homepage was (by a long, long way) the most visited page across the entire website, with four of the individual event pages (U14’s, U16’s, U18’s and U20’s) also landing a place in the top ten spots for BA’s web traffic.

2. Over the previous year, BA’s mobile/tablet traffic had jumped from 6% to a 34%. That last number as a whole isn’t all too staggering. The jump between the two is.

3. Social media was now responsible for two-thirds of all referral traffic to the website, a direct result of the new Social Media Strategy implemented towards the middle-to-end of last year.

Once the data had been compiled (at this point my wall was so full of notes and clippings that my wife tweeted that it looked like it belonged to a psychopath from a crime show) our next step was to establish the three key pillars of our website. Key pillars are the objectives that a website seeks to achieve, written in such a clear and simple way that it reads like a digital mission statement. Simple, clear and concise.

The three pillars (objectives) of the BA website are;

1. Promote participation.

2. Connect fans to high performance athletes.

3. Collect new data.

Every single element that we created from there had to speak to one of those three key pillars. If it didn’t, we turfed it from the drawing board straight away. One of the constant things I hear from people who have reached out to me for web advice in the past is that certain items existed on their websites solely to fill space. It’s a path I have constantly tried to negate people from. Every single element of our website needed to have a purpose and every purposes needed to come back to one of those pillars.

With our three pillars established, we entered into the design phase of our website build, beginning with the construction of the basic wireframes for our design – a process that many people still skip straight to ahead of the research process.

People who have been involved in web development projects for a while will tell you quickly that there are certain rules that a website needs to adhere to. These rules establish the balance between design and functionality, which are both equally as important to each other. The three constants amongst the leading websites across any industry (sport, entertainment, fashion, news, anything) is that they are easy to navigate, compatible with mobile/tablet and load within a reasonable time.

After more than a few hours at the drawing board, we designed a site that looked infinitely better than the one before, and certainly one that touched each of the three pillars we’d set of ourselves. Wireframes became concepts, and concepts became test sites. But we quickly realised that the first concept didn’t play within the web rules. It was slow to load and certainly not compatible with mobile/tablet. Even though it was easier to navigate than the previous site, there was potential for us to make it even easier than that. Essentially, it failed two and a half out of the three tests that successful sites use.

If there is a silver lining to having so many of your leading athletes playing overseas, it’s that you can get creative with how you present them to the public. In our case, we created a world map feature. This feature contains a map laced with dots and a scrolling navigation menu of thumbnails containing each of our high performance athletes. When a user hovers over a player image the dot on the world that coincides where that player is located will begin to flash. When a user clicks on either this dot or a player thumbnail, a larger bio will appear with the current club and social media details for that particular athlete, allowing fans to connect with their favourite stars through Twitter, Instagram or an official athlete Facebook Page.We went back to the drawing board, referring over and over to the data we’d collected and constantly making sure everything we included sustained a key pillar whilst also playing by the aforementioned web rules. Along the way, we discovered ways to included innovations that would set us aside from other NSO’s, though we never wanted to limited ourselves to exceeding expectations within our own industry. We wanted to exceed expectation across the board.

Rather than limit this feature to the Boomers and Opals, we included it for our national wheelchair teams, ensuring they were brought front and centre as a national emblem of our pride; a notion that was met favourably by many of our Aussie Rollers and Gliders.

To better connect our online basketball community, we teamed up with our friends at Stackla to produce a social media hub, allowing athletes, professional teams, semi-professional teams, state bodies, local clubs/associations and, if they wanted to, kids at the local playgrounds aggregate all of their social media into one home. In its infancy, this will this act as a one-stop-shop for all basketball related social media, but we have built it more with an eye to using it as a tool to run campaigns at our Australian Junior Championships and High Performance events.

We created a custom home for each of the Australian Junior Championships events, ensuring that our highest portal of traffic was able to meet the visual and functional demands of those who access these pages on a regular basis.Realising mobile and tablet to represent a key growth area of the digital market, we spent a considerable amount of time ensuring that our website rendered to these devices in a way that was easy to navigate and quick to load.

Once the bones of the website were in place, we began to flesh it out, ensuring that each page that existed on the old site was either replicated or rolled into another page on the new site.

One of the best books that I have read is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Amongst the many things Gladwell does well within its covers is emphasise the importance of theory exercises used by some of the worlds greatest brands and/or social epidemics. We tweaked some of these principles and applied it to some quality testing we did on the new website prior to launch.

On one occasion, we asked people to navigate to a certain page on the old website, then to the same page the new website. We found that navigation time between the two accelerated from an average of two and a half minutes on the old website, right down to 8 seconds on the new. On another occasion, we monitored eye movements to help us identified visual trigger points, finding it interesting that participants generally gravitated to the same areas no matter how we had placed the imagery on a certain page.An example of these exercises occurred when I called in a favour to a friend-turned-psychologist-lecturer, who gathered twenty strangers varying in age and interest in sport to participate in a number of activities that would help us determine how close we were to the mark we’d set ourselves. We didn’t just want to exceed the performance of our old website, we wanted to exceed industry standards as a whole.

After a number of tests (and a few minor tweaks to our site based on those results) we proceeded to the full-fledged build, ever mindful of the goal to launch this site in the first quarter of the new year, well in advance of the U18’s AJC and FIBA’s World Cup and Championship competitions.

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As you may have gathered, this article is less about the end product and more about the journey we took to get there. It isn’t about what we produce, but why we produced it. It’s about the importance and necessity of setting aside a research block to gather key data, and allowing that to guide the development of the project from start to finish.

Success or failure of a website isn’t measured by whether or not the site is perfect. Indeed, no website in existence can meet such expectations – and it isn’t the measuring stick I will be holding ours to, either. Our success or failure in this project will be measured by how well we met the three pillars we established early in the piece. It’s early in the equation, but I feel confident of our chances because of the confidence I have in the data that led us like a sturdy captain in what was occasionally choppy seas.

Those wishing to visit the website can click here to see the final product.