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Pitfalls of Web Redesign

By Eileen "Turtle" Parzek
Posted Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Now that we are a half-decade into the web as mass media, it is apparent that redesigning is a necessary part of the business of web development. Most sites are redesigned multiple times -- getting better, and occasionally worse, each time out. Sometimes, a redesign comes about as the site owners are evolving from "the kid down the street did my web site" to "it's time to hire a professional." More often it's a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Creating, maintaining and owning a web site is a learning experience, because the web is always a moving target. Redesign is to be expected.

When the decision is made to redesign an existing site, the process is similar to creating a new one -- with the latest technologies, design issues, and planning processes all taken into consideration. But there are pitfalls that can be avoided -- most of which I've experienced either through my own learning or observation. Keeping these things in mind will help ensure that you aren't thinking "redesign it again" even before the last pixel has dried.

Redesigning for redesigns sake

Ask yourself why, exactly, you need to do this, and come up with a legitimate list of improvements you wish to make. It's a known fact that web users get comfortable with a certain design and layout over time, even if a mess was what they had gotten used to. When you redesign, you will be shaking up a few change-resistant folks, and you might lose some of them. Don't let that fear stop you from redesigning, just ask the question "will I alienate more visitors with the redesign, than I might gain or keep by making the changes I am considering?" If the answer is yes, think carefully about what it is you hope to accomplish. menu

Not taking advantage of your current users

When you first created your site, chances are you weren't sure exactly what the results would be or who your users would be, you just knew who you thought you wanted to reach and to serve. Now look at what you have going for -- an audience -- a resource that can be tapped into prior to creating the new site. Don't underestimate the power of user feedback prior to your redesign! If you have been collecting user information along the way, now is the time to go back and ask those users what they would like to see, what they don't like about your site, and how the site might be improved. If you have been the recipient of user feedback all along, set aside the time to cull through all of it, looking for direction. Put a well thought out survey on your existing site for a month or two, to solicit specific answers and opinions to your redesign issues. Your visitors are your customers, and they are often the quantifiable wealth of your site -- so listen to what they are saying. menu

Ignoring the competition

Chances are if you have competition at all, they also have a web site. Planning for a redesign would be a really good time to evaluate those sites again. Ask your users about which other sites they consider to be good, and why, and survey the people involved in the redesign to see what they think. Spend time studying the competition's sites to see what you might do even better, yourself. menu

Forgetting the stats

Your accumulated traffic and browser statistics are an invaluable piece of information for planning your redesign. The first impulse when redesigning a site is to throw new bells and whistles into the new site in order to be current and cutting edge. But before you do that, its important that you investigate whether your existing audience will actually appreciate, benefit from, or even be able to use your new site. Any pre-existing site should have a treasure trove of data for you to analyze, pertaining to operating systems, browsers and browser versions. Study this information and know what your audience can handle, before you make decisions on implementing newer technologies. menu

Not being visionary

It's a given that the web will seem to be whole 'nother animal in six months to a year. Not understanding where its going, and not having your finger on the web's pulse, might lead you to go through the whole redesign process again, much sooner than you had expected. Anticipate and plan your new site to be flexible and scalable. Similarly, take a visionary focus in regards to the subject matter of your site -- do you know where it will be growing in the near future? Plan for it, wherever possible, in your redesign. Just keep in mind that there will be time, and room, to add new features later, if you have determined that your audience isn't ready for it yet. Strike a good balance in your planning. menu

Not allowing for a thorough planning phase

My experience has been that any site, new or redesign, should have a planning phase that involves approximately 30% of the entire project -- from first thought to launch. There are entire books and much longer articles written about how to plan web design projects, but some of the questions and issues to answer would be:

* What is your goal in doing this redesign?
* What is your budget? What can you afford now, and what can (or must) you wait for in the next redesign?
* What are your constraints -- speed, browser ceiling, technologies, color palette, page size -- based on what you know of your audience?
* What will be the content? What changes, what stays, what will be new, and what goes out the window?

Everyone who will be involved in the site's development should be involved in this planning. There is nothing worse than having an entire site planned around one or more impossible targets, so propose ideas for functionality and ASK the people who will actually have to implement it, for their input about feasibility, budget, and time.

Of course, the goal of the planning phase should be to have a fully planned out blueprint before the first new line of code is written. This blueprint can make huge difference in the time spent getting the site put together, by providing a clearly defined architecture and design plan. The client or boss will have a clear understanding what they are paying for and what to expect in the end. The designers will have architecture to create around and will understand what they are responsible for designing. The programmers and/or database developers and coders will love you for providing them with a clear plan and a goal to drive towards menu

Endless tweaking

One pit that many re-designers fall into is that they never 'finish' a redesign -- they continuously fiddle with it forever after the testing phase and the public launch. Obviously, it's necessary to fix glaring problems you discover, but let the users begin to get comfortable with the new site. Trust that if you did your homework, planned the site carefully, designed it within the constraints you set for yourself and tested it thoroughly, it's okay to let it be for a while. Continue to gather feedback, and observe traffic patterns and statistics, and even plan for the next redesign if you must, but resist the urge to tweak. Let the new site mature. Rest assured, you will redesign again. And

Not documenting as you go

The first time your site was created, odds are it was kludged together on the fly, without a lot of planning. Now is your chance to plan, and while you plan, document. Imagine how much easier future tweaks will be if you have it all laid out clearly and document how things were put together. Think how much smoother everything will go if standards for the site are documented. Wouldn't it be nice to not have to dig around later to figure out what font was used in the graphics you inherited? If your site is of the web-application variety, keep copious notes during the entire process, which can form the foundation of the user documentation that will be written for your new site. Comment, comment, comment your code -- for your own sanity, for your team members to follow, and for future revisions. And of course, there is the C.Y.A. rule to consider -- save your correspondence, take notes, and document all the way through, and you will be closer to staying within scope and having the info you need to explain what you are doing along the way. Don't miss this opportunity to make everyone involved in a site have a less stressful life!

Unlike the early days of web design, the industry now has matured and grown up to a point where there are standards and processes in place for much of what we are in the business of doing. As overall size and complexity of the web sites and applications we build, grows, the best way to stay in control of them is to organize, anticipate, learn and listen. By tapping our peer's learning experiences, we can avoid many of the pitfalls along the way and hopefully only have to contend with the new ones that our rapidly changing industry tosses our way!

About the Author
Eileen Parzek, better known on the web as "Turtle", is the owner of SOHO It Goes! a virtual business supporting entrepreneurs and small business through design, communications and technology.


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