We had big plans for developing Affino this year and moved it ahead in almost every way. We reached the 12th version of Affino 6, of which 7 were launched during the year. We worked through 1,408 improvement projects both large and small, some taking months others mere minutes.
Every single aspect of Affino saw improvement during the course of the year and is now faster, easier and more pleasing on the eye.
We started the year with three priorities:
To make affino:
- more usable
- more mobile
- more commercial
During the course of the year though that a big part of Affino’s usability came down to speed and it simply wasn’t fast or reliable enough on a consistent basis. So we added in three more priorities:
To also make Affino:
- more scalable
- more stable
We saw great strides across all areas, and really nailed the last three.
This post covers the key highlights for each of our priorities and for the major Affino application areas.
Nothing is more important to the success of a product than to make it as usable as possible. This allows people to do and achieve the maximum in the minimum timeframe. Which means better looking sites, higher conversion rates and more engaging communities.
We have removed hundreds of usability issues from Affino during the year. Each time a support request arises we’ve looked into the issue and seen if we can either remove it or make it so easy that a user never has to ask the question again. In most cases we’ve succeeded and now users are able to do most tasks instantly.
The Control Centre has had a big makeover, and has now mostly been upgraded to use pure native browser technologies (i.e. no Flash). This means it is now faster and more consistent. We’ve also looked into many of the major modules such as Store Management, Campaigns and the Media Library and completely re-worked them to be far more effective.
A big focus was to make the Affino user interfaces more consistent and modern. All the interfaces have had a makeover and are now considerably easier to use, and all have a consistent ‘Affino Style’ presentation.
We’ve also added lots of smarts to the user interface with sticky elements that are always on the screen, clearer buttons, smarter searches and filters, better drill-downs, on-page label editing and clearer alerts and notifications.
We worked very hard to make Affino run smoothly on mobiles and tablets, and have done a great deal of the foundation work. We didn’t get as far as we wanted, but we’ve set ourselves up so we can deliver well on this in 2012.
The core systems are now all in place with mobile CSS based skins, the HTML based Control Centre, media templates, mobile App bar and the browsing modes which allow you to design for mobile from your PC, and to switch to full site mode on a tablet.
We were somewhat stymied by the ever changing mobile browser and OS environment during the year, with Google releasing 5 variations and Apple with the new iOS 5. It meant that all our optimisations for the platforms were being busted as the new generations came out.
Affino does work much better on mobiles and tablets now, just not where we want it to be. That will all change in 2012.
We have made some great strides with the Affino ecommerce capabilities. The biggest change has come with the massive revamp we’ve done on the store management, in particular for Orders, Catalogue Items, Inventory, Imports / Exports and Catalogue Attributes.
Affino now works much better in real-world usage for: dedicated video stores through to florists, entertainment stores, apparel, books, ebooks, services and eservices and in particular events.
Big practical improvements have been made to inventory management so that it now works for advanced inventory scenarios and product matrices. We’ve also introduced supplier management and notifications, and updated the Webservice API to handle many more integration scenarios.
On the customer side, stores now look considerably better; the product search is a great step up for product discovery; premium content notices and improved subscription purchasing make buying services much easier. We’ve added Lead Generation and tracking and greatly improved the Social CRM / Account Management.
Finally we’ve added a host of new ecommerce Design Elements to better surface products including: Customers Also Bought, Recently Viewed Products, Related Accessories and Up-sales and a great new Product Drill-down Navigation.
Behind the scenes we’ve also developed a great Expert platform which we’ll cover more on in 2012 when it will be released.
Affino now generates and delivers pages on average 5 times faster than previously. Speed is a key element of usability. Although it didn’t start out as a key priority, it’s probably been the area we’ve spent the most effort on improving since it affects everything that users do with Affino.
The single most important update was the introduction of smarter caching, we’re now able to cache much more than previously and this has had a dramatic impact. The flip side is that many more elements have gone realtime. It means that on a cached page elements such as the shopping basket, chat, status updates, who’s online, alerts and selectors are all loaded up dynamically and are constantly updated.
