This article first appeared in issue 238 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.
Maintaining a truly effective website is hard work. Audiences come and go, organisations grow or shrink, and technology evolves. The system you designed to work well under one set of conditions falters under new realities, so you begin to think it may be time for a redesign. But you put it off in favour of a few nips and tucks here and there, enough to sell your product reasonably well or increase the signups for your service without radically altering its fundamentals. You keep putting off the project – for years, even – until enough problems accumulate to justify a big investment of time and money. But well before then, your team’s daily goals may have shifted from improving the site to working around its roadblocks, leaving them too busy to take on an extended design project. At this point, your only option is to turn to an outside agency.
Seasoned UX consultants are likely to have participated in this cyclical redesign process many times. These types of projects have obvious appeal in that the more apparent a website’s neglect, the lower the bar for demonstrable success: a change as relatively simple as freeing an older layout from a fixed width can be seen as a significant step forward. But steps are a relative measure, and many UX practitioners will oppose a surface-only reskin when structural and strategic flaws remain uncorrected. Novice clients asking only for an update to their site’s look and feel are carefully but insistently educated on the critical need for solid information architecture, thoughtfully managed editorial calendars, flexible content management systems, and adaptable or responsive layouts.
That doesn’t mean, however, that everything has to turn over at once. Moving on all fronts at the same time can overwhelm finite resources, giving rise to a project that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Unable to get the full attention they deserve, equally worthwhile objectives end up competing for priority. Inevitably, someone loses.
Avoid the ‘big bang’ effect
Many big projects are engineered to layer on as much change in the least amount of time as a matter of cost. Budget and resource allocation processes at many large, bureaucratic organisations are so onerous and politically charged as to be nearly untenable for anything less than a massive overhaul. Faced with the need for a massive investment, a site manager may negotiate their budget away for years to come in order to get the proper backing right now. This has the unwelcome effect of ensuring that a redesign project is the one and only opportunity to save the website.
When there is only one chance to effect change, essential parts of the design process are lost. You lose the ability to iterate until a change is provably effective, which is critical both to a process that relies on feedback loops to get things right and to making progress on a large effort with many players and conflicting priorities. Sometimes, the only way to move forward is to defer decisions until their impact can be realised‚ quieting objections by putting the system in action and observing and adjusting its moving parts when they interact in unanticipated ways.
The next time you contemplate a far-reaching overhaul, avert friction ahead of time by dividing and conquering at the project level. Instead of a monolithic redesign that ends when the deadline hits or the money runs out, plot each critical aspect of your site – backend, content, visual design – as distinct projects along a roadmap. The separation will help you and your stakeholders focus on a single priority at a time. The roadmap will help you achieve cross-disciplinary objectives in simpler, observable steps through iteration across projects.
Don’t let your redesign become a single project affecting only one discipline, or a desperate attempt to address every risk at once, squandering your one chance to save your website. If there’s more than one chance – if you’re able to focus on one priority and address the others only as little as needed to support it – you may find some problems solve themselves.
Photograph: David Sleight
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