How to avoid redesign failure

We’ve all seen or heard about the horrors of failed redesigns. Regardless of the size or scale of a site, any redesign is frought with potential perils and pitfalls. Alienating your existing users is probably one of the biggest dangers of any redesign project.

Of course, the larger the site, the greater this danger becomes. But even a small site can suffer from ill-will if they don’t consider their existing visitors when tackling a redesign project.

The following guide should keep you on the right path for creating a revamped and re-imagined site that keeps your users happy.

And if you’ve already found yourself in the midst of a failed redesign, we’ve got help for you, too.

Redesign right

When you decide a redesign is necessary for your website or web app, there are a number of things you need to consider beyond the technical aspects. Remember, your site likely already has regular visitors or regular users, and they’ve come to expect certain things when they visit your site. You need a good reason for changing those things, and you need to take them into account when starting on your redesign and throughout the process.

Communicate with your existing users from the beginning

Unlike a new site design, a site being redesigned likely already has a user base. Involving that user base from the beginning on your redesign can result in a much better user experience in the end. After all, these are the people who are already using your site, who are already familiar with what you have. Sure, some people are resistant to change in any form, but others may be able to offer you some fantastic insight into what’s great as-is and what could use some revamping.

It’s important to take into account the way visitors use your existing site. Just because you wanted them to use the site in a particular way doesn’t mean that’s necessarily the way it’s being used in the real world. Take this into account when you’re redesigning, and don’t break existing user patterns.

Test for both new and existing users

Conventional testing wisdom often says you should only test on new users to get the most accurate results. This is a great strategy if you’re testing something like a sales page. But if you’re redesigning your entire website, you want to get feedback from people who are already using your site. The last thing you want is to launch a redesign and alienate every existing user you have.

Let your existing visitors know that you’re testing out a new site. Consider giving them the option to test the new site if they choose to do so, and then ask for some unobtrusive feedback in the form of a survey or similar mechanism. Then, listen to what they’re saying.

Let users upgrade on their own schedule

This is particularly important with more app-like sites. Letting users switch to the new site version on their own schedule is a great way to prevent complaints. Social media sites are probably the most common sites to do this type of thing (like Twitter did with their new layout). This prevents surprises for your existing users, and lets them make the switch when they have time to get used to the new interface.

It’s important to set a deadline for the switch, though. Make sure you let users know that they can switch any time between now and some future date, and let them know that on that future date everyone will get the new interface. This prevents surprises while also preventing stragglers from requiring you to support the old site indefinitely.

Make it easy for users to offer feedback after the change

There are a ton of tools out there for collecting user feedback. Use them to find out what your visitors like and don’t like as you launch or as you’re testing. Then, make sure you address anything that’s raised by more than a handful of visitors. Remember, for every visitor who voices a concern, there could be dozens who feel the same way who aren’t saying anything.

Make your reasons for redesigning clear

It’s important to let your regular visitors know that you have reasons for redesigning your site. Too many people who aren’t familiar with the technical aspects of running a website think redesigns are purely for aesthetic reasons. Let them know what functionality you aim to add or what user interface improvements you’ll be making before the fact. A blog post addressing your redesign plans can be a great way to open up a dialogue with regular visitors and users.

Offer a tour or tutorial for any major user interface changes

If you’re changing the way parts of your website work, or drastically rearranging elements on the page, it’s a good idea to offer a video or other tutorial or tour of the new design and features. This can help your existing users quickly adapt to the new design, and feel less alienated. It gives the impression that you care about the experience your users are having, and that you want that experience to be as good as it can possibly be.

What if your redesign has already failed?

So you’ve launched your redesigned site already, and now all you’re hearing is complaints from new and old visitors alike. What do you do? Should you just go back to the old site and try again? What if that’s not an option, or you’ve invested thousands of dollars and months of time in the new site? What then?

It’s all about damage control

The first thing you need to do is acknowledge that your redesign hasn’t gone over well with everyone. Let people know that you hear what they’re saying and that you’re considering their concerns. Whether you do this through Twitter, your blog, or some other outlet depends on where you can reach the highest number of your users.

Acknowledge and address complaints

Acknowledge specific complaints if you can. If everyone is complaining about how a certain function is hard to find, then address that. There are a few ways to do that: you can simply post on your blog or send out an email about it with any helpful information or tips, or you can make a change to make it easier on your visitors. If it’s a really big problem, making a change is probably the better solution.

Don’t be afraid to roll back

If there are huge complaints, or if you see that your traffic numbers are going down, don’t be afraid to roll back parts or all of your site to the previous version until fixes can be implemented. If your website’s success is suffering because of a redesign, there’s no sense in sticking to the new design. You’re better off rolling back and acknowledging that your visitors are unhappy (and therefore showing that you place user experience above all else) rather than trying to blindly insist that the new site is better.

