How to avoid a redesign failure

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June 22, 2011
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 without a very good reason for doing so. 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.

Cameron Chapman

Cameron Chapman is a freelance writer and designer from New England. You can visit her site or follow her on Twitter.

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