Do we really need to keep all this stuff? Can we throw some stuff away before we move in?

When we pack our belongings to move to a new apartment or house, we often take stock of our posessions and choose to throw a lot of useless stuff away. We lighten our load so that when we move into our new home we can begin anew without all that extra baggage, and so we can do more with the stuff we have.

So why can’t many companies do this when they redesign their web sites? Why are so many sites “trapped” with their current feature set?

A decade ago, every company realized that they had to have a feature-rich web site. As time went on, these sites felt the need to add more and more features and content so they could stand out from their competition and please their investors.

Now, in 2006, if your company has a web site that looks tired and dated, a cosmetic redesign is probably a good idea — at the very least to make your site look up-to-date and contemporary. But what do you do with all of the content and features you’ve added over the years? Should you just lug it all with you every time you redesign, in a vicious cycle? Forever?

The natural assumption is, of course, to simply import the old features into the new site’s design. But maybe your business should instead ask itself “What features can we get rid of in our redesign?” You see, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that over five or ten years a site might have added stuff that isn’t strategically necessary any longer. A lot of stuff. Maintaining these features might, in fact, be more costly than losing them.

A few months ago, 37signals suggested cutting your site in half by reducing the verbiage and content of your site. That’s great advice. But maybe you should also cut out entire sections and features, in the same way that a department store whose focus is on clothing might decide to stop selling appliances, or a newspaper with a growing national focus may stop covering local high school sports.

Overcoming Inertia

The obstacles to this, of course, are several:

  • First, there is the concern that there may be existing customers who use or rely on these features, and who will be angered by their removal.
  • Second, there are likely employees of your company whose jobs rely, at least in part, on the maintenance of these features.
  • Finally, there may be managers and stakeholders within an organization who would be disappointed to hear that their expensive newly-redesigned web site has, in fact, fewer features than their old one did.

The first item is easy to solve through simple metrics: check your site logs and customer accounts, talk to the sales and marketing people, and measure the success of these features both in terms of actual usage and revenue generated (versus cost of maintenance). If the numbers don’t make the case, and if there is no future business strategy for changing the situation, then the features can probably be safely removed. Some customers may be disappointed, but if the removal allows your team to focus on improving other more useful features, then the tradeoff will be worth it.

The latter two items are more difficult but the solution is the same. They are both political and organizational concerns, but if a decision can be made based on cold hard numbers, the politics can typically be set aside.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

The hardest part is allowing your organization to ask the question in the first place. For every web site redesign, there must be an initial project phase where the existing site’s features are examined coldly, one at a time, with the specific objective of deciding if those features will live or die in the site redesign. This process should be done openly, with participation by all important stakeholders. And the bias should be towards eliminating features.

The problem, you see, is that the decision about whether a web site feature will live or die in a web site redesign is typically never even made. Nobody ever even asks the question, and it is assumed that each existing feature has to be maintained forever.

Gut instinct is still a great business tool.

Of course the value of a great many web site features is hard, sometimes even impossible to measure: Some features may be of enormous branding value even though they get no clicks, while others may get lots of clicks by disappointed users who thought the feature was something its not. These decisions are analogous to many other business decisions where vision and leadership are more powerful tools than spreadsheets and site logs. Making this kind of decision may come down to pure gut instinct by the web site’s very top decision makers (based on advice from the the design team, the technology team, editorial, sales, and all other stakeholders). Sometimes one person needs to make these calls, often against the will of others. This gut decision cannot be made at all, however, unless the project’s methodology puts the existing site’s features in the crucible from day one.


10 responses to “The Vicious Cycle of Web Redesign”

  1. Paul Ford Avatar
    Paul Ford

    What my corporate website needs is not less but MORE sketches of the Republican Party in a strap-on, pounding the ass of conservative voters.

    I’d like an RFP (Request for Penetration) delivered pronto.

  2. that looks alot like my house at the moment… I’d never drawn a parallel between moving house and redesigning a website though… probably because I *hate* moving house so much!

    nice post chris ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I simply HAD to post on this topic!

    We have another website – we do GC Lottery Facilitation (no need to go into the politics PLEASE) and we redesigned our site approx 10 times in 2 years. We added more languages, we changed the way the forms work, we added additional backend features, we added an automated photo upload etc. We changed a million things and each redesign cost us tons of cash, but we did it cause we thought it would add value to the end user.

    We did not however balance the cost of redesigning (each time) with the added value (and if we had done so I doubt we would have redesigned as often as we did).

    However, the main problem that crept up on us was the fact that with each redesign – we never deleted the old design from our server so we have 4-6 complete websites in different folders and a jumbled mess on our server – making it a complete nightmare to ftp anything.

    You can see our old designs at the wayback machine (for convenience here is the link):*/

    Anyway, the point is twofold: 1. future websites will be designed correctly from the start (to avoid numerous add-ons and chaos) and 2. break even point should be reached before investing huge capital in a redesign. I guess you could call this learning the hard way.

    Sorry for the long post. ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Nancy: It’s easier to redesign a site when the content is separated from the design, which might avoid the multiple-site problem you have. But it adds the risk that more people will think that because the content is portable that it’s a good idea to just move the content from the old design to the new.

  5. This isn’t that tough, Nancy. The problem is your IA. Where is it??? Assess and Structure the content first, then do a rough POC. Move into building the site after. I thought this was standard, but apparently you need to outsource.

  6. tkepler Avatar

    Shorty – I wish it was standard, but I’ve never worked for a client who saw the value in the two-tiered approach you describe. Everyone wants to get something new (or fresh) out there right away, and then flesh it out. As a web designer, I find that this reliably leaves me stuck somewhere down the line when they want something that clearly doesn’t fit properly into the whipped-together design they wanted in the first place. I try to talk them out of it, they decide this is what they really want despite my warnings, and I keep every e-mail I send so I’ll have proof later. It’s a delicate dance we do together.

    Content is SO much more important in a site than design (this comes from a designer, too!). Trying to teach clients not only about the potential future scope of their site, but how to think flexibly about that without making them feel boxed in is a real exercise in crowd management.

    I wish Nancy’s comments that in the future sites will be designed properly from the start brought me comfort. Unfortunately, I think as long as non-techs are making business decisions about the structure, design and content of the site (yeah, that’s a lot of switchbacks, I know) and techs are generally unable to communicate their thoughts in business speak, these misunderstandings will continue. It’s less about site design and more about simple communication between two VERY different groups of people with the same goal. It’s too bad, because I think a lot of people try very earnestly to communicate well with the other camp. But the language of one often uses a word for one thing that means a different thing to the other, and the comedy continues.

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