‘ReDesign’ is not a Dirty WordBy Dr. Mani Sivasubramanian
What do you Need to Know Before Redesigning Your Website?
The only constant is CHANGE. At least as far as your Website is concerned.
Some sites – like waves in an ocean – change many times every hour.
A few change – like the tides – once or twice in a day.
And many remain like stagnant backwaters – constant, changeless, desolated, ignored and largely unvisited!
Websurfers are an impatient lot. They thrive on excitement, instant gratification, constant variety and change. Nothing bores them more than a Website that stays the same day after day, week after week. Portals and community sites understand this fact and take advantage of it. Design changes come thick and fast. Website redesign is a way of daily – or at least monthly – life for them.
So the question is not WHETHER your site needs a redesign but instead WHEN and HOW OFTEN? In this article, I’ll discuss the many issues to be thought out, the many questions to be answered, and the different steps to be taken to redesign your Website.
Who needs this information anyway?
If you are a Web developer who designs Websites or consults with clients on their Web projects, you will doubtless be called in to modify and improve a site or maintain one needing frequent updates. If you own a Website or a business that has an online presence (and which ones don’t these days!), this information is invaluable when you plan improvements to your site.
So let’s get started. There are just three questions to ask yourself:
- What’s wrong with your site now?
- What can be improved?
- How best can you do it?
What’s Wrong With Your Site?
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But then it’s almost always broke. Or about to. So be wise and change – before you are forced to. There are many aspects to test for faults and drawbacks, and many ways to do it. You could:
- ask for feedback from users and visitors to your site
- conduct a formal usability test
- hire a consultant
Which you elect to use depends upon your needs, budget and the complexity of your business. Amazon.com might justifiably hire a consultant for $5000 an hour. You might do just as well for your niche Website with a feedback questionnaire to site visitors.
With any of these methods some basic principles remain the same.
- Define the goals of your study before you start. If you want to see how well your site sells products to customers, focus on how quickly and easily users can locate a product they are looking for, how painlessly they can complete the ordering process, how effectively visitors are converted into paying customers, how many potential customers are lost (leave your site without buying anything) and how likely they are to return to buy something again.
- Determine your user profile. Then evaluate your site using a group as similar as possible to the ultimate user. If your site markets health resorts for rich American retirees, don’t test it out with teenagers in Europe.
- Schedule the project and study. Determine a convenient time and place. Make sure your Website is up and running normally at that time.
- Prepare a set of questions or define a set of tasks that volunteers must go through. For instance, you could ask them to order 2 pairs of green nylon socks of a particular brand off your site and see how easy (or difficult) it is to do.
- Evaluate the data generated by the study with a critical eye. How can you improve each step, make things easier for users?
- Implement changes. Act on the information you have received.
- Repeat the process again. Fine tune, tweak, modify – until you are near- perfect!
What To Improve Upon In a Redesign
Just about EVERY aspect of a Website can be improved upon in one way or another.
The philosophy behind a redesign should be:
- respect for visitors to your Website
- near maximum accessibility
- a clean, attractive, distinctly recognizable appearance
- better scalability and ease of future maintenance
Before planning a redesign it may be worthwhile taking a hard look at the following areas:
- Design, layout, look-and-feel, brand
- Usability and navigation
- Audience reach
- Future expandability
- Ease of promotion
- Integrating new content, features and technology
- Revenue generating models
Designing Your Look and Feel
In the absence of face-to-face contact with your target audience the only way you imprint your image in a user’s mind is by your Website’s image. Regardless of your site’s purpose, a clean, uncluttered yet attractive layout can’t help but impress visitors.
One of the most common reasons to redesign a Website is to change the look and feel of the old site. How exactly this is achieved is too personal to generalize and depends entirely on the nature of your Website.
Some general principles apply:
- Your homepage could be simply decorative or instead be informative too.
- Consider minimizing the number of clicks a user needs to get to content.
- Use clear space around blocks of content to achieve a clean, uncluttered appearance.
- Employ graphics tastefully to enhance the user experience on your site.
- Don’t use technology for its own sake. But also remember that technology is expanding rapidly. More and more users have broadband internet access and desire a more visually appealing, immersive and interactive Web experience.
- Be obsessed with branding. Consistent use of colors, displaying your logo and tag-line on each page of your site and retaining a professional image helps users identify with your brand.
