Rethink the redesign

Posted by on Jan 25, 2013 in Websites | No Comments
Rethink the redesign

For nearly two decades, “redesign” has been the widely accepted term for any project resulting in changes to a site, from new functionality to a streamlined structure to a complete overhaul. In this time of rapid prototyping and agile development, we feel it’s time to rethink the term redesign, and instead focus on “iterate and realign.”

First off, you should never let your site degrade so badly it needs a complete overhaul unrelated to a larger strategic realignment. Usability improvements? Yes. Streamlining? Absolutely. Rebrand? As part of a broader initiative, of course.

Cameron Moll’s oft-cited article, “Good Designers Redesign, Great Designers Realign,”, is still valid today, and his case studies — starting with Apple’s 2005 iLife identity refresh — highlight subtle, strategic shifts as opposed to sweeping redesigns.

Continuing the thread, in “Redesigning vs Realigning: A Case Study”, Sacha Greif gives before and after images of a project that directly supports Moll’s thesis, along with five principals for gradually (i.e., iteratively) improving a design.

We couldn’t agree more.

Users matter (as do all stakeholders)

For the most part, design and content changes should be handled continuously, iteratively, and subtly, and attached to specific strategic goals. This is the beauty of the web. It allows us to tweak as we go, to refine gradually over time, responding to changes in technology, changes in the marketplace, and feedback — both direct and indirect — from users.

When they do occur, strategic realignments such as a shift in brand or mission are hefty projects that likely encompass everything from a change in design to a new content strategy. The term “redesign” only captures a sliver of the work to be done as part of the broader realignment effort.

By using “redesign” as a catch-all phrase for any site-change project, large or small, you run the risk of pushing your business stakeholders subconsciously to focus on just that: the design, the look and feel. Things like color and the infinitely indefinable “wow” factor start to dominate review sessions instead of whatever it is you’re really trying to accomplish.

In a recent Smashing Magazine article, “Stop Redesigning And Start Tuning Your Site Instead”, Louis Rosenfeld argues against costly and ineffective “fix it once-and-for-all” website redesigns and lays out some simple, inexpensive ways to avoid them (for example, to boost site search performance, don’t rip out and replace your search engine; instead, improve performance of top search queries.) His iterative design approach focuses on prioritization of user needs as well as business goals — the two primary stakeholder prongs — and the small percentage of content (yes, content!) that matters most to both groups.

Iterate strategically

At Suite Seven, we don’t think in terms of redesign (which connotes look and feel over strategy and process) or re-launch (implies the work is done once the new site’s live). In fact, we steer clear of using the term redesign altogether.

Instead, our steps for rethinking redesign are simple and cyclical, and follow the principals of iterate and realign:

Make sure the entire team is aligned on the project goal.
What problem(s) are you trying to solve, and what goals are you trying to achieve? Create strategic objectives, and resist the urge to drift into the catch-all and emotionally-charged world of “redesign.” It will only reduce clarity.

Call it what it is.
If you’re overhauling your entire brand strategy, it’s a rebrand (and the site design and content will be just a part of it.) If you’re migrating to a new platform, it’s a migration. If you’re updating the look and feel of your site, it’s a refresh. If you’re overhauling the entire structure, it’s just that: a restructure. Don’t dance around the topic. Put a stake in the ground, and be specific. It will pay off by keeping everyone focused, with little room for ambiguity.
Never launch it and leave it. 
Maintenance is queen with anything you build, from a house to a website. This is especially true with content. Don’t let your site become a tangled web of outdated and irrelevant articles.
Whenever content is involved, your project should include not only a strategy for the initial launch, but also a plan for everything from an editorial calendar to workflows and expiration dates. Have the “day two” conversation early in the process. In other words, what happens the day after the launch excitement wanes. With solid maintenance and attention, you won’t reach the point of needing a complete overhaul.
Adopt an iterative approach to your site.
This is where the cyclical part comes in. When something specific needs tweaking, resist the temptation to scrap everything under the generic guise of a “redesign.” Instead, cite strategic reasons for the change, align your team with project goals, call it what it is, drive your project accordingly, and then continue to iterate.
By iterating strategically over time, you’ll largely avoid having your site degrade to the point of needing a complete overhaul. And when the time does come for a bigger shift (yes, it happens), you’ll have strategic reasons to back it up and specific goals to measure against once the changes go live.

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