Monitor carefully

Whenever you’re launching a new design, it’s important to track your analytics carefully. Set up goals and funnels for various functions on your site, and then make sure the you’re not suddenly losing a lot of visitors at a particular point.

Analytics can help you make proactive changes to your site, anticipating what visitors are getting hung up on. Make sure you have some baseline statistics to refer to and compare.

Also monitor the tone of social media posts about your redesign. If you see a lot of complaints circulating, or even a lot of confusion, be proactive and engage with those people. It’s important to be engaged throughout a redesign so that your users know you’re making changes in an effort to benefit them, and not just for some undefined goal.

Recently I was reading a list of copywriting guidelines on how to make web pages attract and keep a reader’s attention. The list contained familiar items you’ve probably seen before: write a catchy headline, talk benefits vs features, and focus on a single message instead of many.

One recommendation, however, rang false to me: keep your text short. The author recommends this because “People don’t read on the Web”. Instead, the author claimed, they “scan” text instead.

There are several problems with this assumption, however. First, people do actually read on the Web…scanning is simply the first step in the process. Second, short text can be just as poorly written as long text (and often is). Third, people actually seek out and enjoy reading longer texts.

People Scan First, then Read

The fact that people scan when on the Web has little to do with length of text. The act of scanning, or glancing through and quickly examining headlines, subheadlines and other emphasized text, is not a substitute for reading: it’s merely the first step of reading. People scan quickly to find the good stuff…it’s the most efficient way to find it.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, we are incredibly efficient at finding information on the Web. Once the scanning bears fruit and we find a headline delivering the promise we’re looking for, we slow down and begin reading word for word for more detail. We dive in. We might not read long…only long enough to find an answer…but we are “reading” at this point. And if the piece is longer, such as a piece from a newspaper or magazine, we might read all of it.

It’s not so much that people don’t read, it’s that we start by scanning large amounts of information for the good stuff. Then, and only then, do we dive in and read.

Text Length doesn’t Equal Quality

For a bad writer short copy is easier to write than long copy. They simply stop writing sooner. All things being equal short text is preferable to long text, but since when are all things equal?

It is important how short text gets short. If text is kept short merely to stay within the guideline, chances are it doesn’t do all that it needs to do. But if text is short as the result of careful writing and revision, with a strict adherence to saying all that is necessary as briefly as possible, then your text won’t just be short, it will also be good. (and thus read)

Short copy shouldn’t be a goal, it should be an ideal. Like Einstein’s famous quip “make it as simple as possible, but not simpler”, in writing we want to “write as concisely as possible, but don’t leave anything out”.

People Enjoy Longer Texts

Finally, people often enjoy longer texts. Given the choice between a well-written short piece of text and a well-written longer piece of text, many would choose the longer version because it naturally has more of what the reader wants to know. It answers more questions. It goes in depth and provides context and detail. People who are truly interested in a topic will read everything they can about it. How often do you hear people say things like Sunday is my time to sit down with the paper (or an iPad) and read what I didn’t have time to read before?

Additionally, e-readers like the Kindle, the Nook, and the iPad are exploding in use, while services like Instapaper also suggest that people desire to read longer texts with less distraction. In this way longer text can become a powerful differentiator…if you are telling an interesting story and your competitor isn’t then you’ve got an upper hand. Take, for example, the power of writing in Groupon.

In conclusion, explaining people’s behavior on the web as simply “scanning” is too simplistic. Short text can be as poorly written as long text, and in some cases short text is less desirable than longer, well-written text.

Writing well often means writing short text. But writing short text doesn’t mean you’re writing well.

Typography is defined as the style, arrangement, or appearance of typeset matter. A look around your surroundings will reveal how much typography has influenced the world. But does it matter, particularly with the likes of YouTube, Flickr, and other forms of media growing so rapidly?

It doesn’t have depth, color, motion. It doesn’t generate feelings or emotions. It provides us with information; line after line of monotonous information. It’s text!

The YouTubes, Vimeos, Flickrs, and Instagrams of today’s generation feed those who want to forget about typography. They want information with visual and audible cues. As one would expect, gobs of text doesn’t exactly inspire them.

But the Web is still young. Things are growing at a rapid pace, much faster than before. We could, in a large part, thank Internet Explorer 6′s demise for this progression. Now we have the freedom to run wild, explore our creativity, and make typography something that does more than present information.

Will we take advantage of this rare opportunity?

