Why Speed Mattered for Manchester Based Student Property Business
Speeding up and redesigning one of the UK’s most visited student accommodation sites has driven huge increases in both property listings and student enquiries, ensuring it can also now capitalise on the 2019 university in-take period.
Accommodation For Students, based in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, has delivered a 54 per cent increase in property listings during the past 12 months and boosted student enquires by more than 16 per cent. It has also increased site traffic and page views, following the revamp of its legacy software.
Accommodation For Students is an online search engine that allows students and landlords to find and list available properties instantaneously and in real-time. It is visited by more than three million students every year and advertises properties for 32,000 private landlords, 1,200 letting agents and 500 private halls of residence.
The site was originally coded 15 years ago and the home grown technical stack, which had taken the business from a start up to one of the UK’s leading student property portals, was causing an increasing amount of issues, resulting in page load times of over ten seconds and attributing to very high bounce rates and reduced conversions.
Business founder and managing director Simon Thompson turned to Manchester based digital product agency Code Computerlove for a solution to how he could create a fast user driven experience with 15 years of legacy software.
Instead of launching a new website, Accommodation For Students was keen to redevelop the current platform to ensure no downtime and deliver an improved user experience in the fastest possible time.
Working with Code Computerlove, the original code was rewritten using an iterative approach, with a key focus on user journeys and interactions.
Understanding the best performing locations, Code focused on the areas of the site where customers would see the most improvements, releasing each phase as it was completed and running the old and new iterations simultaneously.
This not only improved user experience, but also reduced risk to the business, as releases were only made live once fully tested.
Code Computerlove Technical Director, Dave Heath explains: “Although technically simple in principal (Classic asp, SQL Server & traditional hosting), Accommodation For Student’s software had sprawled out of control in complexity and debt over 15 years resulting in SQL Server scalability issues, unmanageable codebase, and 10+ second page load times that were impossible to adapt to a changing customer user expectation.
“Re-writing the entire stack from the ground up, including all the supporting administration and client login/management features is a huge task, and one that would have resulted in very little change to the end user for a long time.
“From a technical position, our ‘Technical North Star Aspiration’ was to end up with clear independent data storage models/domains (as opposed to a monolithic SQL Server data model), with a powerful, fast and highly scalable API layer, that could be used by a range of high speed end user consumers (web application, apps etc.), all to be hosted in AWS/Azure with the DevOps and automation to ensure it could scale on demand.
“To start with we created an API layer in between the current SQL Server data store, pushing regular search and property data updates into a high concurrency / high availability data cache. This would not only reduce load on SQL Server by over 50%, reducing business risk, but was also the foundation for creating a loosely coupled web application that can perform at high speed.
“We chose React.js as the front end web application technology, so we could iterate quickly as engineers and front end developers. The user experience was built with a strong focus on mobile first and performance budgeting to ensure that the user experience would be the fasted experience in market.
“The first user journey and search locations were released with a brand update whilst the old site ran for the rest of the user experiences and search locations. To do this we implemented a reverse proxy, so we could control which URL’s patterns were directed to the new technical solution, with all others going to the old tech solution. This meant we didn’t add any risk by changing 15 year old software, and could iterate faster and deliver value whenever we had something ready.”
Accommodation For Students is now enjoying fast load speeds, with page downloads of just 1.5 seconds. Since the redevelopment, there has been a huge uplift in conversion especially on mobile. This was due to the investment in the technical separation that powers the fast user experience web application, resulting in 1-2 second page load times for the largest property search locations and instant filtering.
Over time it has scaled out more and more search locations, and added more user features across different user device types, always using data to identify the most valuable/important thing and then releasing quickly to maximise value return and iterating on it.
Accommodation For Students was established by Simon Thompson, who launched the venture after experiencing first-hand the difficulties in finding suitable student accommodation. Speaking of the project, Simon said: “The approach and results in transforming our site have been spot on and, as well as implementing the initial project, Code has also worked with our team to help us develop our internal capabilities to continue to build out towards our technical north star and to deliver end user improvements.
“The original site was fit for purpose, however as the digital world has evolved we knew we needed to look at how this could be improved, which was why we employed the specialist skills of Code Computerlove. They used a very pragmatic approach which focused on improving the areas of the site where we would see the most benefit in the fastest possible time, which allowed us to maximise sales and conversions.”