Close Up – Our New Configurator Platform

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Last month saw the concluding part of a major project for me at Aston Martin – our online model configurator, a project which I took on when I joined the business in 2011.

Taking over the AstonMartin.com web redevelopment in early 2011 saw me work with R/GA on the first iteration of a new in-page/in-site configurator (as opposed to separate web app or microsite)  and one of the first from any major auto manufacturer to move away from Flash technology. Initially launched with four models we saw some of the highest traffic levels ever achieved on AM.com, especially with Top Gear picking it up: http://www.topgear.com/uk/car-news/aston-martin-configurator-2011-05-16

Towards the end of 2011 it quickly became apparent that we needed to add further functionality to the platform for four key reasons:

1) Build into the platform the complex rule-set which controls the dependencies between materials and finishes (‘if I choose X it means I can’t have Y’). The R/GA version worked on a simplified set of front end options which didn’t accurately reflect the many limitations and rules you trip up when working through the complex interior environments of one of our cars – all designed for ease of production or to ensure a consistent design.

2) Integrate closely with our lead capture functionality to feed leads straight into our dealer network.

3) Add in many elements which can’t be graphically displayed, namely vehicle options and accessories.

4) Broaden the scope and potential to reuse the functionality outside of AstonMartin.com.

After one short-lived and failed attempt to find the right supplier to produce all four of these elements within one platform, I decided to restructure the project around core competencies and focus on the skill sets required as opposed to looking for an all encompassing solution. In late 2012 we therefore began planning the current platform, and in short I was looking for three things:

1) Great visuals of the cars.

2) A slick front-end UI (suitable across device)

3) A powerful API to handle the serving of the imagery and the material control ruleset.

I have always been delighted with the quality and accuracy of the visuals supplied by our CGI agency Realtime UK , with a consistent look and feel maintaining this relationship would be key to handling the many thousands of individual images required to make up a front end configuration. To produce the UI design and code I was delighted to be able to utilise our in-house development resource. As a business we have worked extremely hard at bringing the majority of development work in-house to avoid the many problems we’ve had with external development agencies. We have an excellent jQuery developer who took on the task with relish, working alongside our in-house designer and myself we designed and built a simple and intuitive user experience focused around the five key interactions the user needs to go through to spec a car; Exterior, Interior, Options & Accessories, Summary, Submit / Share. The great benefit here was that using our internal developers also meant that the platform would be integrated seamlessly with Sitefinity, the CMS which powers AstonMartin.com. In simple terms our configurator can be embedded within any page on the site with just a few clicks, unlike some of our competitors who utilise separate urls, designs and structures for their configurator – we’re completely integrated.

The third point was the most challenging, we didn’t want to hold any configuration rule-sets with the front-end application, we wanted the ‘intelligence’ within the platform to sit elsewhere to improve speed, reduce complexity but also create a configurator engine which we could develop and utilise outside of the Aston Martin web front end. Once defined I immediately thought the most reliable solution would be to give my old development agency at Topps Tiles a call – 360 Software Solutions. I worked with 360 throughout my time at Topps and found them to be excellent at doing great web development in an affordable and grounded way.  I’ve worked with many agencies who make development much harder than it should be, whereas 360 always say yes and always have a solution which is realistic and pragamatic. I also knew that they would be able to work completely within the infrastructure we requested (Azure hosted, Azure CDN) they use and they wouldn’t try to impose solutions which wouldn’t required.

After a full brief to Dan and the team at 360 around our API requirements we began development in earnest, with all three workstreams coming together well with a deadline of hitting the public announcement of the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S in May of this year. I’m pleased to say that we hit the target with room to spare and now just six months later have migrated all production models (10) into the platform and in three different languages (English, German, Chinese). Quick, responsive, engaging and combining a simple front-end with a powerful back-end, I’m delighted that we’ve produced a platform with a breadth of functionality unrivalled in our peer group. And the best thing? Now the great quality foundations are in place the work we’ll be doing in 2014 should be simple and quick, the time we’ve put into the platform now means iterative releases can be done quickly. The lessons here are clear to me:

  • Round pegs in round holes – even though one agency might be tempting, project managing multiple agencies (or developers) all with a clear brief and a clear set of skills may be more effective.
  • Work with agencies you trust – 360 might not be a flashy, London based agency, but they’re good developers without egos who don’t concentrate on selling the dream you haven’t thought of, they just produce the reality you want.
  • In-house resource is key – as mentioned above we’ve worked hard to build as much front-end capability as possible in-house. Having the ability to iterate, build, problem solve, release quickly and work with the comfort that we can always change things quickly has bee fundamental here. Any web platform built as a ‘china doll’ which can’t be touched and can’t be changed goes against the ethos of flexibility that should be top within any Digital marketer’s raison d’être.

Links:

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