Usability and Navigation
As a Website grows with the addition of more content it becomes progressively more difficult to get around. Visitors are more likely to get lost in the maze and become increasingly frustrated. A Website redesign can do wonders for a site like this. By improving navigation tools and enhancing the user experience a redesign can magnify the site’s purpose enormously. Many excellent resources about designing Website navigation are available on this site.
Some concepts to keep in mind include:
- Keep navigation tools simple and intuitive. Deciding upon the choice of buttons and their placement on the page is important in reaching this end.
- The hierarchy must be ordered to minimize the number of clicks a user needs to make before reaching useful content.
- On extensive Websites an efficient search engine can make finding content a delightful task for users
The Web is International, has always been. But its rate of growth is different around the world. Newer audiences come online every day and have their unique preferences, characteristics and interests. As your popularity grows more people hear about your Website and visit it. Your business – and Website – might need to attract this ever-changing online population. A redesign might be the answer.
How can a redesign help you capture a new audience?
- Your new target audience might have interests and needs that you can satisfy by adding or modifying content on your Website.
- Content you’ve already added to your site might attract new visitors who are potential customers for your other services and products.
- Language is a barrier that can be easily overcome. By translating your content into other languages you can become visible to new customers.
- Web surfers may suffer handicaps that keep them from experiencing your content. Simple redesign elements may make your site accessible to them. For instance, by intelligently mixing colors of text and background on a site you may be able to reach out to color-blind viewers. By enabling your Website with sound or by avoiding the use of fixed-size fonts you can let people with visual impairment access your content.
- On the technical side, issues of browser compatibility may be of importance in maximizing your Website’s reach. If your site is designed using the latest cutting-edge technology that is extremely bandwidth intensive, you are losing the majority of web surfers who have ancient computers hooked to the Internet via slow dial-up connections.
- Another point to remember during the redesign process is to keep the new site backward compatible with the older existing content.
When you first created a Website perhaps you didn’t expect it to become as popular as it did. You plunged right in and did it. Now that it is generating so many page views, you want to make it better. (This not-too-uncommon scenario is what fuelled the first redesign of my own Website.) What’s more, you now know how difficult it is to start from scratch. You’d like to set things up so that it becomes easy to scale up your site if it gets even more famous. A redesign is your best chance to plan for future expansion and growth.
There are two elements to keep in mind:
- Organization of the entire site
- Design, Coding and Programming
A well thought-out hierarchical arrangement of content on your Website should let you grow and expand with very little difficulty. Brainstorm the possibilities. Consider which parts of the site may justifiably become more important over the next few years. Then work out a way to factor in such growth into your site design and layout. I’ll use my experience as an example. At my first redesign, my ezine had just 250 subscribers. Still I considered that an area of potential growth. Accordingly I planned for a system to archive past issues, invite new subscribers to join up and to sell advertising and sponsorships. Over time, as my ezine readership grew, this system permitted growth with very little added effort. The next issue – which is aimed at making life easier for the person who is in charge of maintaining the Website over time – is to plan a system by which site-wide changes can be made quickly and with the least effort.
There are several options:
- Some HTML editors allow changes to be made across Webpages by modifying a single file or inserting code into all pages of a site. The altered pages however have to be uploaded one at a time.
- By using FRAMES in the site design for the header or navigation bar, changes can be made across the whole site by altering the content of that FRAME alone.
- The best methods however are using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Server Side Includes (SSI).
CSS are a set of rules that are applied to elements of a Webpage. There are three categories of CSS – embedded, inline and linked (or external). By using external style sheets on every page of a Website, changes to the site’s look and feel can be made by simply changing the CSS file containing the rules. If the CSS rule set controlling, for example, TEXT or LINK elements is changed, all textual content of a site can be displayed in different fonts, sizes and even colors while links can be formatted to be bold, underlined, or show up in different colors – all by making a single alteration in JUST ONE CSS file. The creative use of Server Side Includes can allow even more versatility to the Website layout. SSI’s allow a file (which may be an entire .htm page) to be inserted into a specified portion of another Webpage. By making changes to a single SSI, changes can be reflected across the entire site. For instance if an SSI file is used for the site’s navigation bar, by changing that single file alone the entire navigation system of the Website could be revamped.
