Sportlobster: The social side of sports
Web Designer talk to sportlobster.com about their big ambitions for their sports social network
For sports fans Sportlobster.com promises exactly that: to be your dedicated and beloved online source. By bringing together a huge amount of content including news, fan blogs, event schedules and result predictions, why would you stray anywhere else? As Sportlobster put it themselves, “Everything that makes up a sports fan’s experience can now happen in one location.”
Owned and operated by startup Lobster Media Ltd, based in London, the site is still very much in its infancy and currently in Beta status after being launched earlier this year. Like any social service, it relies on creating a community and so they recently partnered with PR firm Henman Communications to boost awareness for a high-profile Premier League campaign. This, coupled with ambitious plans for mobile app launches and ticketing services, suggests a busy rollout period for the team. “As we grow, we look forward to the process of sportsmen and women, sports teams and clubs joining and using the site,” beams co-founder and CEO Andy Meikle. “This process will happen organically. Our platform is, of course, based on user-generated content so as user numbers increase, so will the levels of interaction in general.”
With names like ex-England striker Michael Owen already attached, the project has surely come a long way from Andy’s initial brainwave. “I was sitting at my parent’s house and I came across a blog about Novak Djokovic. It was an excellent read and there were hundreds of comments underneath it. You could feel real passion from the contributors. I thought, this is a really good article but I’ve only come across it by chance. The penny dropped as I considered that these guys have to go all over the internet to attract people to their blog, but there are millions of people like me out there who are looking for quality content. I started to piece together a puzzle of what a sports fan’s online experience consists of and I recognised how disjointed it was.”
So the idea really did stem from that notion of unifying sources of content and online experience into a single entity. Users tell the service about what they are personally passionate about, tailoring itself to meet those demands and in turn filtering out the stuff they don’t care for. The team frequently uses the phrase ‘one-stop shop’ to describe it, citing a central desire to alleviate an often disjointed experience for sport fans previously. However, having the idea in the bag is the first hurdle and most will wonder how this acorn ever gets the chance to flourish commercially. “Our COO Arron Shepherd had been running his own company while at university, so I knew he had that entrepreneurial side to him as well. When Arron and I met he’d been working in his family business for three years and wanted to start his own business again. He contacted me as he was looking for advice on how to go about establishing a startup in Dubai. It was during those conversations that I brought up the idea of what we now know as Sportlobster.”
From here Andy admits to taking something of a leap of faith, based on his convictions for what the vision could become. Like all good entrepreneurs, bold sacrifices were made including turning down big money offers and making the commitment to relocate. “I was actually offered a huge amount of investment in the tech company I previously owned, but I decided to leave that behind, sell my car and move from Dubai to London to pursue this new venture. It felt like too good an opportunity to turn down.”
Even from the off the project was always expected to branch out from an online dotcom presence to encompass modern mobile platforms. At the time of writing the Sportlobster app for iOS was weeks away from launch obviously with the site out there to kickstart the experience. Given how the initial idea has spread out and blossomed, the challenges in building the service infrastructure are ongoing. “My vision for Sportlobster has always been very clear,” Andy maintains. “However, as the project is so big there are so many opportunities and unknowns. It’s for this reason we spent four months exploring user journeys and planning the architecture of the site. Having eventually launched our beta version of Sportlobster.com in April 2013 we have had the opportunity to more clearly define the user experience, which is particularly important on the mobile when you have limited real estate.”
Mobile is clearly a huge concern, with the team already seeing that 65 per cent of users are logging in from a handset and 75 per cent of those using Apple devices. Those figures have fuelled a desire to make the app even more user friendly and effortless for these platforms, while ensuring that all of the most popular elements of the site are still offered. “As mobile continues to grow, our plan has always been to introduce native apps. We believe due to the extensive offering on Sportlobster it can serve a user at any time of day and, since it is sports related, it is even more important that it is accessible at any time and from any place. For this reason we believe the app will be the driving force for Sportlobster and its all of its users.”
As far as the app is concerned, development really started by defining the functionalities. With these agreed, the team could gather around and determine the scope of the work required and the specific tasks involved. Tasked by a chief architect, two iOS developers, two back-end developers and a UX/web designer, the relatively small group could stay nimble enough to roll with the punches. “As a team, we go through every task and brainstorm the user experience and any difficulties that may arise in the user journey and the build. This includes putting wireframes together and signing off on the final scope of work. We then allocate those tasks to different individuals within the team and set deadlines to ensure each sprint is met, tested and approved. This is an ongoing process, which is reviewed every week ensuring the build is as agile as possible, while not moving too far away from our predetermined goals.”
On the frontend and visual design side the duties were managed by the addition of a graphic designer. Here storyboarding was used to plot out the user journey, again moving on to using wireframes to ask Sportlobster.com users for feedback. These reactions to issues of usability, coupled with any user hang-ups from the Beta website have been invaluable in making a potentially complex app look that little bit more simple.
“The app will also quickly lead us onto phase two of the website, as we used its development as the opportunity to address problems from users with the site. Alongside the release of the app, the new website will enhance the user experience dramatically. We really have taken this opportunity to address user frustrations including the ease of finding popular functions such as events, predictions, blogs, news, calendar and so on. The search was too big beforehand. Now the app can find searches related to your preferences with the click of a button.”
Interestingly the app’s look was also subject to certain design constraints based on the pending launch. Coinciding around the recent move to iOS 7, the team had to take steps to ensure the app would be 100 per cent compatible. This wasn’t purely an issue of whether it would function correctly but also that the look and feel was consistent with Apple’s new platform. “We spent a lot of our time researching into the visuals of iOS 7’s assets and noticed its ‘flat icon’ design. To ensure we stayed current we adopted many iOS 7 techniques, primarily a flat icon design to avoid shadowing.”
Fast-forward to the prospect of the big launch, and we’re in the rather unique position of discussing it right before the main event. It’s apparent that despite the site’s arrival last April, this was by no means a final word on site and service. The fledgling website has fed into designing the mobile app and back into where exactly the dotcom goes next. There’s a realisation that promoting the site will be easier once the app is alongside it, stimulating user adoption and interaction. “We’re delighted with the final product. We had a dedicated group of testers working closely with the developers to ensure the best possible experience for sports fans. When the app is released you will notice the website is being dramatically improved too. Through these changes, Sportlobster will be better integrated with other blogging websites and social media platforms so they interact much easier – enhancing the potential of rapid Sportlobster growth.”
Spreading the word and building an enthusiastic and loyal following that helps raise the profile of the site will also doubtlessly be crucial to that growth. The service is fairly unique and although the typical target market is the 15-35 year old male, the message is that anyone keen on sports is invited to the party.
“For us the most important thing in terms of success indicators is of course downloads and user numbers, and we are confident our online launch campaign will generate impressive numbers. We also have the support of major names in sport, including football and Formula 1, which will be unveiled upon the launch of our app. As they have also invested in the business, it’s exciting to have such high-profile partners endorsing what we all believe will revolutionise the way sports fans communicate online.” And given the effort that has been put into the project, as well as the various endorsements, the success of Sportlobster seems inevitable.