We have optimised hundreds of elements and done extensive analysis of all the slowest processes and long running tasks. All have been greatly optimised and frequently we’ve been able to optimise by up to 90%. We’ve also introduced parallel processing to many tasks so the user response is now much faster whilst the tasks are being processed in the background.
Possibly the most important process development has been the introduction of Affino Performance Benchmarks and improved QA which we run on each release. This means that any slow-down is instantly highlighted and resolved, prior to the release.
We have very few limits on how site owners can use Affino. This means that it sometimes gets pushed in ways we didn’t anticipate, whether it’s user accounts with over 1,000 security rights, or sites with over 20,000 sections; 100,000s of coupon campaigns or millions of articles and media items being imported with incoming feeds, 10,000s topics being imported or dozens of Zones (sites) running off a single Affino instance.
After all the efforts of 2011, right now there are no known scaling issues. We now have a heavy load test site with high volumes of content, users and media which we test Affino on as part of each release cycle. The 6.0.12 release was the first which no longer timed out with any of the load tests. There’s still considerable scope for improvement though, so this remains a permanent project for us.
For a good portion of the year Affino had stability issues. In most cases this meant 5 minutes of downtime for a server from time to time, however in some cases it meant gradual slowing down of service and then complete service failure. The underlying causes took a long time to identify but along the way we made almost every aspect of Affino far more effective in combating performance peaks and attacks.
We eventually identified the core causes for the instability in November, and since the Affino 6.0.11 release has had zero downtime attributed to Affino on any of our cloud nodes.
Although publishing wasn’t a core focus for us this year, there were a host of significant improvements made here during the course of the year. The most significant update came late in December with the introduction of Detailed Skins. This allows sites to design completely different listing and detail pages.
Topics, which are the key in Affino to personalisation, recommendation, filtering, browsing, searching, tagging and categorising had a number of significant updates during the year. This means much better targeting and generation of automated Topic channels.
Archiving and Incoming Feeds both had important updates for dealing with fast content. Archiving can now be used for automatically moving content around the site on schedule, as well as archiving and deleting old (or junk) content. Incoming feeds are now far more scalable in part because we greatly optimised Affino’s handling of high volumes of incoming feeds.
We’ve introduced charts as a content element for the first time and made major improvements to Blogs and Events. Blogs can now be used very effectively by pro bloggers whilst events have had a big upgrade to handle major events which have lots of event variations.
Other enhancements include automated multi-display of content in sections, bulk moving of articles, improved filtering and drill-down navigation, and some great new highlights Design Elements including Article Highlights, Auto-Related Content and Channel Highlights.
This year has been all about Smart Media. It is now possible to embed media throughout Affino simply by including the URL to the media source, whether it is a YouTube or Vimeo video, SoundCloud audio or even an image. Affino validates the source and ensures that the displayed media fits perfectly into the context.
We also made embedded media uploads much smarter so that Affino now automatically detects the source and handles lots more embed codes and URLs so that 3rd party media can easily be uploaded and managed in the Affino media library.
Both the Control Centre Media Library and Design Image Management had complete overhauls and are now dramatically more usable and useful than before. We also solved the big media file upload issue by integrating with Dropbox. It means users can now upload very large media files with no issues.
Video and eBook commerce were both improved with better handling and presentation throughout the sales and consumption process. We also introduced the Promotion Panel under the video player to highlight products associated with the video and increase the up-sell opportunities.
Campaigns have seen the biggest developments this year as far as promotions are concerned. Affino now supports Hybrid ads and Prime ads, more image formats and better Flash and Script support. We greatly simplified campaign management and added in a nice preview option for campaign creatives, especially useful for testing out hybrid ads against different Design Styles.
Campaign reporting has been greatly improved so that pros can manage a much greater volume of campaigns.
It is now possible to encourage your site members to invite their friends throughout the site with the new Invite Design Element. It is also possible to reward users not only for getting their friends to sign up, but also when they make a purchase.
SEO remains a strong focus and a great deal of effort had gone into maintaining and improving Affino’s integration with Google Merchant Centre. We’ve improved the ability to tag and highlight SEO content on Channels, Sections, Design Menus, Topic Channels and Product Searches.