Ease of Promotion
For many Websites, search engines are an important source of traffic. A high ranking in these engines is therefore very desirable. But Search Engines keep changing their positioning algorithms ever so often. To retain a prominent position on them, websites need to be redesigned often too. At the time of a redesign a decision must be made about optimizing Webpages for the different Search Engines. Addition of META tags, insertion of a generous sprinkling of keywords, re-writing content to gain higher keyword density and modification of design and layout (such as placing the navigation bar on the right side of the page so that it shows up AFTER content in a text browser) are all effective tools to use in a redesign.
Another issue relevant to increasing site popularity is the accessibility of the best parts of a Website. By carefully analyzing Website access logs and tracking the path a visitor takes through a site, it is possible to map out the best and most useful pages. During a redesign every effort must be made to get these pages in front of the reader soon after they reach the site. These pages also must be among the first to get optimized to secure a prominent position on Search Engines and directories.
Integration – Content, Features, Technology
Websites grow by adding content, including new features and implementing technology. Pretty soon there’s chaos. A redesign offers an excellent opportunity to consolidate and put things back in order.
For existing content on your Website, you may:
- Re-structure. Rethinking your strategy lets you make major structural changes to your Website’s layout, design and pattern of arrangement of content.
- Re-purpose content. Archived articles could become features for an ezine issue. Discussion forum threads could become the nucleus of a topic review. Photographs of art pieces could be collected into a virtual gallery.
- Re-arrange content logically. To illustrate the point, a news site might redesign its archives to group all stories related to an event rather than simply ordering them by date.
- Reference content scattered across the site. Individual pieces of content about a particular topic or issue distributed around a site might be more useful to visitors if grouped together.
With growth comes differing needs. When a content site reaches critical mass, adding community to it makes sense. An online merchant will benefit from building a mailing list to which s/he can announce special offers and deals. Launching an ezine lets a scientific research site inform members about recent developments. Starting discussion groups allows virtual communities to stay in touch.
Employing New Technology
Technology changes very rapidly on the Web. Some developments are exciting and revolutionary. Others fade away as suddenly as they arrived. Redesigning your site lets you experiment with new technology.
If your site offers stock quotes, the Mobile Wireless Internet gives you a chance to reach customers with the latest developments – instantly, anywhere. If you offer video movie downloads, the growing number of DSL subscribers is good news for you – and merits a redesign.
It is always a good idea to follow the revenue stream !
Although there are oh-so-many ways to make money from a Website, the sad truth is that most sites DO NOT. The reasons are varied, but essentially not every method of revenue generation is suitable for a given site. So when you’ve identified a money making strategy for your Website, you’d be best advised to make the most of it. Which means you need to redesign your site to leverage that advantage to the hilt.
If you notice banner advertisements working well for you, you might consider revamping the design to allow banner placement at the location most likely to be attractive to advertisers and generate the best response from users. However if the content on your site is its major attraction, your focus would be to make design changes to keep irrelevant elements like advertisements from obscuring the content.
On a shopping site the redesign process will be entirely different. The ultimate aim here will be to generate more sales from visitors. Streamlining the search and ordering process, and driving casual users towards the products most likely to interest them is the priority here.
How Best can you Redesign Your Website?
The choice is obvious – do it yourself or outsource it to a professional.
In the first instance, reference to the issues discussed earlier tempered with common sense, flexibility and an open mind will do wonders for your new-look site.
If you decide to outsource the job, there are a few more things to keep in mind.
- Consider what you’d do differently. Make a list of the areas you’d like to redesign, and suggest the modifications you wish to see implemented.
- Communicate these ideas effectively to the designer/developer.
- Have a written contract signed by both sides to prevent litigation.
- The agreement should define:
- the job descriptions (who will do what)
- how the work will be done and the time frame involved
- the costs
- who owns the material created, especially intellectual property.
Tips and Tricks For a Successful Redesign
- However you decide to carry out your redesign, make sure to do it all separately from your existing Website. The use of a development server mimics the live-environment in a realistic manner. Another option is to use a password-protected section of your own site or on a restricted Intranet.
- ALWAYS keep a backup copy of your old Website. Then in the unfortunate event of a disaster with the new design, you at least have the older version to fall back upon!
- Get feedback from a small subset of users before going "live". This gives you an opportunity to fix any bugs and make some last minute tweaks to the new site.
- Create a Frequently Asked Questions section for existing customers and members that describes your redesign and explains any changes in the way your new system works.
- Check your competitor’s Website for ideas.
- Consider changing your Web hosting service or your Website’s operating platform if the changes you made necessitate it.
- Continue to request feedback from users… You’ll need it for the next redesign!