Holy Redesign Batman!

If you’re a regular user of gapyear.com, browsing for the first time today, hopefully you’ll be looking fondly at the new design, and liking what you see. Behind the scenes, we’ve been very busy, designing, rebranding, and working closely with a select few users and industry experts to improve the aesthetics and overall user experience of the site and brand. Today you’re seeing the first major visual changes to have come out of that process.

Focus on the journey, not on arriving at a certain destination.

Both travellers and website managers will see wisdom in those words by Canadian space veteran Chris Hadfield, a quote from his recent bestseller An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth. I’d like to take you through a little of what’s been going on at gapyear.com, share some insight into what’s coming up on the horizon, and focus on the journey behind the scenes.

A new logo / brand mark

Our core purpose has always been to ensure that taking a gap year is accessible for everyone.

Gapyear.com has always done that well, but a couple of years ago we realised that the branding was reaching a point where it felt dated compared to current social competition, and was not really strong enough to appeal to the wider backpacking community.

We wanted our brand to be effective but simple, to build on our strong brand history, but add the aspirational and holistic elements we felt were missing. As is often the case with these things, we swung from the ridiculously simple, to the frankly altogether crazy over the next two years, while exploring literally hundreds of possible directions.

Our main goal has remained the same since 1998: to make every aspect of gap year travel as easy and enjoyable as possible. After nearly 16 years of enabling people to travel (over two generations), people still ask me what the site does when we exchange business cards. We felt it was time to define that purpose more directly. Journeys are made at gapyear.com; we enable travel, end-to-end.

A typical gap year journey starts with a gap year idea, which usually develops into travel aspiration and research. For those that decide on a gap year, research usually leads to discussion (both online and offline), booking, travelling and experience sharing.

Many people see the gapper’s journey as ending there, but in reality it extends far beyond…

For many young travellers, a gap year is a defining experience, which builds character, confidence and worldliness; travel experiences are brought forward to job interviews, helping launch careers or assisting in higher education applications, either directly, or indirectly. For others the journey continues in a much more obvious way. Simply put, gap year travel leaves many people with the travel bug, inspiring them to take regular backpacking trips into their 30s, 40s, 50s, or beyond.

It doesn't matter if your gap year journey lasts for 3 weeks of fun in Thailand, or 3 decades of pioneering adventure, the site is designed with you in mind. Whether you’re 15 and dreaming about your first big trip, or 115 and possibly booking your last, the goal of our site is to make your journey accessible, enjoyable and (most importantly) possible.

Our journey commences

Actually making every aspect of gap year travel as simple as possible requires a lot of feedback from real people. People like you.

As a business we need to be able to analyse and improve each and every part of the gap year journey, from the first whisper of an idea, to the detailed research phase, through discussions and content sharing, to booking and travelling, through to the wider applications of a gap year beyond that first dream trip.

Today’s rebrand, redesign and site overhaul are part of a much larger string of planned upgrades, all designed to make the site more accessible and useful for all.

18 months ago a few of us sat down with a coffee and a cake, to discuss ways to enable you, the users, to get involved in the design process. This particular journey started there.

UX and usability testing

We’ve always had a good understanding of our audience and our market, but we also wanted to ensure that we were industry best when it came to our design approach. As such, we enlisted the help of the UX experts at Cyber-Duck, and began testing how real users responded when asked to perform typical actions on the site (a key part of an approach known as user-centred design).

We entered into the process assuming nothing and allowing ourselves to challenge any preconceptions we had. The aim was to test our ideas and concepts as much as possible, making the site as good as it could be by valuing data over experience. It has undoubtedly been a culture change, but an important and necessary one which we have welcomed.

By tracking the eye-movements of 5 new users and 5 seasoned gapyear.com legends, as they carried out key actions on site (thanks again guys), we began to build a picture of where our users looked for certain functions, and how easily each task could be completed.

Some results were as expected, but many were surprising.

When asked to navigate to a sexual health guide , all 10 users tested were able to find their way to the health advice section with ease. We suspected that poor UX would make the task difficult, so were surprised to find that was not the case (the users promised it wasn’t a page they regularly visited).

On the flip side, we found that some key site functions were getting completely overlooked. For example – despite being an important site function – most new users struggled to figure out where to begin creating a new blog post (and even the more experienced users took far longer than expected to complete this task). Worse still, most new users didn’t even realise there were any blogs on gapyear.com.

To be clear, user testing is not about testing users, it’s about testing your site with the help of users. In this particular test case, our site failed; and epically so.

In this instance, the fix was easy. Retrospective interviews and a focus group revealed that users found that having blogs and photos linked under the word “Community” was quite confusing. Most felt that the top navigation link should have just said “Blogs & Photos,” which is why it now does (up there, at the top of the page).

Of course that’s just one of many examples, and one of the simplest to fix, but it’s a great example of how it doesn’t matter how good or bad your site is, if you don’t use simple language in your navigation, people won’t even find your key pages.

The decision to rebuild

Some simpler changes could be implemented straight away, and some were achieved over the following few months, but it soon became apparent that a major rebuild would be required if we wanted to implement the bulk of the changes we were discussing.

