Looks aren’t everything: The secret to a successful website redesign


Change is always hard, and no website redesign goes perfectly. There are always going to be bugs, and there are always going to be users who resist the new format. The challenge for web designers is to make this transition as easy as possible. Also, it's important to be clear on how the redesign affects the overall brand.

Last week when I clicked on my bookmark for io9, Gawker Media's science fiction blog, I saw that it had undergone a radical facelift. This redesign (along with a redesign of the Jalopnik and Gawker.TV sites) is apparently a test run for Gawker, as they plan to roll out the new design to all of their sites this year. The redesign is meant to highlight Gawker Media's most valuable content—scoops and original writing—and set the brand apart from other news aggregation sites.

But they might want to wait a bit on this roll-out. Comments on the post introducing the new design (and on the rest of the web) are predominantly negative. Surprisingly, most of these complaints have to do with usability problems on the new site, not the actual look or format. And making your site hard to use means you won't even get a chance to win over readers and customers with your new design.

The power of convention

The old io9 followed a standard blog format. It had one column that displayed a running list of stories, arranged chronologically with newest content on top. Each story had a headline, a blurb and a thumbnail image.

The new format looks more like a web app or magazine site than a blog. Now only one post displays in the main column at a time, with an image that takes up most of the browser window. The right column contains a list of the latest stories and is the primary way to navigate the site.

In switching to an app-like format, they've broken away from some web conventions. The problem with this is that many conventions are conventions for a reason: they work, and they allow people to move from one website to another without having to learn a whole new system for each.

The area that is causing the most problems is the new navigation. You can't scroll through the list of stories if you don't have a mouse with a scroll wheel (that's a lot of laptop and Mac users). To move down in the list, you can click a "Next headlines" button, but there's no "Previous headlines" button to move back up. All in all, navigating the site has become a real headache. This is an example of when sticking to web conventions would have made things much easier on the user.

Better late than never

The best way to avoid usability problems is to test, test, test. Test on different platforms. Test in different browsers. Test with long-time users. Test with users who have never touched your site before. Gawker has had this new design on their beta sites for months, so there should have been plenty of time to gather real feedback from user testing and incorporate it.

One of the great things about the internet though, is that nothing is ever set in stone. Since the debut of the new site, Gawker has made some changes in response to user comments. There is now an icon at the top that lets you switch to a chronological view that's more like their previous layout. They also promise to make changes to the side navigation to make it easier to use. I hope they can do this soon, so I can go back to reading about the latest developments on Fringe in peace. If they can get these usability issues ironed out, they should have a good chance of being successful with the rest of their redesign plan.

So what's the secret to a successful redesign? Always keep your users in mind. You can come up with a terrific design that meets all your internal goals, but if you make it hard for users to get the information they need, they'll go elsewhere. You'll also be sending the message that you don't care about your users, which is never good for a brand.

In the end, what's best for the user is what's best for your brand.


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