by Mark Chillingworth

Graham Benson delivers responsive mobility at M and M

Feb 04, 20146 mins
IT LeadershipIT StrategyMobile

“It is the most cost effective testing programme I have ever handled,” says Graham Benson, IT Director of online retailer M and M Direct of an bring your own device (BYOD) strategy that has sweet incentive to test the M and M website.

Benson’s team has rebuilt the online store using responsive design to reduce costs and react to changing consumer usage patterns.

M and M Direct is one of the largest online discount clothes retailers in Europe. The business was founded in 1987 to sell end of line clearance sports clothing and has been growing ever since. It reported a 30 per cent increase in orders over Christmas 2013 and sold 2.7 million items.  It receives 34 million visits a year to their website and has been awarded a number of prestigious accolades in the retail industry; including Drapers’ Etailer of the Year and Retail Week Technology of the year.

In 2009 Benson told this title: “All I’ve ever done is business change programmes,” and in his recent CIO questionnaire and follow up interview the statement remains true.  Two major change programmes have both delivered business benefits.

“Three years ago we launched an App to be transformative,” he says of the first major steps into mobility by M and M Direct.

“Apps were very expensive to build, they required set of skills that were in high demand, which of course pushed the cost up.

“We wanted an App that was transactional, but also had some ‘sizzle’,” Benson says. His strategy to achieve this was to enter into a revenue sharing agreement with supplier Steria.

“I challenged them to be a solutions provider and it minimised the risk to me. I gave them a piece of the action. It was in their interests to make the App compelling.

“People are used to revenue sharing models in the ecommerce market,” Benson says.

The relationship and revenue sharing model clearly benefited both parties as they continue to work together. Benson has recently retired the App and given M and M Direct and new online wardrobe in the form of a responsive design website, again, working with Steria.

“The Steria partnership was very good and has been extended to work on the responsive site.” A move to responsive design and away from an App was in reaction to changing customer trends online.

“Consumers now are more tech savvy than they were three years ago, so if you have an App serving mobile phones, then a mobile site for tablets and your standard website it is a high cost of ownership. It is also hard to drive a ubiquitous user experience.

“So our site is fully responsive and will reframe the screen design build according to the device and screen size being used to access it. It is a single code base and that means the cost and support of the website is significantly less.

“Promotions and functionality are also applied across the whole site and therefore across the business,” he says of the improved speed changes and customer incentives can be offered by a single code base.

Benson and M and M Direct are already received over 50 per cent of their traffic via tablet devices and expect this trend to continually grow.

As part of the responsive design programme, which began in mid 2013, Benson and his team integrated the Akamai Aqua Ion toolset to avoid the issue of slow page loads to mobile devices. Given the highly visual nature of clothing retail this technology enables a dynamic website to not only render according to the device being used for access, but also deliver the speed of access and service that PC users on a high speed WAN are used to on a mobile device.

“If you are trying to be all things to all devices this allows us to have heavy data pages landing fast on a mobile device. It is PC speeds on a 3G network,” he says of the caching technology. “We were the fourth Akamai customer to implement this technology in the world, but the first to implement on a responsive design technology stack”

CIOs and organisations are increasingly considering responsive design as the range of mobile devices and browsers increases. IDC reported recently that global shipments of Smartphones passed one billion in 2013. Samsung, which uses the Google Android operating system is globally the leader with 31.3 per cent of the market, just ahead of Apple with its iOS operating system 15.3 per cent of the market and although lagging way behind, there is cautious uptake of the Windows 8 operating system from Microsoft. Tablet sales were growing throughout 2013 while PC sales faltered. The net result for CIOs is that multi-variant testing has never been more important and potentially more difficult.

However, Benson has pioneered a simple way of enabling multi-variant testing, the desire to bring your own device (BYOD), all with the help of an old favourite confectionary – Smarties.

“We allow personal tablets, laptops and mobiles to be used as part of our web testing process providing they conform to certain criteria; this is making us as a business more aware of how the outside world interacts with us and has led to a significant increase in the submissions to our Smart ideas suggestion scheme,” Benson told this title.

“Structured testing of all device and browser combinations means a massive QA team and overheads. Instead we have installed wireless broadband in every department that is separate to the corporate network and we invite people to come onto the site whilst in pre-live beta mode and test it.

“Smart ideas itself was a suggestion from one of the team, so I cannot claim the credit for it! The premise is that it allows our employees to engage with pre-release web versions. This has numous benefits; it broadens the number of devices tested against the site significantly, and it minimizes the size, scale and cost of the official QA programme. It also, most importantly, leads to a better site for our customers. Our unofficial tester also suggest improvements to our website; this has led directly to web changes being developed to give a better customer experience. To mis-quote a cliche, we are eating our own dog food, so we are making more suggestions how to make it taste better!”

“There is no better mix than the people that work for you. In recognition of suggestions to improve the site from staff they receive a letter of thanks from me and a packet of Smarties for their smart idea.

“The reward psychology of people is that often getting a gift and a formalized thank you can mean a lot more than a gift voucher or cash as it is more personal.

“I am passionate about people, culture and the science of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) so I seek inspiration from psychology texts as well as psychology blogs as well as tech articles in order to drive effective change; at the end of the day, change comes from the heart not the head,” Benson says of the successful project.

Benson like a growing number of CIOs in private equity backed organisations finds there are opportunities to be creative that a more traditional ownership structure can lack.