Originally published at: http://www.sitepoint.com/3-painful-site-redesign-disasters/
(and what we can learn from them)
It’s an old story: After years of the same musty, old site design, trumpets sound, angels sing and a glorious, new, cutting-edge redesign is unveiled by proud site owners.
However, instead of grateful, joyous cheers, the criticism starts to pour in. Perhaps it’s dumbfounded silence at first, before gradually building to angry tirades.
Of course, the relative success of a site redesign is often largely subjective – a glance at our wardrobes or music collections tells us that tastes differ, and what one person adores might be hated by others.
However, even allowing for this subjectivity, history is already littered with epic site redesign failures. Web design is still in its infancy, but it isn’t hard to compile a Top 100, if not Top 1,000 site redesign failures, and the criteria for these are anything but subjective.
Using metrics such as plummeting traffic or dramatically decreased conversions, it becomes clear that – even if many insist they like the new design – if users leave the site, the redesign is a failure. Of course, few humans to flaunt their disasters, so the real data describing these failures is frequently kept confidential, making it more difficult to learn from their mistakes.
Instead, we need to make do with publicly accessible signals, such as clear functional failures, or broken features, or public traffic ranking service such as Alexa or Comscore. None of this is precise but for grand failures even these indirect indicators show unambiguously that the idea to redesign wasn’t the brightest one.
While none of us are immune to failure, sometimes the mistakes made that led to other sites’ disasters are easy to avoid. Better to learn from others’ bruises than to get your own.
If there is anything good about redesign failures – be it your own, or other’s – it’s a rare opportunity to learn. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of learning materials in this area. Today I picked 3 classic disasters to review in more depth.
1. How Digg Dug Its Own Grave
I suspect one of the most notorious redesign failures of all time is the redesign of Digg, the popular social bookmarking site. In 2010, after years of reigning as the most highly-trafficked social bookmarking site, Digg decided it was time for a change.
In 2010, Facebook and Twitter were all the rage. Understandably, Digg decided to re-focus its service with a stronger emphasis on social networking than social bookmarking. They wanted to make it easier to share content with your friends and to follow what they have shared.
Instead of having one centralized ‘link stock market’ where the opinions of a small cabal of elite power-users outranked everybody else, the Digg redesign was designed to redistributed voting power so users were far more influenced by what their friends had shared.
This sounds like a noble concept, and a logical approach to breaking the monopoly of a small group of users that had ‘gamed the system’, right?
Unfortunately the shift to content prioritized by your friends list didn’t work simply because most users didn’t have an active, robust friends networks on Digg. By 2010 most people already had well-established social networks delivering them more news than most could read. Why would they need to start another one on Digg?
This change in core logic led to a drastic drop in viewers as the new logic required users to change their habits. All evidence appears to be that most decided not to. If you want to socialize with your friends, you go to Facebook and Twitter. If you want to bookmark content, or see trending topics, you go to Reddit or Stumbleupon or Slashdot.
Digg’s attempt to offer the best of both worlds (i.e. social networking and social bookmarking) actually turned into offering the best of neither of them.
The discontent was so marked that some reports state that Digg lost over a quarter of its audience over the change. In the first months of its launch, Digg’s traffic dropped 26% in the U.S. and 34% in the U.K.
For truth’s sake, later Digg managed to at least partially restore its positions. Later redesigns were better received but never able to return Digg to its former glory. Many have argued Digg had been in decline regardless.
Although you can’t slate all the blame to the redesign, Digg’s market valuation certainly took a massive hit through the ordeal. In 2008 the site value was valued at around $160 million, but in 2012 it was sold for the whooping amount of half a million. That is some nasty math.
At present the homepage of Digg looks like just another blog with intros to articles, the difference being that these articles are on other sites. Digg has lost much of its distinctive look. Traffic data may well be solid, but it has lost much of its rusted on community.
Digg was big but it didn’t have the monopoly on social bookmarking. If you remember, Facebook had one of its major redesign at more or less the same time, which was also met with a huge backlash from its users.
However, Digg was never to social bookmarking what Facebook is to social networking. Facebook’s almost-monopoly on social networking saw users continue to use it, even when stating they hated the new design.
The lesson to take from Digg’s failure is that huge changes in business logic can alienated users. The fact that the new redesign was very buggy on launch didn’t help either – first impressions count. Even the clear improvements that the redesign introduced, such as streamlined link posting, were not enough to staunch the bleeding.
It’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened if Digg didn’t redesign. My personal opinion is that it would have been a slower death. The smell of a system being gamed was becoming more and more obvious to regular users.
If Digg had remained on this path its relevance would have likely faded over time. With the redesign, its traffic dropped fast and it was a quick death. Though the redesign failed to achieve it’s goals, it’s hard to fault them for trying.
Perhaps they simply waited too long to begin – a 2007 social Digg may have competed very successfully against an infant Twitter and an adolescent Facebook.