Relaunch SBB.ch: "Everyone pulled together"

Bruno Spicher, Head of Digital Products and Projects SBB AG, talks about the challenges of a major relaunch project: around 100 people were involved and 450 stakeholders had to be satisfied.

1. What was so special about the project "Relaunch SBB.ch"?
Various divisions were involved in the core project, including passenger transport, the group, the real estate, infrastructure, SBB Cargo as well as RailAway, a subsidiary of SBB. That meant that many stakeholders needed to be called for and integrated. Another characteristic of that project was its dependence on various other projects which needed to be coordinated with one another. The SBB.ch content also had to be adapted and implemented in an accessible manner in accordance with the statutory requirements.

2. How long did the project last and how did you manage to motivate the project team members the whole time?
Around 100 people were involved in the project for more than two years. 10-20% of them were external employees of our partners. However, there was no discernible difference between the people from the outside and the people from the inside. Everyone pulled together and worked hand in hand. The project team comprised representatives of different disciplines, including project management, scrum master, product owner, interaction and visual design, front end and back end development, as well as testing.
We promoted the team spirit across the different disciplines. On the one hand, through little things, such as regular lunches or other joint projects. On the other hand, we deliberately gave the employees room to develop, seek dialogue and address conflicts in an open manner. To improve communication with each other, we set up a Whatsapp group and a slack group where we could share information on various topics, not only the business related ones.

Everyone pulled together and worked hand in hand.

3. How were the different project phases interrelated?
The two years can be subdivided into the following phases: tendering, evaluation, visual design and implementation. The visual design phase took a relatively long time because it required a lot of internal coordination. But it was worth the effort. In the end, we visualized each screen from the smartphone to the tablet so that everyone could see it for themselves. We put great emphasis on prototypes already during the evaluation of partners for the redesign of sbb.ch. Prototyping was the most important thing during the project. The “actual” implementation took around a year. 

4. Apart from project team motivation, stakeholder management must also have been a key topic for such a large project. How did you handle it?
Visualisation and prototypes that I mentioned before were very important for stakeholder management. They were used to make the desired result more understandable. Of course, there were points where we disagreed and there were multiple loops during the decision-making processes. But for me this is quite normal for a project that big.

There were also internal dependencies on other projects, such as the timetable or leisure activities that had to be “buyable" and scalable in the spring. This put a “healthy” pressure on the project team.

What was certainly new for some stakeholders was the scrum approach. Documenting and approving each step is no longer required in an agile project. The stakeholders needed to trust the project team.

In order to involve stakeholders, we regularly reported on the project in the internal Digital Business Newsletter. During the migration phase, there was also a special newsletter for the stakeholders with relevant content. This allowed us to receive questions about the process and the timing at an early stage.

The stakeholders really appreciated the walk-through format. Of the 450 stakeholders, almost 300 took the opportunity to attend a kind of learning cycle on various topics such as: website types (home page, timetable, ticket purchase, holidays and leisure, train station & services, support chat etc.), frontend or typography to get an insight into the project and to give their opinion. We received their feedback during direct dialogue. This approach seems to have worked because we heard only few critical opinions internally.

I never felt that there was little information, neither during the Executive Committee or the Steering Committee or the Expert Committee meetings.

5. SBB.ch is one of the most frequented websites in Switzerland. Did this pose any special challenges for you? What kind of challenges?
With a website that is one of the top sites and has around 9 million visits per month, you are always in the limelight. Whether among the customers or in the media.

What it meant for our project is that it was very difficult to assess what we were to expect from the go-live. To prevent it, on 28 February 2017 we decided to switch on the preview version of sbb.ch and ask our Community for their feedback. That way our community members were able to get the first impression. Based on our previous experience, we also prepared the corresponding Q&As. The media centre, the train staff, the external partners and also the train ticket agents were briefed on how to deal with possible questions. Customer feedback was taken seriously and was, or still is, flowing back to the appropriate product managers on a regular basis.

6. SBB is legally obliged to provide all of its services, including the digital ones, in an accessible and barrier free manner. What does it mean for the website?
The website needs to be designed in such a way that it can be operated by people with an impairment using appropriate tools or aids so that the information can be read out or pronounced. This can be quite a challenge. It may happen that some “cool” features cannot be implemented because they cannot be operated by people with disabilities.

The goal that we set for our project was to identify 99% of those cases, i.e. if a feature is not accessible, then it is of no use to our website, unless we can offer an alternative.

7. The website is the central touchpoint with SBB. How do you see the connection between the different channels?
There is no confrontation but rather an interaction of the different channels with their different focal points. The app focuses on timetable information and fast ticket purchase. The website is also increasingly used as a source of inspiration. Customers certainly understand that different channels have certain focal points. But in general they expect to be able to do the same thing in all channels. If they bought something on their phone, they would also like to see it on the web and the other way around. The introduction of the SwissPass Login also follows that direction. With the next generation of ticket vending machines, there will be also some sort of “harmonisation”: The interaction design follows the web- and app design so that the customers know their way around in all the channels.

8. Unic is responsible for consulting, conception, design and implementation of the front end of the new website. What were the success factors of that cooperation?
With Unic, we receive everything from one source. In addition, Unic has experience on large projects, such as the relaunch of the Swiss Post where accessibility was also a central topic. Unic also has experts in content management system that we use. It was clear for us that we want to have the best people on the market to implement our project and Unic has those people. Our cooperation was very good indeed. The project members were highly motivated and, depending on their function, they largely worked directly on-site as a team. I also liked that our experts from Unic used constructive critique to motivate us.

It was clear for us that we want to have the best people on the market to implement our project, and Unic has those people.

9. If you could start all over again, what would you change?
I think we did a lot of things in the right way. Looking back at the project, there is nothing central to that project that we should have done differently. A single clear takeaway is that we do not want to make such a huge project every 5 years but would rather develop the website on a continuous basis. You can hardly be innovative if the lifecycle of a website is around 4 years and a revamping project takes 2 years. That is why we need to find new ways to implement larger improvements on a regular basis. Accordingly, we need to talk about larger budgets at shorter intervals. For a long time, SBB focused primarily on ticket booths and ticket vending machines. This way of thinking has now changed. The digital world is gaining more and more importance, and with it there is more willingness to make larger investments.