Building a Painkiller for the Appointment Bookings Space in WordPress

The bookings space within WordPress is filled with quite a few plugins that offer different levels of functionality. That being said, our extensive research showed that none of them really offered the experience that one would expect. But why are third-party booking services so much better than WordPress plugins? Why is WordPress lacking in this space?

That same research and our experience developing a bookings plugin for the Easy Digital Downloads platform showed us why this is the case. It’s not easy to develop a comprehensive appointments booking plugin. There is so much that could go into it that you won’t know where to start. I believe it’s the main reason that many existing plugins limit what users are able to do.

This is why we decided to do something different with our EDD Bookings plugin. We’re in the process of a complete re-write from scratch. Version 2.2 is still available today and is maintained, but we realized that the approach taken in its initial creation wouldn’t last very long. We were heading down a dead end that would kill the product.

We were faced with two choices; we could either limit the user in what they can do or not be able to offer certain functionality. We took the third option in re-starting the plugin from step one.

Now that we decided to build something new, we want to do it right. Here’s an overview of our process so far and where we plan to go next.

The Painkiller Aspect

The way we approached the initial stages of this project was to get people like you and me to explain what pain they felt when using any of the existing appointment booking solutions. We want our solution to be a painkiller, not a vitamin.

What’s the difference? There are a number of articles out there that go into the difference between the two, so I won’t go into too much detail. What you need to know is that a painkiller is a solution that fixes the pains users feel when using any tool, while a vitamin is a solution that would just be nice to have, but it doesn’t solve any major headaches that other solutions present.

We chose a market where we knew that better solutions are needed. We listened to existing and potential users of booking systems to understand their needs, wants and pain points. We took the time to discuss and find the right solutions to existing problems and limitations in other booking solutions. We are building a plugin on an existing e-commerce platform that already provides many solutions for the requirements that fall outside of the direct scope of the booking system. We have a dedicated team working day in and day out on the bookings plugin and are supported by a dedicated team on the e-commerce platform.

Lastly, we already built a bookings plugin, launched it, sold it (and refunded in some cases), and listened to the feedback we got from the users. The complaints, compliments, and suggestions we received are what drove the production of the brand-new plugin and what inspired the team to commit fully to building something that would make a difference.

The Research

Our research began well over a year ago, and it took many forms.

Demo Site Feedback

Upon the initial release of EDD Bookings in late 2015 we were offering a demo site for users to try the plugin before purchasing. This demo proved to be a vital way of collecting user feedback. We didn’t even look at that data for a while, but it proved pivotal a few months later.

Our demo site has gotten a few thousand submissions in less than two years. Granted, half of that feedback proved fruitless as many users would enter dummy data just to get to the demo itself. That’s expected.

The other half, however, was very useful. Not only did we gather feedback on how users were looking to use our plugin, but we also got to know whether they are existing EDD users or not, among other things.

Pie charts from our research via the EDD Bookings demo site

From the above stats, we saw that the majority of demo site users were not EDD users. This was encouraging as it meant that our existing plugin was already attracting attention outside the EDD space, even with its existing limitations. These percentages are based on over 1400 submissions over a one-year period in 2016.

Direct User Feedback

Some of the best feedback you can get is from existing users of any bookings plugin or software. They can pinpoint the areas where they get stuck and share their experiences with you. That’s why we started gathering direct feedback from users of various plugins, including our own.

We offered visitors to our website a chance to get in touch with our team directly. This resulted in many existing and potential customers sending us messages about their specific use cases and troubles. We took this feedback back to the team, discussed it, and came up with conclusions and recommendations for each one.

This gave us some insight into where we were going wrong with our plugin’s first iteration, and where other plugins/software were either performing well or lacking.

Have a question for us? Just click here and submit your query!

We reply to all the messages we receive and take an interest in all use cases, so we’d love to discuss your needs and troubles. We even stay in touch with the most valuable contacts to make sure we’re moving in the right direction.

Online Polls

From my discussions with other plugin owners/developers, it seemed that many don’t seem to believe that polls can prove to be valuable, mainly due to the lack of user participation. It’s true that our poll got far fewer submissions than the demo site, but it also gave us a different, more specific answer to one of our questions.

That question was “what functionality are users most interested in?” We put together a list of seven features based on the feedback already collected from demo sites and direct emails.

As you can see, the poll is quite specific. Given that this post is about building a painkiller, not just a vitamin, this was not the ideal approach to take. This poll was begun before we decided on a complete rewrite, so at that time, it made more sense to understand which feature was needed the most.

At the end of the day, this was still useful to us as it showed us where the biggest pain points were for our existing and potential users, and what areas were most important to them.

