The Anatomy of a Web Redesign Failure
The Anatomy of a Web Redesign Failure
The Anatomy of a Web Redesign Failure

All of the best practice documents in the world can’t prepare you for a thud that was supposed to be a splash when your big website redesign hits the market.

Or should we say, misses the market.

Designing a website is a difficult endeavor. Sure, everybody and their 11-year-old-nephew seems to be capable of launching their own web magic, but there’s a big difference between plopping a new blog on the web and building a website that serves a purpose, an audience, and a bottom line.

And that’s exactly what yours needs to do. But between the whiteboard, the wireframe, and the “why isn’t this working” discussion in the board room there are a lot of things that can go wrong if you’re not careful.

Image by ell brown

Here are the potential web redesign land mines you’ll want to avoid:

The redesign was founded on “feeling” rather than evidence or data.
Don’t let the new CEO’s “gut” dictate the redesign strategy unless she’s ready to get punched in said gut by poor performance metrics and frustrated users. Redesigns should be based on feedback from users, larger rebranding efforts, and demonstrated needs in the market.

The new site is set up for an internal audience as opposed to the external audience.
If you find yourself saying things like “Well, let’s just do this to make the ____ department happy,” or “You know, Lucy needs to have a place to promote the _____ initiative”) instead of focusing on setting the new site up to achieve goals and convert, you’re in trouble. (Note, goals and conversions do not always mean you need to have a lead generation funnel feel to every page, sometimes the goal or conversion is simply for a user to click on another article. Set up the site for that).

A thing to remember is that the way your organization refers to things is not always how the outside world refers to them. Label your website with terms used by your industry, not with internal nicknames and nomenclature. Assuming your audience will understand your shorthand is bad user experience and even worse SEO.

You’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen (Or, too many taste-testers in the kitchen and not enough actual cooks.)
People are generally happy to chime in with opinions during meetings, but can sometimes go MIA when it comes to actually completing deliverables. Design-by-committee often leaves a project without one owner who has responsibility for it being completed on time and correctly. (As a client put it to me once, “you need someone’s neck on the line so you know which throat to choke.” Brutal, but true.)

Avoid the tragedy of the commons by having a small group own the redesign project and only have key stakeholders (and user testing groups) check in at key milestones.

The site suffered death by compromise.
Sally wanted a big red button and Tim wanted a lot of white space. Compromise: a big white button. Though dramatized a bit, this happens more than you might think.

The site was not designed with the future in mind.
Websites should be built so that continual updates can be added. Did you design yours just for launch? You can’t predict the future, but try to limit decisions that limit options down the road.

You pressed all the buttons at once.
If you change everything all at once you have no idea what helped performance and what hurt it after the big reveal. Employ iterative style design and make small changes often rather than earth-shattering changes once every 3 years.

If you want to avoid a web redesign failure focus on identifying the core audience you need to serve, lay out and label the content in a way that makes sense to them and allows them to be efficient, and let user needs pave the way.

Otherwise you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

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About the Author

Andrew Hanelly
Andrew is SVP, Strategy for McMurry/TMG and for one semester in college, was a sociology major. He writes at Brain on Digital, as @hanelly on Twitter and here on Google+.
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  • The process of redesigning is really a complex one and a lot of people fail to identify the fact that they already have an audience which is “in love” with their website/service and are probably the best-fitted persons to give their opinions on what needs to be improved rather than some people behind their desk in the corner office…

  • Andrew, I know you’ll find humor in this example – I once had a client that wanted me to do an assessment of their entire online landscape so they’d know what to improve upon. 

    The assessment included a look at their web site which rang just about every bell you listed above. Flash, lightboxes, orphan pages. An IA and taxonomy that reflected internal ideas and concepts, not those users were searching for. Each page was so rife with bloated content (and lacked an overarching SEO strategy) that they didn’t rank for very important keywords.

    The president LOVED the visual design, though. It was his pet project, in fact.

    What kept them in business? A long history and positive reputation. But I wonder at what point the time in the hourglass runs out? It can be hard to hold hands-on groups accountable and charge them with ongoing improvement projects if the top layer doesn’t place value on this newfangled web stuff beyond the pretty pictures he/she sees.

    • I’ve seen this happen far too many times Heather. Decision makers go with what they know and can see. The visual design is usually top priority followed by content that really only means anything to them and a few other surrounding employees. The overall IA is almost always ignored unless brought to their attention, but still always plays second fiddle to the paint job.

      Andrew is spot on. Design is a huge chunk of what we do and we run into these issues frequently. I would say that this happens during any web site design project and not just redesigns.

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  • This is absolutely solid advice, presented succinctly. I’ve encountered lots of these obstacles along the way myself and I love that you’ve identified so many of the potential landmines. I’m going to bookmark it and show it to clients as needed.

    • Awesome! Glad you liked it. These seem to be pretty common obstacles in my experience and they just need to be addressed head on out the gate, but often aren’t. Im sure there are many more but I’ve got too much respect for your attention span to make the post any longer.

  • This is a great run down, Andrew. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never encountered one (ore more) of these landmines when working on websites. 

    I think another thing to add to this list is being too easily swayed by feedback. No matter what you do, you’ll have people who don’t like the redesign simply because people have a tough time with change. After all, look at what happens on Facebook every time they make a change. It’s important to listen to the feedback you get, but be willing to stand firm on some of your decisions. You can make a change every time one person says they don’t like something. 

    On the other hand, it’s incredibly important to pay attention to criticism and constructive feedback – even after you launch. If there are things that users are having trouble with, it’s important to look at ways to adjust and make the site better.

    Good stuff!

    • You’re right: its difficult to discern between complaints and constructive advice. If you hear it enough its probably worth investuligating. If its one squeeky wheel being cranky you can’t let it change your strategy.

      Great points, Laura.