Firstly, the website’s entire underlying structure needed to be rebuilt in a way that would support our plans moving forward. Frustratingly, this meant committing months to a project which would have very little immediate effect for the site’s users.

Imagine spending months trying to pull out half of the foundations of a skyscraper, while replacing them with something newer and more robust (but fundamentally different), without disturbing or alerting any of the thousands of people who continued to work upstairs. That skyscraper was our site, and the analogy pretty accurately describes the challenge our developers Ben and Jan were presented with last year.

The change saw improvements to the site’s speed and it’s left hand navigation, but 90% of this development was on the underlying architecture, the stuff required to give you guys the things you really want to see. Unless you’re especially observant or are the kind of person who inspects HTML code for fun (you nerds know who you are), then it’s quite likely that the first major development release in January, will have passed you by.

Today’s change is different of course.

Now that we’re confident with our new foundations, we’re working hard on changing the layout of the skyscraper itself, making it more intuitive to navigate. Everything has been redecorated, it’s got shiny new windows, and now we're building it higher, with better rooms and facilities, while aiming to make it accessible to everyone. And for the first time in a couple of years, we’re in a great position to roll out big changes in days or weeks, rather than months, which is really exciting.

So what’s new on gapyear.com?

The short answer is “almost everything,” but here are few key points:

The site template

An obvious but important place to start. The teal design was dated and detracted from the content. We’ve moved to a much more minimalist look and feel as we believe great content should be allowed to speak for itself. The whole thing is also one giant leap closer to being mobile and tablet optimised too (an invisible difference which will become obvious very soon)!

The new members panel

The new site template also includes a new off-canvas members panel, for users who are logged in. This allows you instant access to your key account functions, and to the profiles of all of the users you are following. There’s much more to come in this space, but for now log-in here and then click on the “MEMBERS” button at the top right to check it out.

More accessible content

Articles, products, news and blogs have all been given a UX overhaul. We’ve implemented industry best practices throughout, so you should find all forms of content more readable, easier to find, and generally more pleasing on the eye. Check out the latest articles for a few examples.

Video content

As a keen videographer myself, it gives me great excitement to announce the ability to publish video articles directly on gapyear.com. Our first video blogging ambassadors are Saunders and Ollie who are currently travelling through South East Asia on a live gap year. We’re very keen to get more video content on site, so if you’d like to be a pioneer of the gap year video article, please do let us know through the writer’s academy.

Blogs and photos redesign

Like the rest of the site, the community functions have all had an a major design overhaul, but blogs and galleries have been given special attention. Photo galleries were very underwhelming on the previous version of the site, so it’s particularly exciting to have them looking so good.

And what’s next?

A lot. Here are a few key highlights.

A mobile ready gapyear.com

This new launch is already in a mobile responsive framework, and a responsive mobile site is on its way. We wanted to make sure we got the changes to the desktop site out to you guys as soon as possible, but rest assured that a fully responsive, mobile ready version is not too far away.

More simple, bookable experiences

Over the last year or so, we’ve been working on our range of complete gap years, which are designed to take the stress out of the booking process. The goal is to provide a much more easily bookable end-to-end gap year journey for those that want it. In the next 12 months we’ll be working with customers to improve these, and you can expect to see a lot more this time next year.

More consultant expertise

Being the best place to book a gap year requires expertise. The travel consultancy side of our business has quickly become the most experienced team of gap year travel consultants on the planet, and it’s growing quickly. We’ve more than doubled in size over the last 12 months and expect to do so again in the next 12 months. If you’re an experienced traveller whose ears pricked up when you found out we were planning to recruit new travel consultants, drop us a line as we’d love to hear from you.

Better blogs, boards, profiles and galleries

While this launch and the few that preceded it have greatly improved the community functions, they are still not a patch on where we want them to be. The back-end functions will be receiving a big UX overhaul in the next 12 months, and we expect the front end to look vastly different this time next year. We want to look into location based tagging of content (via maps) as well, as it is something that many of you have asked for. We’re also keen work with a few of you on reordering the message boards as there is a lot of room for improvement. If you’re a regular board poster and you’re interested drop us a line or a comment below.

Much better site search

The current site search is also a long way from where we want it to be. The long term goal is to move towards a complex faceted search (think eBay or Asos) but the first steps will be improving the algorithm to deliver better results, and allowing you to refine your search by content type.

Contextual navigation elements

The new homepage navigation element is just the first of a series of contextual search / navigation elements we are planning to bring to the site, to make finding your way around easier. Expect to see contextual search in the jobs and volunteering sections very soon.

It’s up to us all...

If there is one thing to take away from this article, it’s that when “we” look at the next steps for the site’s development, we want to make sure that includes you. If you have any feedback on the new design, ideas for functionality you’d like to see us develop, or anything else, please do drop a comment in the box below to let us know.

A few thank yous

A quick word of thanks to those of you who responded to last year's user survey. The vast amount of feedback we gathered has been really useful and we’re still working through it months later. A special mention also for Tom Corey, Warrick Howard, Lexi Quinton, Hannah Simmons and Nikki Smith, who all kindly gave up an afternoon and evening to work with us on the user testing phase of the project. And lastly, a big shout out for our superstar web developer Ben Granier, who has almost single-handedly delivered almost all of the new functionality you see here today.