Radical vs. Incremental Website Change

How Do You Decide When to Redesign Your Website?

“Since user experience is a quality discipline, there is much to be said for incremental design changes, since we know from extensive QA research that continuous improvement is known to lead to high-quality products. On the other hand, there’s also much to be said for improving everything at once and potentially achieve a much higher quality boost than would result from any one incremental quality tweak.”

— Hoa Loranger, NN/g

Whether you have some amount of influence or are a final decision-maker, if you have something to do with deciding when and whether-or-not to rebuild your organization’s website, please read the full post excerpted above. It’s from the Norman Nielsen Group, is titled Radical Redesign or Incremental Change? and was written by Hoa Loranger.

The explicit message of the post is that there are times when a radical redesign and rebuild of a website is the right choice and times where it’s the wrong choice. It emphasizes that you should be using data to make that decision and not gut feelings or internal biases. In cases where that radical redesign option is not the right choice, an incremental approach–making small improvements and changes over a longer period of time–is a better path forward. At Tenrec, we like to call that the “evolutionary approach.”

The message that I inferred from Hoa’s article is that rebuilding a website from the ground up–the radical approach–is an all-too-frequent mistake that organizations make. In fact, in my opinion, the choice to start from scratch is outdated old school thinking. Top down redesign are a throwback to 10 or 15 years ago when so much was changing in web design and online marketing over the course of a few years that a three-year-old website looked and functioned like an obsolete, dilapidated 40-year-old car. Back then, let’s say in 2005, the default thinking was “Our website is almost three years old. It looks bad and doesn’t work in modern browsers. Our first site only lasted two years so we’re ahead of the game but let’s get started on a new one.” Today that thinking results in millions of dollars of wasted marketing budget as solid, working sites get torn down, redesigned and rebuilt.

Hoa’s article does a good job of pointing out some of the high-level facets of the decision to start from scratch or make improvements to your current website. What the article doesn’t do is delve into how to move your site forward in this evolutionary way. Here are some general pointers for how to manage and improve your site over time.

Planning and Scheduling your Incremental Changes to Your Website

The first step is to breakdown what needs to be done on your website into logical component parts. Websites range from extremely simple to intensely complex and how you breakdown your site will depend on what kind of site you have. Here’s a list of possible parts:

  • Content (including text and imagery)
  • Design
  • SEO
  • Hosting environment
  • Testing (i.e. checking the site in new browsers)
  • Documentation (up-to-date document describing site features and functions, including admin tools)
  • Security (including website functions, software, database, hosting environment, user accounts, the whole shebang)
  • Software (CMS tools, third party plug-ins or components)

Once you have created a list of components that match your website, plot out on a calendar which ones need to be worked on when. For instance, you might work on content every day, once a week or once a month. You might do a security audit or check once a month or once a year. Try getting everything on to a calendar first then move them around to create a schedule. You may need to talk with your IT department, copywriters, marketing leader or others to get their input on when this work should be scheduled.

It’s likely, too, that some of the components listed above (or new ones that you come up with) can be broken down further depending on your site’s complexity and priorities. If SEO is an important part of your online marketing strategy, you might review and work on different aspects of that component each day, week or month. The point is to get to where the work you need to do on your website is in manageable chunks that you can assign to a period or periods of time throughout the year. That will keep this work from getting forgotten and missed. That kind of neglect is what often leads an organization to take the “Ugh, our site is so old…no one’s updated it in years…let’s scrap it” approach.

As you move forward and are making these updates to content, design, software, you’ll see that the site is moving along. It’s not getting stale and losing relevance. It’s a living breathing part of your organization with pieces that are getting tuned or, in some cases, getting replaced as you go.

Redesigning Your Website vs. Reskinning Your Website

If you’re able to keep your website in top shape with this kind of maintenance approach, you’ll still (likely) want to make larger design changes to its look and feel every  so often. For instance when your firm changes its logo or merges with another firm. Those larger redesign events still don’t have to (and often should not) mean rebuilding your site from the ground up. You and your creative resources can craft a completely new look and feel for the site without throwing everything underneath the design out the window.

Essentially what you’re doing instead is ‘reskinning’ the site, creating a new look-and-feel that gets integrated with the existing website software (i.e. content management platform). Now the term “reskinning” tends to be misinterpreted. It does not mean a quasi-redesign where just colors and design elements change but everything else stays the same. There really is no limit to how much of the look-and-feel you can change  when reskinning a site. The important thing is that you’re limiting the changes to the front end components and saving yourself the time and money required to rebuild everything from the site architecture to the underlying software running the site.

Why We Love Maintaining Websites

Mostly we love this approach to managing websites because it gives our clients peace of mind. Pretty much nobody likes the radical approach to redesigning/rebuilding a website. Yes, it’s true that on a rebuild project everyone starts from an energized, excited place. But after the first phase of the project has gone by, once we get past the design reviews and site architecture discussions, things shift. Content migration mapping, functional specifications and use case scenarios, also known as the minutiae, are a grind. There’s no two ways about it. We do it and we’ve learned to like it but it’s still hard on everyone involved.

When you remove the behemoth that is the REBUILD and focus instead on moving the site forward, making improvements here and there and staying on top of all manner of issues, maintaining a website can actually be a lot of fun.

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