shows you can boost profit by millions if you address usability

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 25, 2014
Andrew Towers, head of product development at, was speaking this week at Marketing Week Live in London and provided an impressive insight into the company's web development.


Why is usability so often ignored? I've worked at publications in the past where this has certainly been the case – where the thinking was that if you produce

good content, the people will come and they will put in the hard work to find it. Unfortunately this just isn't the world we live in. I am absolutely certain that this is just not the case. And having been at diginomica for a few months now, where not only is quality of content key, but so is usability across all devices, I can guarantee that the decisions around how you present your information online can make the world of difference. This has of course all been changed by the increasing dominance of mobile, which has forced a focus on simplicity of the user experience across the whole of the web.

Which is why I was pleased to attend a very interesting session being delivered by Andrew Towers from at Marketing Week Live in London this week, where he said the company has managed to increase its conversions and boost its revenue by millions of pounds, just by focusing on the usability of its sites and applications. Just for some background and for our US readers, is a website that allows users to check train times, purchase tickets and plan their journeys around the UK. It is the number 1 in UK rail retail, the second most visited travel website and the number one travel application for mobile. However, unlike most online retailers, doesn't have the ability to set its own prices or control its inventory, as these are decided by train operating companies and the government. Towers said that this is what makes usability so important to the company:

“We are passionate about creating strong user experiences that people love. Unlike most retailers we don't control our prices, we don't control our inventory. We have to focus on usability, otherwise customers will just go somewhere else.

“Rail can be complicated, there are different times, different routes, different companies. We are trying to cut through to the simplicity that customers really strive for.”

Analyse, Hypothesise, Test

In order to get to this simplicity, uses an analyse → hypothesise → test model. So, it will look at its sites using web analytics to see where customers may be facing friction or less-than desirable usability, it will then create a hypothesis based on an idea of what could improve the customer experience and then test this with an A/B multivariate testing tool. One of the clearest examples of this was with's login and registration wall, which was previously required before making payments for a ticket. Towers said the structure of's website for a customer journey from search to purchase is as follows:

Home page → Matrix (with available routes and times) → Fares → Travel options → Delivery options → Shopping basket → Payment → Payment confirmation 

Through each of these stages experiences a drop off, with customers choosing not to continue their journey. However, some of these were less

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concerning than others. For example, logic would assume a large drop-off between customers looking at available routes and times and customers looking at the fares for these journeys, because some users may simply may just be checking what time their train is. However, what was concerning to Towers was that there was a 30% drop off between the shopping basket and payment. The team then put a hypothesise together for testing that this could be that users had to be registered and were required to enter their log-in details. The hypothesis stated:

“If we remove need to login/register, then customers will be more likely to continue to the delivery options page because new customers don't have to fill in a registration form and existing customers don't need to remember their password.”

As a result, tested the introduction of guest purchasing, where users didn't require their login details to make their purchase. After some testing, the solution was rolled out and the company saw an increase of 2.1% in its overall conversion rate – which equates to an increase in excess of £1 million gross margin per year. Towers said:

“New customers were encountering a barrier that they didn't want, old customers often didn't remember their user name and password. Either way, this meant a terrible customer experience. Did we need that step [login/registration]? Cutting to the chase, the answer is no. No need to throw that barrier up to people. 

“There is a benefit for pre-login, but if you have forgotten that then you don't want to faff around.”

Towers said they applied a similar hypothesis to customer's having to accept terms and conditions before proceeding to payment, which he added was “bugging” both him and the users. By flipping this on its head and putting a disclaimer in place that said by clicking through to payments customer's automatically accepted T&Cs, wiped out more than half of the errors on its booking page. Towers said:

“If you haven't done this already, I would. Your legal departments shouldn't have a problem with it, there is plenty of precedence out there.”

Folowing this, has also begun looking at persuasive design. Towers said that the leaders in this space are, which from the home

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page immediately tell users that by booking with them they get free cancellation on bookings, they're told when there is limited availability on bookings and they are presented with thumbs ups all over the place for popular hotels.

“You don't know what it means, but you get the impression it must be good. There is a sense of urgency and as a user you get this feeling of wanting to take action. It's really compelling.”

On, it has introduced signals for users when cheaper advance tickets have limited availability, highlighting when tickets are being bought up and prompting users to buy before the seats are bought up. This has again amounted to increased conversion rates and a boost in revenues. Towers said:

“We put a text in each cell on the Matrix page highlighting for users when there is limited availability on different ticket types. This has resulted in a 4.5% increase in overall conversion rate, which equates to a £2 million boost per year. Attacking this point and making a good fist of it can really get good results.” 

Tablet optimisation

The latest project for Towers and his team is addressing the different needs of those browsing on a tablet – which he sees as different from those using a mobile application, mobile site or the website. He said that the days of assuming users are sat at a desk with the time to browse and assess all their options are long gone and that this changes the use case of people coming to the site. This was prompted by the fact that one in three users are using tablets to look at the site, yet the conversion rate on tablet lagged 40% behind those on desktop, which Towers said was totally unacceptable. He said:

“The users on the tablet were going up, yet the customer experience for them was going down, which is not a good place to be.” is looking for a 20% increase in conversion rates on tablets, which Towers sees as achievable compared to market standards. Some of the key

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requirements for the new build will be minimal keyboard input for customers (amen), a strong performance with no lags in the code and built with a responsive design. Towers said that hover states need to be reduced (where a pop up appears for a user to fill in information), there needs to be scalable graphics and it should have a consistent design and typography. has started on this journey and is building each page (e.g. home page, matrix, payment etc.) separately and rolling out each of them individually to get feedback and then go forward. They have just begun this process but so far the reaction has been good. He said:

“It has very quickly became second biggest mobile channel, behind iPhone and ahead of Android.So far the early signs are positive and conversion is strong. Feedback is neutral or good. We acknowledge it doesn't look radically different, but that's what we wanted. Got to treat all this with a massive pinch of salt, as it is currently at opt in beta stage. We are working through page by page and getting feedback really early and making changes before we get too far down the line. 

“We will soon be releasing this to all tablet users and all desktop users.”

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