Every few years organisations undertake yet another website redesign project. But is this the right approach or is there a better way?
You know the pattern of website redesign. You launch a new website, and for one shining moment, it is perfect. Then the money dries up, and people move on. Slowly over time, the neglect takes its hold. Content becomes out of date, the design starts to look dated, and the underlying technology ceases to be fit for purpose.
Before long the site starts to become an embarrassment. Colleagues stop referring customers to it. Those users who do end up on the site are left with a bad impression and rarely return. Instead of being a lead generator and marketing tool, the site becomes a drain on resources that do nothing but damage the brand.
Eventually, things get so bad that somebody in senior management throws a tantrum and a redesign project is kicked off. After considerable investment and a lot of effort, you throw out the old site and replace it with the new one. Or even worse, you redesign the site, while just migrating the old content across.
However, at this point, the process begins all over again as once again the money dries up and people move on to the next project. It is a vicious cycle that is incredibly damaging to the business.
Do you know why a website redesign is so damaging?
Many fail to realise just how damaging this website redesign cycle is. Sure, it means that for a significant portion of its lifetime the website is not fit for purpose and is damaging the brand. But that is the tip of the iceberg.
For a start, a website redesign is an incredibly blunt instrument. It throws everything out and starts from scratch. No website is 100% terrible, yet we cast it all aside and begin again. That is incredibly wasteful and expensive.
Then there is just how little we understand about user needs during the website redesign process. Maybe you do your user research and usability testing (although many do not). But even then you don’t know how people will react in the real world. It is only once a site goes live that you can learn how users will behave. Unfortunately, this is the very same moment that the resources disappear.
You might try to argue that you can learn from the previous site. But if you are replacing that site wholesale, it's hard to be sure what changes you make are improving things. You are changing too much at once to be sure.
Finally, users don’t like change. You only need to read the comments when Facebook or Twitter update their user interface to see that. The bigger change you make, the more likely you are to drive what loyal users you have away.
In short, we need to be rejecting website redesigns in favour of incremental improvements. Doing so provides significant advantages.
Six overwhelming benefits of rejecting website redesign
Take a moment to consider what comes with incrementally improving your site. For a start, your site will always be operating at peak performance because there will always be people tweaking and refining it. You won't end up leaving it to wither on the vine.
Ongoing improvement also provides significant cost savings. Sure you will have to spend money on the site on a continuous basis. At face value, this might look like an additional expense. But in truth, it will save you money, because you won’t have the enormous cost of a redesign every few years. You are also not wasting money by throwing out elements of the site that work perfectly well, and then having to recreate them.
The move from a significant periodic investment to a smaller ongoing budget also makes more financial sense too. It is a predictable, reoccurring investment that you can plan around.
Another financial benefit of incremental improvement over wholesale redesign is that decisions can be data driven, rather than based on opinion. By monitoring user behaviour, you can ensure you only invest in functionality and content users want. That saves money building features nobody wants or needs.
Having data to inform decision making will speed up the process. Combined with the fact that new features can be rolled out without the need to redesign the entire system will enable you to get to market much faster.
Finally, incremental improvement encourages users to keep coming back. A static site that rarely changes does nothing to promote ongoing engagement, something that is crucial for almost any website. However, if a site is regularly changing there is always something new to see or something for the company to share with the world.
With the benefits of incremental improvement so obvious, the question then becomes; “how do we successfully replace periodic website redesign with incremental improvement”.
How to successfully replace periodic website redesign
Probably the most critical component in being able to improve your site incrementally is to have the right team in place. To be honest, this is challenging to do if you are working with an outside agency (although not impossible). Instead, it makes sense to build an in-house team that have the skills to evolve the user interface, content and underlying platform.
But having a team is not enough. The team also need the authority to make the improvements necessary to evolve the site without constantly having to seek approval from elsewhere in the organisation. I am not suggesting they should work in isolation. They do need to collaborate. But they equally need to be able to make changes based on data they are gathering without needing permission at every turn.
Once those things are in place, it then becomes a technical challenge. In particular, it revolves around the need for separation. In other words, you need to be able to easily change one component of a website quickly and without adversely affecting other areas.
In practice, that means separating design, content and technology. Content needs to be clean and well marked up so you can update styles without editing the content itself. It also needs to be platform agnostic so it can adapt when things evolve in the future.
Equally the design should only be loosely connected with the underlying technology, so that if you want to replace either element later, it won’t affect the other.
Finally, the whole site should be made up of modular, reusable components. That will ensure consistency, but also make it easy to update every instance of a component from a single place.
The last website redesign you ever need to do
I will be honest; it might be that you need one more website redesign before this is possible. The chances are your site is not built in this way and could not easily be converted. But if you do undertake a website redesign, make sure it is your last. Build it in a way that enables ongoing improvements, and makes sure you don’t just redesign the site. Make sure you also put in place the team and governance to enable continuous improvement too.