Web site redesigns originate for unique reasons, but fundamentally they fall into two distinct categories: the right and the wrong.
Working early in my career for the joint venture of CNN and Sports Illustrated, cnnsi.com, I was on a team that led several redesigns. Why several? The executive leadership changed frequently, to the point that we could set our watches to the timing of a new redesign starting upon arrival of the next President or Managing Editor. A classic example of redesigning for the wrong reasons -- because some executive needed to put their stamp on the site like a dog marking its front yard.
This is the first in a series about rational redesigns -- those that originate for the right reasons and manage to avoid some common mistakes along the way. Ultimately a rational redesign delivers true value to an organization, instead of simply consuming time and money for window dressing.
Most of the right reasons for redesigning a site carry an objective goal, such as:
- Increasing conversion rate for registrations or product purchases
- Improving user experience on mobile devices
- Putting the focus on core content and removing non-performing clutter
- A shift in overall company strategy toward a new product or service
- Migration from an inflexible legacy CMS to a modern framework like Drupal
Subjective reasons, such as an executive thinking the current site is "ugly" can certainly be addressed with a redesign. But to be successful, the beauty is best tied to a rational and measurable purpose similar to those covered by Mediacurrent's Dawn Borglund in her recent blog post.
I still remember a late '90s redesign project as a good example of one that originated for solid reasons, even though the design holds up to today's standards about as well as the pager I sported at the time. As the first Webmaster for Major League Soccer, I was tasked with converting a brochure-ware site into a destination for current league news and information. The league's initial site, built and maintained by a graphic design firm, was par for the course in the olden days of the Web. It had a black background with white text and plenty of pointless graphics and Flash for the sake of Flash. All of the broken images and plugins in an archive.org snapshot serve as evidence.
Content was an afterthought, buried behind the graphics and often posted several days late. The redesign focused on bringing the content, the teams and the players to the forefront, and getting the news out to fans at a time when media coverage of the young league was scarce. Simple adjustments brought the right focus to the homepage. The scoreboard was updated after every goal, the standings after every game. The HTML structure was refactored (yes, it was hand-edited HTML back then) to ensure that league news and game stories could be published quickly -- stories that the league would then feed to the Associated Press and USA Today to appear, often verbatim, in the next day's newspapers around the country.
Though the new design certainly never deserved any awards (nor would those of any of the other professional sports leagues at the time), the project served its purpose. While the league's in-stadium attendance was dropping year-over-year, the new Web site's traffic grew. The focus on content turned the site into a destination for fans who couldn't find much coverage elsewhere on the Web.
While the tools available to Webmasters have come a long way since the days of Netscape 3.0, the fundamentals of successful site building remain. Finding the right strategy first, before deciding how to wrap it with modern design and technology, turns the project into a rational one.