Time is of the essence

Remember back to a time before there was broadband. Remember how impressive it was to see big blobs of information after clicking on this thing called a “webpage.” Sure, there wasn’t much in the way of images, sparkly graphics, or video — and also not much in the way of distraction, either — but there was a great sense of appreciation to be had; this is a new world of information, and it’s all accessible with the tap of a fingertip. Sure, it might have taken a bit longer than it does today, but when all was said and done, we were all floating on cloud nine.

That was then.

It no longer has the same magical feel that it once had. I know that I take it for granted. Maybe we all do. We expect images, videos, and visual feedback. We want things to gracefully fade in and out. We want to see the subject matter, in as many pixels as our screens will allow. And we want to see video, just in case the point wasn’t made clear the first time (bonus points if you include cute kittens).

We expect more than we did back then — rightfully so; this is 2011, and we have the technologies available to us as developers and consumers to enjoy information and new and inspiring ways.

Beautiful typography stands out throughout Mattt Thompson‘s personal website.

Designers and developers are producing content for a new age of consumerism. Those consumers don’t have all day to sift through information. There is too much of it. We know that. What we spent hours doing a decade ago, they spend mere minutes, if they can even last that long. They want information, and they want it now, and they want it in easily digestible formats that will get them in and out in the fastest way possible. If this means writing something in three pages that normally required three hundred, then so be it. They don’t have time to watch 10 minute long YouTube videos — they want it in a single minute.

In the battle for attention, the “TL;DR” is the admission that the battle has been lost. Yes, this ADHD-filled world is going to take its toll on the Web. It’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.

So who has time for text? We have audio and video at our disposal. It can present information much faster than text could. Indeed, whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words was not lying; people these days prefer it that way.

But what if there was a way to regain their attention using nothing more than typography?

Typography’s resurgence

Thanks to a growing number of improvements in Web typography, we might not have to worry about the fate of the written word. Instead of diminishing the value of typography, we are seeing a resurgence in it. Interest in typography, especially from Web designers, has skyrocketed. The tools used to render typographical elements are improving — from enhancements introduced and continually developing with CSS3 to JavaScript tools like Lettering.js and jQuery. It is now feasible to create a webpages that look beautiful by using nothing more than a little vision, creativity, code, and typographical know how.

CSS3 has introduced a fair share of flair for typographers. A number of new properties have enabled them to radically expand their usage of typographical elements: transform, transition, column, text-shadow, rotate, and blur properties are just to name a few. The @font-face property, in particular, has also done plenty for Web designers that services like TypeKit are now solely geared towards supplying Web designers with beautiful, Web-ready fonts, something that wasn’t even possible a few years ago.

Designing Monsters uses CSS3 to create bold, eye-catching typography.

JavaScript is also contributing to typography’s resurgence. Lettering.js, in particular, is one of a few tools that have been produced to aid in the creation of beautiful typography on the Web. A JavaScript library called jQuery, which is arguably one of the most discussed on the Web these days, is also stirring things up. JavaScript doesn’t have all of the limitations that CSS3 has, particularly when it comes to the Web browser support; it isn’t perfect, but it gives Web designers more abilities to expand their typographical ambitions.

All of this has culminated into a plethora of typographical experiments that look beautiful in native Web browsing environments (if the given browsers support CSS3 and JavaScript); however, many of these impressive experiments lack consistency throughout the browser market. Some experiments result in variances in different browsers, others won’t render at all.

Unfortunately, this leads to questions as to whether or not all of CSS3′s latest features are ready for the primetime. Sure, Web developers will freely explore their creativity on personal websites; however, exploring these advanced features on a site that receives thousands to millions of hits on a daily basis is risky without planning for the worst case scenarios.

There is plenty of optimism, though. It just might take awhile before we see something like this, this, this, or even this appearing on your everyday webpage.

The future

There are many questions about the Web’s future. What impacts will the rise of video have on media consumption. What impact will the drastic increase in media being presented to users have (and will those consuming it be able to manage)? What will the transition to mobile devices bring? How will the open Web compete with application platforms like iOS and Android?

Naz Hamid utilizes the latest techniques to create a stunning typographical experience.

But the question about whether text/typography will be relevant in the future, that is simple: text is one of the best ways to present information. Web typography will continue to make advances that will ensure that the look of text on the websites will remain fresh and beautiful as ever. Also, the way we perceive text will adapt to these improvements.

Embrace all of the various media formats, but remember that typography is still the most important type of media that exists on the Web today. It was there when it started, it’s here now, and it will continue to be for the distant future. So be sure to explore ways to continually maximize its beauty and usefulness.

Written exclusively for WDD by James Mowery.