Although the Community aspects weren’t a key focus for us in 2011, we did a great deal to improve the community spaces within Affino. Forums had the biggest makeover with over 100 updates during the year. They are now right up there with the best of breed applications.
The great new Group Chat element allows team members to do a joint chat at any time. It handles text, emoticons, smart URLs and Smart Media. When coupled with the updated Who’s Online DE you can see who’s online at any time and if they’re present have a great conversation.
Comments and Ratings had significant updates for real-world applications and now allow users to instantly post smart media. Public member profiles are far more configurable and flexible than before (and are a good deal faster).
Behind the scenes the Social CRM had a complete makeover and is now far more effective for community and account management; we also enhanced Team Time to track projects; emoticons (smilies) can now be managed; and we introduced the much requested User Merging for when a single user has created multiple accounts.
Three new Community Design Elements: Forum Highlights, Invite Friends and Engagement Panel, along with upgrades to most of the existing ones, mean that community gateways can now be much more engaging.
Finally, we launched a major recruitment platform on Affino which will be further extended in Q1 2012 at which point we’ll let you know much more about it.
Integration in 2011 was all about maintaining compatibility with the 70 odd platforms Affino already integrates with. On average we updated Affino’s integration with 5 platforms per release during the course of the year (35 updates in all).
The ever changing standards, APIs and integration requirements have meant that we’re becoming much more cautious when it comes to integrating with new platforms. In each case any new platform we integrate with has to have clear benefits to Affino users. That said we, added support for three new payment gateways: Realex, MIGS and SmartDebit. We also deepened Affino’s integration with the Amazon cloud, adding support for the Amazon content delivery network and load-balancing services; and integrated with Dropbox for media uploads.
The single biggest integration project we undertook this year is the integration with Salesforce.com and is one that we expect to run and run. December saw a pretty solid release for the first time, but there’s more work to be done in the new year to deepen the integration further.
We continue to extend Affino’s Webservice API, and it is now more capable at handling rich media integration; advanced orders; 3rd party suppliers and inventory transactions.
The low-fi integration via imports and exports has been greatly extended in Affino with almost all of them now far more scalable than previously and with a considerable increase in the actual data which can be imported and exported. To help users we’ve also started providing sample CSV files and will eventually provide them for each import type.
There’s no doubt that Affino users care deeply about the design of their sites, and how Affino looks in general. It means we are constantly evolving Affino to look better and to improve its design capabilities.
Affino has evolved from supporting one Skin per channel to supporting a possible fourteen different skins. This caters for any combination of web, mobile and tablet device and even allows the targeting of iOS and Android devices specifically. It also means that for the primary content channels it is possible to have completely different page designs for the listing and detailed pages. We also now have different Skin types for Web, Mobile and Newsletter Messages.
It’s still early days for the mobile Skins which are very much in Beta at this stage, but we have big plans for these in 2012.
Form Styles have evolved in 2011 and now allow for much better looking forms, especially when combined with the new form handler and all the usability improvements we’ve rolled out.
Affino now supports Web Fonts which will allow for greatly improved typography on websites. It’s still relatively early days for web fonts and we expect to evolve this further. That said, it works exactly as required right now.
There were some great developments this year that have set up 2012 to be one of the most exciting years for a while for Affino. Nailing Affino’s performance, scalability and reliability and making it much faster were the major breakthroughs.
All the big usability improvements mean that it’s now much easier for pro users to develop roll out sites, and to hand them over to the day-to-day users.
The new processes we have in place in Comrz now mean that this will only get better as we continue into the new year. The fact that since Affino 6.0.11 we have Zero Affino related downtime on any of our cloud nodes also means we can concentrate on evolving Affino as rapidly as possible.
The Decision to stop developing Flash, and instead to replace it with HTML / HTML 5 at the start of the year has really paid off with Affino now working much better across all devices.
In a way our key focus for 2011 was to address as many of the issues as we could that were slowing Affino users, and the Comrz team down. We certainly did a great job of that, which will really let us accelerate Affino’s development in 2012 and everyone benefits from a much better experience with Affino right now.