Post Comments

We have two very popular posts on booking plugins here on WP Mayor, and we also found a few other great ones both in and out of the WordPress space. The comments left on these posts were in the hundreds, and we went through them all. We’re not playing around, we actually did that.

Most comments were concerned with users’ needs and wants, so we took that into consideration when discussing what our plugin will do and how it will be built. Here are the posts from WP Mayor:

Competitor Research

This was a major part of our research that lasted a few months, and it doesn’t stop. We are constantly looking at direct and indirect competitors, both in the WordPress space and outside it. This research dove deeper into existing solutions to find their benefits as well as their flaws and shortcomings.

We documented the pros, cons, user feedback, and much more for each one, further focusing on the most popular ones as the research went on. We still come across new solutions today, and we adjust where necessary if we see that something we planned isn’t right.

So far we have looked into over 30 existing solutions in some detail, and we were able to take something out of each one. Whether it was a UI element that we found useful, or a UX flow that made things user-friendly, or even a feature we hadn’t thought of, it was all taken on board.

Expert Feedback

Although this part of our research came at a later stage, we took this step to heart. We didn’t just want to dive into a rewrite of our existing plugin without consulting experts in various fields beforehand. The experts we spoke to came from various backgrounds and worked on different plugins.

We spoke with WooCommerce bookings experts including Shadi Manna to discuss the benefits and drawbacks present in WooCommerce bookings extensions; we spoke with some top WordPress developers such as Kevin Stover from WP Ninjas to discuss their approach to plugin rewrites and JavaScript implementation; and we spoke to a few more individuals on various other topics along the way.

This feedback helped us in various ways. Not only did we start to understand the bookings space a bit better, but it also gave our developers the opportunity to speak with others in this field, further understanding where they might encounter problems and what they could do to avoid them.

Why Focus on Appointment Bookings?

There is a simple answer to this question.

It’s what our research showed as the most popular and in-demand space for WordPress appointment booking plugins. Below you can see the results of our demo site feedback from 2016 alone. As you can see, appointments, classes, lessons and the like are clearly the most in-demand areas.

We know that the existing plugins for accommodation and event tickets are already providing good solutions and have an established name in the WordPress space. Trying to compete with these bigger players while knowing that it’s not our biggest potential market would not be the smartest route to take for us.

We Still Require the EDD Plugin – Is That a Problem?

As this is an Easy Digital Downloads extension, you would first need to install the free EDD plugin. Although some may see this as a limitation for our plugin, which in some aspects it may be, we also see benefits to it.

The EDD platform is an established and successful e-commerce platform for WordPress backed by Pippin Williamson and a great team of developers and support staff. We receive a lot of support from Pippin and the team. They’re open to discussing new ideas and approaches, even when they don’t agree with them, and they’re also committed to making sure any EDD extension is the best it can be, within the limitations of EDD.

Apart from that, there are already a large number of established extensions for EDD. What does that mean for you, the user? Simply put, if you’re looking for some other functionality that EDD Bookings itself does not offer, you’re highly likely to find an existing extension for it.

So if you’re looking to implement payment gateways, email service integrations, front-end submissions for marketplaces and much more, there is an existing solution waiting for you.

What’s Next?

Our research stage is mostly complete, and we have since moved on to new areas. Right after the market research, we started to look into and discuss what problems the plugin will be solving and how was best to solve them. This stage led to one vital conclusion:

We are building a plugin that provides a complete user-friendly experience, both for the admin and the customer, that would help increase sales, reduce costs and save valuable time.

Following the setting up of the plugin’s requirements, we moved on to two very important stages; one handled by the developers, and the other by myself and other experts in their own fields.

The developers are currently focused on the prototyping of the planned approaches to ensure that it all works as planned, while I’m in the process of working with expert UI/UX designers to put together the mockups for both the back-end and front-end.

This will be followed by the completion of the plugin’s development as well as the start of user testing for both the mock-ups and eventually, the initial iterations of a functional plugin.

As we move forward in this project we will keep you updated on the progress being made, and we’ll be looking forward to your feedback as we start to share our work with the community.

We Want to Hear From You

If you read through the whole post you’ll understand that we are basing this plugin on your feedback. Just using our intuition to develop a new bookings plugin would be a big mistake. We are always ready to adapt, so your thoughts won’t go unnoticed.

We want to hear from you at every stage of the process, so don’t be shy. You’re all welcome to leave comments below, or contact us directly, or even try out the demo site for the current version of EDD Bookings.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on our approach!

An Update On This Project

In short, it didn’t work out.

There’s a lot more that goes into a robust booking solution than one might realize, and after investing a lot of time into EDD Bookings, we decided that the original approach just wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long-run. That being said, we learnt many valuable lessons through this project that have helped us in the years that followed.

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