The Guardian Soulmates Relaunch did not please everyoneOne in three people online have used an online dating service at some stage in their life. Indeed, a study a couple of years back showed that online dating is much more successful in finding a partner than traditional forms of dating, such as meeting people in a bar. It has been estimated (probably by the dating site owners) that online dating is one of the most popular methods of finding a husband or wife these days. But whatever you believe from the statistics, there is no doubt that the online dating sector is alive, well and thriving economically. So why, oh why, if you ran a dating website would you change your offering and alienate a significant slice of your audience?

Well, that’s what happened last week when The Guardian newspaper relaunched its “Soulmates” online dating service. Within a couple of days there were hundreds of negative comments on the Guardian’s blog post about the changes and Twitter was awash with comments. Of course, that is to be expected – people do not like change that much. Loyal members of the Soulmates website would inevitably want things the way they always were, so no doubt The Guardian knew there would be some flack flying. However, their revamp of the site provides some useful lessons for anyone wanting to change their website. If you plan on redeveloping your business site now – or in the future – the Guardian Soulmates case history is one worth thinking about.

Looking at what The Guardian did, it all seems to make sense. Prior to making changes they gathered together some existing members, built a test site and made this available privately to their focus groups. Then they used the feedback to change things  and then prepared several design options for people to select from once the functionality had been tested thoroughly. In other words, they researched their potential changes before launching their new version of the site and were clearly happy that their results – otherwise why would they have launched the new site?

But looking at what The Guardian did, there appear to be some basic mistakes made. For a start, it seems they were so keen to research their audience they spent more time and effort on this than on the site’s actual development. For instance, when you look at the new site the front page only shows you pictures of men. That implies either it is for women only, looking for male partners, or it is a gay dating site. Every other heterosexual site includes both genders on its front page. Basic really. Also, when you click on the biggest picture on the front page, to access the profile, you are told the individual is “a drug dependent, alcoholic, gambler” – hardly the best individual to give your highest profile to on your front page perhaps?

Then there are practical issues – the “Find a Soulmate” box appears on the right side of the front page and then it jumps to the left side in subsequent pages. Consistency of placing elements on a page is a key reason for a website’s success. Just imagine if Amazon kept moving the search box on its pages…! Basic, schoolboy error again.

Of course these aren’t the issues that existing members worry about. Their feedback shows that there are even more basic coding errors – like searches for a female partner providing a list of blokes, or no longer being able to search by Post Code, meaning you can only search for a partner in places like “Manchester”, which is rather vague.

A clue to what is going on is provided in the Guardian Blog; the replies to the negative comments are all provided by one individual from The Guardian. She has now switched off comments on the blog so that she can concentrate on building the site to what its members want. Does this suggest she is “the team”? In other words, there is an implication that the Soulmates site is under-resourced.

So what can you learn from this high-profile relaunch so you do not upset your visitors? Firstly, if you do want to revamp your site you must consider the basics – site consistency, the immediate psychological messages you convey. The Guardian Soulmates site is now predominantly blue and blokey – will that retain or attract its women members? Will it appeal to its male membership?

Secondly, if you are going to use focus groups or visitor research it has to be part of the process not THE process. Reading the Guardian’s blog on the changes I get the impression that the user research was the dominant activity. Also, there appears to be a separation of looking at functionality and then looking at design – but function and design are an integrated whole and cannot be that easily separated. This is especially the case if your focus groups make you want to introduce a function which your design team then cannot implement easily.

A third element of this relaunch is the way you handle the inevitable negativity which will surround any change you make. Only having one person who can answer comments is inadequate as it doesn’t allow for a conversation to take place. In other words, you need to establish the process in advance as  to how you will deal with the impact of change. Simply switching off comments because you don’t have the time to deal with them smacks of lack of planning and lack of care for your audience.

The Guardian Soulmates relaunch appears to have annoyed many members as well -which means they will look elsewhere for their dates. And if the Guardian thinks it can replace the lost membership they may have trouble. Their dating site has the same name as another dating website called Soulmates which has 2m members and has been around for six years. Even a basic Google search will have told The Guardian they face online competition. Another lesson for you – your website revamp often doesn’t need complex research to work out what the problems might be. A simple online search may be all you need.



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